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2010 Detroit Auto Show Final Walk Around The Exhibit Floor

2010 Detroit Auto Show (select to view enlarged photo)
2010 NAIAS

SEE ALSO: 2010 Detroit Auto Show Press Conferences-Video and Text


By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau Chief

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Detroit MI January 18, 2010; The theme of the Detroit auto show, according to chairman, Detroit auto dealer Douglas R. Fox, is “What a difference a year makes.” I must agree.

Fox is the 2010 chairman of this, the most important automobile show in the country and one of the most important in the world in spite of the economic problems of both Detroit and the auto industry generally. Aging Cobo Center in downtown Detroit is the venue and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association is the host, as both have been since the inception of the “international” show in 1989. It is the only auto show in the US sanctioned by the international body that sanctions auto shows.

Bright sunshine in January here in Detroit is as rare as optimism in the auto business has been these last couple of years. Today we have both. We can see the Renaissance Center (GM’s headquarters) basking in the winter sun out the front window of Cobo Center. Within Cobo auto manufacturers from around the world are strutting their stuff, as they do every year at this time.

Remember what was going on last year. Both Chrysler and GM were facing bankruptcy and we couldn’t even be sure whether either would survive. Ford, while facing huge debt, was not facing bankruptcy but was struggling none-the-less. The economy was flirting with disaster and consumers were cowering at home not daring to spend a penny they didn’t have to. Not a good scenario for the auto business. In spite of that dire environment the PR folks were able to prep their minions in the auto business well enough to at least show some superficial optimism, but it fell on skeptical ears.

To qoute our friend and colleague, John McElroy, creator and host of AutoLine Detroit, “last year we didn’t know how far is down. Now we’re wondering how far is up.”

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This year the tone is singularly more upbeat. We see more relaxed, sincere grins everywhere we look, particularly on the Ford stand. Ford pulled off a rare accomplishment by winning both categories within the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards presented at (but not part of) the Detroit show. The Fusion Hybrid won Car of the Year honors and the Ford Transit Connect, a small car-based utility vehicle born in Europe with substantial personality, won in the truck category. Fusion, by the way, also recently won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award as well.

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Ford also presented the new Focus and the ready-for-production, much-hyped Fiesta. Both of these small cars are expected to be bread-and-butter cars for Ford a the new automobile market that will favor smaller, more efficient cars. Styling of both jump out at me as bold and attractive. Designed according to the more complex styling language referenced by the recent redesign of Taurus, these new little Fords are going to be hits, I predict, and perhaps help steadily rising Ford stock to continue its assent. It’s gone, by the way, from about $1.50 to over $11 in just over a year. (Wish I’d bought it when I intended.) And Ford continues to lead in technology as well with introduction of both the second generation of the popular Sync voice-activated entertainment and communication system and a new button-free and knobless interface for the car’s other systems. Our colleague, Thom Cannell, most technologically adept of us all, will describe that for you later.

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Other noteworthy cars in the Ford corner of the building were the full-electric Volvo C30 (yes, Ford still owns Volvo, for the moment), the freshly redesigned (not a major work over, but significantly restyled and lovely) Lincoln MK-X crossover and a striking , classic 1941 Lincoln Continental (probably the only historic car there) as part of a display of Edsel Ford’s design prowess. Conspicuous by its absence was the Mercury brand. There probably was one or two but I didn’t see ‘em.

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Between the physical locations of Ford and GM, along the north wall of Cobo, a new feature of the show occupies about 37,000 square-feet of formerly premium floor space. A wide – very wide – variety of electric cars are gathered together to become “Electric Avenue.” From Nissan’s new LEAF electric city car, destined for mass production in the next year or so, to glorified golf carts, to an odd little duck called Tango with a two-seat tandem configuration that looks like a cartoon car.

Video of the Tango on a test track made me wonder what keeps it upright. I wondered if it has some sort of gyroscopic system. Actually, its batteries are mounted so low in its platform that they claim a rollover resistance good enough to garner a 5-Star IIHS rating. Is anyone old enough and observant enough to remember the Corbin Sparrow that graced the show about 12 years ago downstairs? It would have fit right in here.

Absent from Electric Avenue but displayed way over on the far side of the Chrysler display was the competent Gem electric vehicles that have been around for years with proven technology. I can’t imagine why the smart folks at Fiat/Chrysler don’t make hay with the Gem.

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A Chinese company called BYD presented a market ready-looking electric car and they claim it will be sold in the US by year’s end. That seems mighty unlikely since they haven’t begun to assemble a dealer network or even begun the process of getting the car government certified.

Among other companies we’ve seen on the lower level of the hall before but now are upstairs with the major players are Denso, the tier one supplier, and Steve Saleen maker of aftermarket performance cars.

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Subaru has been moving slowly upscale over the years and produces only cars with a boxer (horizontally-opposed) engine configuration and symmetrical all-wheel drive. They have inspired amazing loyalty with their customers and actually increased sales last year when nearly everyone else lost sales. Their concept car reminding me of something we may have seen here a few years ago with entirely impractical, though modestly attractive, body configuration and lots of technology. This was another hybrid.

Perhaps the most anachronistic car at the show was a Morgan Aero, probably still with wood in its full frame. That car has barely changed in its hundred-year history - something about the British fondness for tradition, I suppose. Nearby sat Lotus and its line of pure sporting cars. Bentley and Tesla completed that corner of the show with Tesla showing their proposed Model S sedan, purported to be the next practical electric car at about $80,000 – this one with a range of 100 miles per charge.

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Over at GM the formal accolades were absent but you may recall the sexy Cadillac CTS Coupe Concept from last year’s show won the prestigious Eyes On Design award for best concept car. Well, this year we have the production-ready version and it’s a knockout. We also saw photos and heard promises that a “V” series version of the coupe will join the lineup soon. That will be good for a huge shot of adrenalin.

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The other big news at Cadillac is the replacement of both the STS and DTS big sedans. A concept car exhibiting the “Art and Science” design theme that have characterized Cadillac since the EVOQ of the late ‘90s, called XTS, shows what we’ll expect that car to look like. This concept car is hybrid powered but I expect we’ll just see the conventional power train when the car comes to market in about two years.

And, most surprisingly, Cadillac brand manager, Brian Nesbit, revealed that the Converj, a sleek sports car version of the electric Volt, has been cleared for production.

Across the isle at Chevrolet slick new small cars were the news. The Cruze that we saw as a concept last year is ready to go and looks like we’d expect for a Cobalt replacement. A concept called Aveo RS shows what the new subcompact Aveo will look like when some hot-shot young “tuners” get a hold of it. And a nearly finished new tiny car called Spark rounded out Chevy’s small car display.

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Of course, the Volt is production ready and occupied an honored position at the entrance to the GM area. The first production battery packs just came off the line at the nearby Bownstown plant and the first Volts will be in customers hands about the end of this year.

We heard much grumbling at the Chevy stand about not seeing the anticipated Camaro Convertible. I’m assured that it will be along later this year but no hard dates were forthcoming. Camaro, by the way, is selling well. It has outsold Mustang every month but one since it’s introduction. Of course Camaro is new to the market and there was, and is, plenty of pent-up demand from Camaro-istas out there. We’ll see how long that lasts. And we’ll see if I can shake one loose for a review this spring.

Buick had one hot item – the new Regal (introduced in LA a few weeks ago) in GS (Gran Sport) guise. We remember fondly the Regal GS from the early 90s. This new one is vastly modernized, of course, but the concept is the same – a pepped-up version of a nice mid-size sedan. This one, based on the already successful Opel Insignia, features enough cosmetic enhancements to make it stand out and an EcoTech 4-cylinder engine making about 255 horsepower, with all-wheel drive and six-speed stick – just enough to get it down the road with aplomb.

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GMC rounds out GM’s new 4-brand strategy. New at GMC are a concept called the GMC Granite, an “urban utility vehicle” with cool, trucky design elements and an Acadia “Denali,” deluxe version of the popular 3-row-seat crossover. Smaller than the popular GMC Terrian/Chevy Equinox the Granite is proportionally and conceptually akin to Scion Xb, Honda Element and Nissan Cube. The GMC Granite won this year’s Eyes On Design Best Concept Car award, the award program that is judged by an international assemblage of top designers attending the show.

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Over at Chrysler we weren’t expecting much – and we weren’t surprised. Since they had no press conference we didn’t get an official message but it appears the new managers at Fiat aren’t sure yet what they’re going to do. Two little Fiat 500s were on display along with a Lancia Delta disguised as a Chrysler. The latter may have potential in the US market but the big risk, in my view, is that quality and durability may not be up to world standards. I’m told by a couple of European colleagues that neither Fiat nor Lancia are known for those qualities and Chrysler has been similarly plagued.

It was reassuring to see, though, that a wild and crazy, black and red Viper was on display along with all the surviving good Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Dodge Ram vehicles. They may not be sporting any of the newest and freshest technologies but they’re holding on and may come back into the hunt.

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Toyota continues on the cutting edge of hybrid technology and they’re even talking about a practical fuel-cell vehicle to be in serious testing in a few years. The big intro at Detroit was a little hybrid, sort of a smaller Prius with more personality called FT-HC. It looks to be about the size of a Honda Civic. Toyota wants something to slot in under the iconic Prius in both size and price. This will be it.

The newly redesigned Sienna minivan was introduced in LA a few months ago and features an optional handicapper seat that swings out of the back. I’m not aware of any other manufacturers putting any resources into minivans but there is still a steady market out there.

We found nothing new at Lexus. The Lexus LF-A sports car, which we’ve seen often before, grabed our attention mounted high on a turntable. Only 150 of these super cars will come to the US, I’m told, and they will only be leased, not sold. Some of the Lexus product line appears ready for some updating but everything there is certainly competent and luxurious.

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Scion has the most tech-savvy display, which certainly stands to reason since it is Toyota’s youngster’s division. Cars are stacked above the display and it is rigged so that the product specialists can punch a few buttons on their iPhones to open and close the screens in front of each car. Then, down below there are strange displays with interactive functions that include face-recognition and a bunch of other stuff that went right over my head. Scion also has some wonderfully wild concept cars.

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Volkswagen follows the crowd with a new hybrid in Teutonic sedan style. The Concept Coupe is a great-lookin’ two-door that appears to be the next evolution of VW styling - a bit staid but still forward-thinking. This one is another of those practical, production-intent concepts as opposed to anything wild and crazy.

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MINI always has one of the most fun displays as well as great concept cars. This year’s car is called “Beachcomber,” an off-road sand buggy with very high ground clearance, no doors and an obviously adventurous spirit. I’m amazed that MINI owner BMW has proposed so many iterations of this little car that is based on a 1960s design.

BMW presented both the hybrid concept we had seen before and a matching electric concept. If the technology bores you – and, of course, few are better with the technology than the Germans – BMW also paraded out the freshened Z4 two-seat sports car. The modest changes in appearance are important and improve the presentation of this great little roadster.

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My award for the car most likely to inspire a cargasm adorns the Mercedes stand - the SLS-Class gull-wing super car with full 563-hp AMG credentials and classic SL heritage. Other news at the MB stand - the new E-Class convertible. As one of the most popular cars in the MB stable, it’s time for a convertible.

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The aesthetic hit of the show may be the clay sculpture on the Mercedes stand hinting at the evolving design language for the brand. It resembles a large drape across an automobile that is sticking to the details like a wet t-shirt on a busty beauty. Nice image!

Smart, a sub brand of Mercedes has struggled to stay alive, and continues struggling to make it here in the US as well. If anyone could make it happen here, we all thought, Roger Penske could. After all, he’s the guy with the golden business touch. After his bid for Saturn failed he has hired the Saturn former general manager, the dynamic Jill Lajdziak. Smart sales are down 38% in the US for 2009 and as a fan of the brand I’m hoping that doesn’t mean anything more than that the price of gas isn’t high enough.

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Mercedes’ other sub brand, Maybach, a car that sells well north of 350 grand, looks as if it should be exclusively sold to potentates. I have reviewed the Rolls that costs about the same but I’m still waiting for my invitation to do the Maybach Zepplin. I’m not sure but a chauffeur may be required.

Many of the other exotics – Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Rolls – chose to skip the Detroit show, though local dealers displayed them in a hotel/casino nearby at an extra ticket cost. There is no truth to my earlier speculation that they just didn’t want the unwashed masses slobbering on these exclusive rides over at Cobo Center.

Around the corner the first Tata display ever in Detroit exhibited eight cars – 4 Land Rovers and 4 Jaguars. Yes, Tata is the new owner of those storied brands.

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Audi, as usual, built one of the classiest displays at the show. Usually they populate the stand with just two colors of car and they did so again. Everything was silver except a dramatic, nose-to-tail line of four cars including R8, R8 Cabriolet and S5 Cabriolet in a sparkling butterscotch-like color called Ipanema Brown. A color the likes of which we’ve never seen before, but one they will be selling soon we’re assured. It probably intimates the color of a classic sunset on the famous Rio beach.

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Audi won the other EyesOn Design designers award, by the way, for the best
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production car – the new A8 flagship sedan. Audi, for the past few generations has managed to convey elegance and style, without controversy better than anyone. And Audi showed a wonderful electric two-seat sports car about the size of the TT that gets my vote for best concept car. Its classic sports car dimensions with the understated Audi styling touch touched be at my sports car core.

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One of perhaps only two cars at the show to sport real hood ornaments was the Hyundai Equus, a large, luxurious, business sedan with back seat as big as the boss’s corner office. Currently available in Korea it is destined for US sale in the near future. Hyundai, one of the few automakers to show sales increases for dismal ’09 (along with sister company Kia and old-guard Subaru), also presented the substantially updated Sonata sedan and Tuscon crossover. Hyundai is more than keeping up with the worlds heritage car makers, it’s now leading in many ways.

Kia’s big news is the new UVO system, much like Ford’s Sync, that allows for connectivity and voice-activated entertainment and communications functions based on the MicroSoft platform. Also at Kia was an example of the slick Kia Forte Coupe that will compete in the Grand-Am KONI Challenge racing series.

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And, finally, at Honda, right by the exit door we find all their sturdy little, economical, though usually less than exciting, cars and crossovers. On the special display stand, however, was a sporty little thing that reminded me of the quick and tiny little CR-X of the 90s – that is, a Civic-based sporty hatchback that was fast and fun. In fact, the old CR-X was one of the first popular tuner cars. This new one is called CR-Z and, like so many concepts at this year’s show, is of hybrid persuasion. Just because it’s more practical doesn’t mean it won’t be fun – just more expensive than it needs to be. You can feel good, I suppose, about saving the world and having some fun doing it.

And, maybe that’s what this years North American International (Detroit) Auto Show is about. We see this year more hybrids and pure electrics, in both concept and production form, than we have ever seen in one place. It is far from certain, I submit, that either of these technologies are the ones that will save the planet, but a lot of eggs are going into that basket right now.

With all the trouble and uncertainty last year most politicians wanted to keep the auto show at arms length. I don’t remember seeing a one.

As part of the opening ceremonies US transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, promised no new gas taxes and his tone was reported to be rather terse as he defended the bailouts and praised the president for his valor.

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The last press conference of the two day schedule featured Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, majority leader Steny Hoyer and a gaggle of other democrats praising Detroit’s impending comeback and patting themselves on their respective backs for their valor in supporting it.

The Detroit auto show – book-ended by politicians.

What a difference a year makes!

Photos and Text © Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved