STEVE PURDY AT THE NORTH AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW 2018
THE NORTH AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL AUTO SHOW 2018
By Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
About 5,000 media folks from around the world stream into the Motor City every January for one of the industry’s most important motor shows – the North American International Auto Show. NAIAS fills nearly a million square-feet in the beautifully updated Cobo Center on the Detroit River across from Windsor, Ontario, the only place where Canada is south of the U.S. (Thought you’d like that bit of trivia as we begin.)
The center of the auto industry is still Detroit, many will argue. Just about all major automakers and suppliers from around the globe have a presence, if not a headquarters, here. In fact, we’re told by Michigan Economic Development officials that 75% of all U.S. automotive research and development still happens within 50 miles of Detroit.
At the risk of admitting my age I’ll report this is my 55th Detroit Auto Show. The split-window ’63 Corvette Stingray and the Studebaker Avanti led the big news at my first show. Back then there were less than a dozen automakers and room for heavy-duty trucks in a hall less than a tenth the size it is now. How things have changed in a quick half century.
Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation, helped open the 2018 show along with a variety of technology speakers. Her message was all about the federal government’s policies to back off regulations that impede innovation and not pick winners when it comes to promoting research, technologies and subsidies. That does not bode well for renewing government spiffs for electric cars. She insisted vociferously that the government’s overriding goal is safety, and over the long term to take the driver out of the equation as autonomous cars are able to take over. That made me wonder if there will come a day that we’ll be disallowed from driving our Corvettes, Chevettes and Pintos. Not in my driving lifetime for sure.
The signature award program at NAIAS leads off the show – the prestigious North American Car and Truck of the Year, juried by fifty independent automotive journalists. The panel has now added a category for “Utilities,” primarily meaning crossovers. And, the winners are: Car of the Year – Honda Accord; Truck of the Year – Lincoln Navigator; and Utility of the Year – Volvo XC60.
Many are calling this the “year of the truck,” here at NAIAS, with Ram, Chevy and Ford all revealing redesigns of their bread and butter, high-profit full-size pickups, and Ford revealing the new Ranger mid-size pickup. They all get more style, content and capability and some get a few surprise changes. The new Silverado celebrates 100 years of Chevy pickups, the marketing folks remind us.
Ford put on a big show to introduce the mid-cycle refresh of the venerable F-150 that now gets a diesel engine and a variety of upgrades inside and out. New-to-the-U.S. mid-size Ranger pickup has been sold in other parts of the world for some time but just now coming here to compete with comparable G.M., Toyota and Ram mid-size pickups. Ford officials say the Ranger is massaged for the U.S. market and not the same as its Asian version with content and options like WiFi, pre-collision assist and plenty more. Only the 2.3-liter EcoBoost with 10-speed automatic will power the Ranger line.
But the most exciting news at Ford, at least for those of us who pay attention to automotive heritage, was the introduction of the latest iteration of the iconic Bullitt Mustang paying homage to the original cars driven by Steve McQueen in the 1968 movie. The contemporary version is lower content Mustang in the distinctive green of the original car with V8, manual transmission and all the stuff enthusiasts love. The flashy introduction featured McQueen’s actress-granddaughter presenting one of the original movie cars - a big surprise. Mark Gessler of the Historic Vehicle Association was on hand to announce the original Bullitt Mustang as the next car (and just ninth so far) to be preserved on the National Historic Vehicle Registry in the Library of Congress.
Over at FCA’s booth filling the northwest corner of the show floor the new version of the RAM 1500 got lots of attention along with a new off-road Ram Rebel. (Anyone remember the Rambler Rebel?) The big change visually is the new front view with a grille that surprised some of us. Like its competitors, Ram 1500 gets a bit lighter with improved cargo capacity and much better aerodynamics, updated exterior styling including active grill shutters, updated exterior styling, more high-strength steel in the substructure, and more complex but capable rear suspension. Seems strange to talk about aero of a pickup, does it not, or think a .357 drag coefficient is impressive? But remember, this is a truck. With all the full-size American pickups getting updated at once we’re reminded just how intensively competitive is this segment of the market.
The new Mercedes G-Class, long overdue for an update, was introduced off-site to a select gaggle of journalists. Descended from the jungle-runners of old the G-Class still looks the part of rugged, boxy, off-roader with over 10-inches of ground clearance. The new one has a double wish-bone front suspension replacing the traditional solid axle, and is powered by a 4.0-liter, twin-turbo, V8 with nine-speed automatic. For display they presented a new G-Class covered roof-rack to hub with faux mud, what the car make-up artists made look like real mud.
Volkswagen trotted out the new Jetta at an old theater up Woodward Avenue to an enthusiastic crowd. They may have invited some VW club people in addition to the usually jaded media folks to help make much of the noise. Updated in every way, and rife with lots of driver assistance and infotainment technology, it will start under 19-grand, less than the outgoing model. Jetta also gets a major styling update, much sleeker in spite of being taller wider and longer. It will not be sold in Europe but they expect to compete with the best mainstream, compact sedans in the U.S.
BMW revealed their next small crossover, the X2, that will be offered in the U.S. only in all-wheel drive and powered by a turbo-four with 8-speed automatic. They say it will be good for a 0-60 time of a quick six-seconds. The X2 was a double winner of the EyesOn Design awards, being honored for Best Production Vehicle and Best Production Vehicle Harmonization. X2 will also come in an “M” performance version, we’re told.
We’ve come to expect our friends at Lexus to come up with an exciting reveal at NAIAS, and we were not disappointed. The LF-1 Limitless is a crossover concept with an exaggerated version of Lexus already extreme design. The brand’s “spindle” grill gets more out-there with every generation and goes even further with this one, including a multi-hued, double-boomerang integrated front lighting scheme. They are billing this one as “defining a new segment . . . focused more on driving dynamics than utility.” Some of us, including me, love the bold, brash styling Lexus has embraced, and hope the design language continues to evolve as it has. Some of our colleagues, and my pretty wife, find it just too garish.
My award for most surprising use of interior materials goes to Nissan and its meaty-looking concept crossover Xmotion. We’ll see many of the exterior design details in future Nissan crossovers, but for now they’re mostly for show. The dash and center console extending to the rear seatback is honed from one big piece of cedar with methods historically used by Japanese craftsmen. Huge wheels that appear molded into the sidewall of the fat, creatively siped, Michelin tires, add an aesthetic flair.
Honda saved the expense and distraction of a flashy auto show press conference to introduce the new hybrid Insight to the press. They created a huge, spectacle for the reveal along with their annual holiday party in December. It’s on display to the public first here at NAIAS. The new Insight is no longer the odd-duck, like the first-generation car, or a plain Jane, like the last. The technology, style and design get vastly upgraded. And, we expect fuel mileage in the 50+ range.
In their second appearance on the main floor of the show, the Chinese automaker GAC Motor showed us some of the production cars they sell in their home market and then made a big splash with the overflow crowd at their press conference by unveiling the Enverge, a well-sorted concept crossover with what the chief designer called butterfly doors, sort of like wings that allow access to both front and rear seats. The battery-electric Enverge also features running lights that eject from the front fender to serve as flashlights for night hikes. They wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell us anything about a dealer network but they insist they’ll be selling a mid-size crossover in the U.S. market by fourth quarter of 2019.
I nearly got whiplash as I walked past the Infiniti booth where something exotic in a half-obscured back corner caught my eye. It was the Prototype 9, roped off in a carefully lit spot, an homage to the classic racing cars of the 1930s from Mercedes and Auto Union called Silver Arrows. It seems the Infiniti designers stimulated their creative juices by imagining what their company, which really has no heritage, would have made if they had been around in those days. Prototype 9 was originally shown, and enthusiastically driven, at Pebble Beach last year. It gets my award for most surprising car at the show. Sadly it is only on display for press days, so the public will not get to see it.
Also on the Infiniti stand was the stunning Q-Inspiration Concept, a large sedan (if we can apply such a pedestrian term to such a way-out car) winning two EyesOn Design awards, one for Best Concept Vehicle and one for Best Designed Interior. Concept cars usually show where production designs will go in the not-to-distant future, and in this case perhaps where powertrains will go as well. The Q-Inspiration features a VC-turbo engine with variable compression and a single-scroll turbo. Compression can adjust itself from 8:1 to 14:1 to balance needs for power or economy.
Toyota backs up its confidence in sedan segments by introducing the new full-size Avalon, a car that at one time was known for its staid styling. The brash- and modern-looking new one gets a full redesign with drastically changed interior. A purposeful center stack is topped by a big multifunction screen. It will begin production in April.
The last automaker press conference was hosted by FCA’s Jeep brand early on day two where they revealed the mid-cycle redesign of the increasingly popular Cherokee mid-size, off-road-capable crossover. Along with modest but attractive styling updates this one gets a new 2.0-liter turbo that makes nearly 300 pound-feet of torque.
I could go to 20,000 words easily if I tried to describe everything happening in and around the show this week. And, much of what we saw will not be there during public days. Even with so much buzz going on at Cobo Center all week more elements are added each year. For example, the lower level of Cobo was filled for the second year with what they call AutomobiliD, essentially a trade show with high-tech businesses, start-ups, universities and others looking to recruit employees or promote their projects. Attendance there does not require a credential so anyone interested in any of that can just drop in.
Press Days at the auto show traditionally close with the presentation of the EyesOn Design Awards for Design Excellence, another prestigious program like the awards that open the show. In this case the winners are selected by panel of nearly three dozen of the top designers in the world. Some of the winners are listed above in the Infiniti and BMW paragraphs. The Lifetime Design Achievement Award, with the winner determined by previous winners, this year went to retired VP of Design for GM, Ed Welburn, Jr.
Depending on the weather, the event usually gets well over three-quarters of a million visitors during the 10-day run of public days at the North American International Auto Show. That is about fourth best among U.S. shows. But media attendance is at least four times more than any other show because this is where the most news is made.
© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved