The Best of the 2019 North American International Auto Show - Opinion From Tom Cannell and Steve Purdy
The Best of the 2019 North American International Auto Show
By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell
The Auto Channel
The North American International Auto Show in Detroit will never be the same.
On that everyone agrees, including Rod Alberts, the show’s long-time director. Brisk headwinds have been blowing in the face international motor show business over recent years that will forever change their character and focus. Manufacturers are directing their marketing dollars elsewhere, for very good reasons. Now the North American International Auto show, AKA Detroit, has lost most of the Europeans and exotic car manufacturers who don't see the NAIAS as a good place for marketing dollars.
Looking ahead, one of the challenges for the Detroit show (one of many) will be timing. This will be their last January show. Instead of being in the dead of winter, as it has been as long as any of us can remember, the auto show will move to June. Instead of bumping up against the huge and increasingly important Consumer Electronics Show, it will be side-by-side with the Detroit Grand Prix Indy Car Race on Belle Isle and the EyesOn Design classic and collector car show in nearby Grosse Pointe, music festivals, and other summer events. Mr. Alberts explains it will be part of month of car-related events in the Motor City.
Will that be a good thing? It remains to be seen. Mr. Alberts surely thinks so, - as do I.
Lest any of our international journalist colleagues complain that they will miss the lovely, often stimulating, Michigan weather, there is still the Chicago Auto Show in February.
This year’s show bears witness to the changing auto show landscape – very few product reveals, fewer ostentatious displays, space to spare on the main floor and considerably fewer media folks swarming the place. For many years there was intense competition for every square foot of the main floor. Now they have a fudge booth, a variety of suppliers and substantial, unembellished displays of used exotics and customs.
The NAIAS traditionally opens with the naming of the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards, one of the most prestigious awards of its kind, juried by about 50 top independent auto journalists. They added a crossover category a few years ago to reflect trends in the industry. Handily winning Car of the Year honors was the Genesis G70 luxury sedan. Truck of the Year, with a substantial winning margin, was the Ram 1500. Hyundai Kona and Kona EV took Crossover of the Year by a slim margin.
Ford held their most important product reveal off-site well before the international media arrived. The all-new Explorer, one of the company’s most important products, goes back to its roots, sort of, by moving back to a rear-drive platform. It will be powered by either the 2.3- or 3.0-liter EcoBoost turbocharged, each engine mated to an 8-speed automatic. Cops love rear-wheel drive and Explorer has been hotly pursuing that market, so this may help. The new Explorer shares much of its styling with the outgoing version but the front fascia changes considerably to look more like current Fusion and Focus models.
The more exciting intro at the Ford booth was the newest version of the Mustang GT 500, “the most powerful street-legal Ford in history,” Ford says. With a brutal 5.2-liter supercharged V8, it makes up to 700 horsepower and can do 0-to-60 in the mid 3-second range. It will also sport the most advanced chassis dynamics and technology ever for a Mustang. In a dark corner of their booth we found three examples of earlier generations of that hot car. Carroll Shelby was a performance genius and this car represents an homage to him.
Arguably, Ford and VW made the most significant news at NAIAS with the announcement of a partnership to collaborate on a variety of products and technologies. It seems VW wants to take advantage of Ford’s truck expertise and Ford wants to share in VW’s autonomous and electric vehicle leadership. Will this be a brotherhood of the like-minded? Time will tell.
RAM rocked the house with its all-new Heavy Duty RAM 2500 and RAM 3500 pickups. The brand says it “Outpowers, out-tows and outhauls every other pickup available” with a 1,000 lb.-ft. torque milestone from an all-new Cummins 6.7-liter High Output Turbo Diesel. Specifically, a two-wheel drive with proper equipment is rated to tow 35,100 pounds and deliver a 7,680-pound payload. Their message was all about axles, transfer cases, suspension, brakes and transmissions.
Cadillac also did an off-site reveal introducing their new XT6, the brand’s first full-size, three-row crossover, joining the smaller XT4 and XT5. Most Cadillac sedans are going away as they expand these more popular offerings. We don’t expect the XT6 to cut into Escalade SUV sales since they are much different. The XT6 will be built in the Spring Hill, Tennessee plant originally built to make Saturn vehicles. GM spokespeople also revealed that Cadillac will be concentrating on electric vehicles in the future to help GM compete against Tesla, BMW and other EV leaders.
GAC Automotive was the first Chinese automaker to display on the main floor last year and they have twice the square footage, this year displaying nine production vehicles and the ENTRANZE Concept mobility vehicle with transparent doors, voice-activated controls and an unusual 3+2+2 seating configuration. They have yet to sell their first car in the U.S., but appear entirely ready for prime time; GAC is already one the largest automakers in China. GAC will soon open a U.S. headquarters in California.
Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand, showed one of only 80 Lincoln Continental 80th Anniversary Coach Door Edition equipped with iconic center-opening doors. It is designed to evoke Lincoln’s heritage and features beige leather and matching Alcantara headliner. Beside it was the all-new 2020 Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring, a rival for the bling associated with Navigator. This luxury touring SUV offers a hybrid option that mates Fords twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 engine and hybrid technology for a combined power output expected to deliver 450 horsepower and 600 lb.-ft. of torque.
Toyota and Lexus have yet to reduce their footprint or their investment in the Detroit show. Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder and president of Toyota, is an accomplished racer, visited Detroit to introduce a new version of the Supra sport coupe. Enthusiasts have long asked for the return of that car—out of production since 2002—and now they will have it. With approximately 300 horsepower and dramatic design it rides on what is a platform shared and co-developed with BMW. Magna Steyer will build the BMW Z4 in Austria. Starting price for Supra in the USA will be just under 50 grand. Supra has a classic sports car profile and fully modern styling in its three-model lineup. It is likely the most attractive new offering at NAIAS.
Lexus exhibited a refreshed and upgraded RC F Track Edition, plus its LC Convertible concept. Both are traditional high-performance, sexy, high dollar sports cars with freshened, crisper styling and a number of enhancements under the hood. The Track Edition will see very limited production but is focused entirely on serious competition on the road courses of the world. RC F and the Track Edition will certainly act as an adrenalin pump for some lucky owners. Speculation says the LC C awaits only a decision on whether to make the folding top soft, or hard.
Volkswagen showed us the new version of the Passat mid-size sedan, designed, they acknowledge, with the U.S. market in mind. Styling remains conservative, but it’s updated enough that Volkswagen purists will notice, but probably not the general car buyer. I found the interior considerably improved and more upscale. And the wheels, at least on the cars they showed here, could be on a super car.
Hyundai chose Detroit to display its first available sports oriented N Line, an Elantra GT N Line. The N Line is Hyundai’s performance sub-brand. N Line products offer sporty trim elements and refinements to the chassis and powertrain. Their N Line racecar, the Veloster N TCR, will again compete in IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge racing, beginning with the 2019 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Sister brand Kia brought the new Telluride three-row SUV to the first indoor product test area in Cobo Center. This was in addition to a large display with all their products.
Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury brand, presented the QX Inspiration a lovely, stylish electric concept coupe-like crossover previewing the brand’s first production EV and future design language. They intend to build it, though probably not in the ultra-stylish version we see here. They’ve not promised a time table. It is built from a new EV-specific platform with batteries located under the floor and an electric motor on each axle making it essentially all-wheel drive.
Infiniti’s parent and volume brand Nissan also brought the Nissan IMs concept to Detroit. The pure-electric sedan uses novel seating Nissan says is “Premier Seat, 2+1+2.” IM stands for Nissan Intelligent Mobility, and feature all-wheel drive producing prodigious power, estimated at 483 horsepower and 590-torques and a range of 380 miles. No range anxiety there. Other than the lengthy and low exterior, its interior is equally futuristic, with video-only instrument panel and infotainment sweeping across the dash.
Subaru makes some rather white-bread sedans, but the brand has as loyal a customer base as any. In the hot-small-car segment we find the newest, heart-stopping STI model (Subaru Tecnica International is the company’s racing division) revealed in Detroit exclusively for the U.S. market called the STI S209. Only 200 will be made, we’re told. This one is good for 341 horsepower and all the adrenalin most people could stand. It is a competitive rally-racer right out of the box.
The last event of press preview days at NAIAS is the EyesOn Design awards wherein a jury of world-renowned designers walks the show, choosing the best designs in a number of categories exemplified by vehicles first shown in Detroit. The Infinity QX 3 Inspiration dominated taking three of the top awards – Best Concept Vehicle, Best Designed Interior and Best Use of Color, Graphics or Materials. Best Production Vehicle was the Mustang Shelby GT 500. The Lexus LC Convertible concept took honors for Best Designed Exterior Lighting.
We’ll now have two Chicago Auto Shows before we have another NAIAS as we move to June in 2020. Plenty of skeptics and traditionalists morn and bemoan the change, but something had to be done to staunch the bleeding in what is one of the most influential motor shows in the world, preventing it from becoming an anachronism. I’ll offer this editorial comment: If anyone can make a success of it, Rod Alberts and his NAIAS team will.
© Shunpiker Productions and Cannell & Associates