By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In the wake of the Detroit Auto Show and on the eve of the NADA convention in San Francisco, it’s a perfect time to ask, “What the hell just happened?”
The Detroit show was a kaleidoscope of the good, the bad and the ugly of course, but then again we would all be disappointed if it wasn’t. After all, if everything was all bunny rabbits and rainbows down at Cobo Hall something would be deeply amiss, right? So I’m glad the usual suspects showed up and laid bare their hopes, dreams, fantasies and delusions for all to see, with varying degrees of success, credibility or abject failure, whichever the case may be.
I’m not going to regurgitate the whole show again (you can read Peter’s review of the show from last week here – WG), but a couple of things are worth mentioning. Some in the media thought that Nissan should be awarded a gold star for its new Titan, especially since it offers a Cummins turbo-diesel engine. Really? You have to be kidding. The new Titan is a derivative, let’s-throw-everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink Hail Mary pass at the pickup truck market that manages to come off more like a pathetic cry for help.
The fact that the Nissan brain trust actually thinks that they can blend an assortment of existing design cues from each top competitor in the market in a new pickup entry and call it good says more about the intransigent arrogance embedded in the company – and especially in its leader Carlos Ghosn – than anything I could possibly say. The Titan is a woefully disappointing me-too effort aimed at a market that has no room for me-too of anything. And Ghosn’s ridiculous comment about the Titan meeting “unmet needs” in the pickup truck market? It’s only the quintessential definition of unbridled, out-of-touch automotive arrogance laid bare for all to see, in case you’re wondering.
And what about Hyundai? A few of the Tweet-holes in the Twitterverse took me to task for deigning to criticize the Santa Cruz Crossover Truck Concept, because apparently there’s a fundamental belief “out there” (and with too many in the “so-called” media) that everyone in this business should get a gold star just for showing up. This just in: It doesn’t work that way.
Is Hyundai floundering in this market? No, floundering isn’t the right word, but they’ve hit the wall and the company’s momentum has definitely stalled. Hyundai is no longer the can’t-miss industry darling of a few years ago and now the scrambling has really begun, as in what does Hyundai actually stand for? Someone in that company needs to define what Hyundai wants to be, because just showing up in segments with a Hyundai badge and expecting the waters to part isn’t going to be nearly enough. And that’s a tall order, because the Korean auto executive mindset is more of the “we’ll flip a giant switch and we’ll automatically succeed” school of thought, which is patently irrelevant in this, the most competitive market in automotive history.
Is Hyundai going to be a mainstream brand capable of going toe-to-toe with Toyota? Or does it aim to be a premium luxury brand to differentiate itself from its automotive cousin, Kia, which has delusions of becoming a sport-premium brand? Or is it going to plow ahead toward the luxury-performance strata, so it can produce machines commensurate with its never-ending desire for global preeminence and respectability?
That last question is in perfect alignment with the Hyundai brain trust’s most deep and closely held desires, because they absolutely believe that the company’s rightful place is alongside Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which, when you think about it, is laughable. The Hyundai mindset has always been about running at breakneck speed to its next appointed automotive goal, finding the walking, listening and learning part along the way to be both tedious and a waste of time.
The big lesson for Hyundai executives is that they do have to walk before they run, and they do have to listen and learn along the way. And even though the company’s executives have been historically unwilling to do that in the past, until they’re ready to do all of that the likelihood of Hyundai finding out what it wants to be when it grows up is highly unlikely, or it is going to be an excruciatingly painful process at the very least.
Back to that Hyundai Santa Cruz Crossover Truck Concept. Does it have some pleasing lines? Certainly. Is it filled with design tweaks that work for a concept but would not translate into production? Definitely. It’s cool – sort of – at first glance and from 25 feet away, but then what? It comes off as design “cotton candy.” In other words, it’s pleasing for about 30 seconds and then you’re looking at your watch wondering what’s next.
The Americans based in California working for Hyundai know that if Hyundai is going to grow beyond where the company is now in this market, a pickup truck must be seriously considered. The Santa Cruz Crossover Truck Concept is supposed to be the toe-in-the-water litmus test that will allow the executives in Korea to green light the idea, or at least something like it.
But that gets us right back to my original question: Is Hyundai going to be a mainstream brand like Toyota? Then yes, some sort of pickup entry, which will serve as the brand’s entrée into that segment, is desirable. But I’m not so sure Hyundai executives back in Korea know what they want the company to be, and until they figure that out toy pickup truck concepts are a monumental waste of time.
I can’t let last week’s events go by without mentioning – yet again - the intermittent incidents of genuflection by the assembled hordes in the media (and assorted hangers-on) down at Cobo Hall. The ardor displayed was punctuated by equal parts adulation and canonization, depending on the auto company executive in question. It’s now a ritual that seems to grow in its silliness each and every year, especially when the subjects are given a forum immediately after the media preview days to be interviewed, and who then struggle to come up with something riveting to say. Inevitably these executives say the same things they said at the media preview, which begs the obvious question: Why bother?
The entire media preview dance at these auto shows is so dated and stale that it has transitioned beyond silliness to out-and-out orchestrated futility. Editors push for more interviews thinking that those interviews will somehow differentiate their publications from the rest, but when the interview consists of softball questions and rote, repetitive answers pre-programmed weeks before the show, what is the point, exactly?
I am proposing a completely different model for the media days in conjunction with these auto shows, one much more aligned with the “Fashion Week” extravaganzas in New York and Paris. Instead of herding journalists and other hangers-on to the auto show floor for a series of press conferences that run together in a blur, I think a schedule could be created that would allow each manufacturer to have its own show at a venue off-site along with an appointed time to do their thing.
Then, if media members want to arrange for interviews beyond that, so be it. Problems? Sure. I think the first complaint would be, “We’re already spending two days at the show and three days at the after show, so this would add too much time to an already jammed schedule.”
To that I say, really? Do you think the manufactured gravitas attached to the after show meetings is worthy of the attention it gets? Read the interviews and speeches. Please glean for me the “news” out of all of that. A fireside chat with Mary Barra? A meet and greet with Elon Musk? Yeah, that’s what I thought, a big fat “zero.”
Imagine this year’s auto show media schedule without the pre-parties on Saturday and Sunday, and you could have had three manufacturer reveals on Saturday, three on Sunday, three on Monday and three on Tuesday.
But there are more manufacturer reveals than that, I can hear the screams right now! Yes, but who is kidding whom here? There were no more than a dozen reveals at the show that were worth more than a glance anyway, so if the also-ran manufacturers wanted to have reveals too then a schedule could be created to accommodate them, even if the buses herding the media around might show up half-full or even empty.
The point here is that what passes for auto show week around here is lame and broken, and it needs to change. Do I expect any of this to happen? Oh hell no, we’re talking about the auto industry here - and the auto industry media - and the concept of change is anathema, at best.
Oh well, on to NADA where the booze will be flowing and the “hail-fellow-well-met” posturing will be insufferable. It’s a known fact that when business is good, NADA is a party and everybody is glad-handing and backslapping their way through the four days calling each other geniuses and/or best friends, or both. (Well, almost everybody anyway, for the manufacturers and dealers not bathing in the good times it can get contentious and downright u-g-l-y.)
I don’t mean to throw a wet blanket on the orgy of champagne and canapés out in San Francisco, but it is my duty to remind everyone out there of the giant unseen force in the room, and that is the fact that this business never stays this hot forever. And now, going into the sixth year of rejuvenation and resurrection, we’re a lot closer to another downturn than we are to new records.
Just a cold, clear thought that deserves mention on this January day.
But for now, carry on. It’s what this business does best anyway.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.