By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Let’s face it, auto shows by construct, are strange phenomena. Manufacturers show everything from concepts of cars and trucks that are simply “blue sky” conversation starters or a preview of “production intent” - something that will actually be produced down the road - to production vehicles that are “imminent” (as in six to twelve months away), or on dealer lots right now.
Some shows are mainly for the manufacturers and the media (Frankfurt, Paris, Geneva and Detroit, etc.), and some are blatantly aimed at real live consumers (Chicago, as well as the smaller regional and city shows). New York has always fallen somewhere in between, until just recently. Now, New York is a manufacturers’ show and a consumer show, and last week underscored how the show’s importance has grown on the annual auto show calendar.
That’s not to say the show was exemplary by any stretch, because it was filled with a kaleidoscope of manufacturers’ wares covering the gamut from gems to jokes, just like any other show. But since New York is the acknowledged media center of the U.S., it gets more than its fair share of attention, ably abetted by both automotive and mainstream journalists alike.
My impressions of the show? Some manufacturers distinguished themselves while some should have stayed home. Some vehicles were overhyped - which has become standard operating procedure at every auto show these days - and some amounted to, how should I say this, less than zero. The media, of course, fueled by the obligatory free trips from the doting manufacturers, did their level best to impart a sense of sanctity and gravitas to an array of show horses – as is their wont – but the Fog of War projected by their hype-filled social media chatter wore thin, and it wasn’t hard to determine which manufacturer actually had a clue, and the ones that were just phoning it in. (And if this turns into a mini AE Brand Image Meter preview, then so be it.)
Take Nissan for instance. Nissan has been on a chest-thumping mission of late - complete with a big, fat chip on its shoulder - acting like the world is giving it short shrift while it sees itself as a first-team player. The company can’t for the life of it understand why it isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Audi, or BMW, or Mercedes. Well, this just in, they don’t merit that kind of reverence because they simply don’t deserve it. For that reason alone I find the powers that be at Nissan, led by the insufferable Carlos Ghosn, to be relentlessly tedious, and the more he and his minions scream from the rooftops that they indeed have it goin’ on, the more hackneyed the whole thing becomes.
The latest evidence that Nissan exists in a time warp of its own making? The GT-R, which was hyped as a noteworthy revision in New York or, as they put it, “the most significant change to Nissan’s flagship super sports car since it was introduced in 2007,” was instead a total joke. Nissan slapped something called a “V-motion” grille on the front end, boosted the power a bit and dubbed it a “thorough makeover.” Wow. Nissan’s PR minions are capable of spewing the kind of high-caliber unmitigated bullshit that ranks right up there with the best of ‘em, I'll give them that.
The reality of the “new” GT-R? Nissan has been phoning it in for years on this car and the New York two-step with it was the absolute final straw, as far as I’m concerned. The GT-R was relentlessly overhyped by the fan boys in the media when it was first introduced, and it has simply been on a downhill slide of irrelevance ever since. At the time of its intro the car was in fact bloated, complicated and replete with a design “language” that was shockingly uninspired right out of the gate. And the new car? Please. There should have been signs placed at the Nissan display in New York with the words: “Nothing to see here, move it along” because there was simply no “there” there. What a miserable excuse for a “new” car intro.
As I’ve said repeatedly in this column, Nissan finds success in this market in spite of itself. The cars just aren’t that good and the advertising is truly pathetic, and in fact I am convinced that people buy them as much to avoid consorting with a domestic-sourced product as anything else. If Ghosn and his posse want to call that “having it goin’ on” then fine, after all, we’re talking about a bunch that are enthralled with the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons to a fault. To me it just reinforces the notion that there must be some magic mirrors sprinkled around the Nissan Empire, because Nissan’s image of itself so far overshoots the reality that it’s shocking.
And then there’s Mazda. When talk among the fan boys in the automotive media goes into hyperdrive, it’s usually over something from Mazda. If you read (too many) posts from those same fan boys, you will be hard pressed to figure out why anyone buys any other brand besides Mazda, the praise is that gushing. But despite all of that it doesn’t cover up the fact that Mazda is the perennial Sideshow Bob of the car business, the brand that people stop and visit along the way before moving on to more compelling product entries from other manufacturers. It may not be fair, but it’s the ugly reality for this perpetual brand on the come.
So, when Mazda unveiled the Mazda MX5 RF (“retractable fastback”), we battened down the hatches to prepare for the onslaught of over-the-top coverage from the media. And we weren’t disappointed. By varying degrees the Mazda was everything from the greatest car ever to grace an auto show floor to something akin to the Second Coming. It was neither, but that didn’t stop the fan boy praise from completely overwhelming the Internet chatter at one point.
Though the Mazda was somewhat interesting, the fact remains that the retractable top was decidedly out of place on the car. After all, the re-boot of the MX5 was all about authenticity and being true to the original concept while taking advantage of new technologies, but a retractable roof – which adds weight and complexity – was a decided “180” from the concept, original or otherwise.
The little sports car formerly known as Miata was never about weight and complexity, it was about purity and sport motoring goodness. The cloth top was only there to put up when the weather didn’t cooperate, and that was it, which means the retractable roof nonsense on the “RF” was a dismal nonstarter for anyone acquainted with the idea of the original car.
Mazda operatives didn’t hesitate to tout the recent MX5 refresh as a harkening back to the car’s roots, but the “RF” was a blatant misstep, pure and simple.
Then there was the Lincoln Navigator Concept. That far too many in the media forgot to mention that the gull-wing doors were purely for show was a complete travesty, but then again I’m not surprised. When a fifth of the “journalists” on hand are actually qualified to be referred to as such while the rest of the lot is comprised of a motley crew of hangers-on, free-loading scammers and “lifestyle” reporters, the details are bound to get lost in the sea of gushing exclamation points.
The facts? Yes, the gull-wing doors and the cascading entry steps were for show. It’s no secret that the Navigator has been in desperate need of a refresh for years, and that Lincoln has taken a back seat to the Cadillac Escalade, which last year outsold the big Lincoln three to one. So this was Lincoln’s answer to all of that. And it’s also no secret that the new Navigator was heavily influenced by the Range Rover (in profile and from the back) and the new Bentley Bentayga (in the massive front), even though Lincoln operatives took great pains in insisting that was not the case.
David Woodhouse, chief designer for Lincoln, even went so far as to take a not-so-thinly-veiled and completely gratuitous shot at the big Cadillac, saying, "It feels like our competitors are in the business of scaring people. It's a very different business that we want to be in."
As if. The business that Lincoln should want to be in is to get back into the game, and right now the Escalade is so far out front of Lincoln in the giant SUV segment that the Navigator is merely a speck in the Cadillac’s mirror, so comments like that are not only gratuitous, they’re flat-out unnecessary. That being said the new Lincoln has great presence and it will be a worthy entry to the fray, derivative or not.
And what can be said about the delicious Porsche 911R? Just when you thought Porsche had completely subjugated its mojo to the whims of the Crossover-SUV gods, they come up with simply the most desirable Porsche in the last 25 years. It’s expensive and the production run is already spoken for, but Porsche solidified its reputation and captured the enduring loyalty of its True Believer enthusiast customers all over again, and in one fell swoop too.
The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and ZL1 convertible may not have been quite as stunning as the 911R (see the details in “On The Table” –WG), but in the Big Picture of things they’re no less significant. Mark Reuss and the True Believers in GM Product Development are on a big-time roll, churning out hit after hit. And now the reinvigorated and smokin’ hot Camaro in all of its iterations is simply one of the most desirable American cars to come to the fore in a long, long time.
There were a few others that merit mention at the New York show, but for different reasons. The Audi R8 Spyder was particularly tasty and noteworthy, although the A4 was an uninspired bore. So not everything Audi touches turns into gold, just in case you were wondering.
As for the Maserati Levante? It will be uniquely attractive to those who don’t want to see themselves coming and going, and who aren’t moved by such quaint notions as resale value or quality. FCA has demonstrated repeatedly that they are simply incapable of building a vehicle with meaningful, demonstrable quality, and the Levante looks to be the perfect shit storm representing everything wrong with the company, all in one overwrought SUV. I pity the first-on-the-block fools who are hell-bent on spending real money on them, because after that new car smell wears off, oh, in about a nanosecond, the problems will be just beginning.
And finally, in a one-off award designed just for the New York show, the AE “Quakin’ in Their Boots Award” goes to Hyundai for the Genesis New York Concept (see “On The Table” –WG). A seductive combination of bold, unapologetic style and confident intent, the Genesis New York Concept is a blatant warning shot to Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Lexus – I am leaving Cadillac off this illustrious roster because when you’re not ready for prime time, well, you’re not ready for prime time – that the segment will soon have another serious player. I have been quick to dismiss Hyundai’s previous half-assed efforts when it came to establishing itself in the luxury space, but not anymore. I expect Genesis to be the coming brand over the next three to five years.
And I can’t leave you today without reiterating that the auto show model, as we know it, is broken and terribly ineffective. Whether the replacement idea takes the form of a series of staged offsite shows over a three-day period, much like the fashion industry does with its Fashion Week, or another idea, something has to give, because for the most part what’s going on now is stilted, predictable and relentlessly boring.
Not that some of the manufacturers – and their incredibly uninspired cars – don’t already acquiesce to that level of desultory engagement perfectly, but for the rest of the companies out there that actually understand the opportunity to showcase their best stuff, there has to be a better way.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.