January 11, 2012
Scintillating debuts, excruciating moments, media homers and an eYawnster thrown in for good measure. The Autoextremist take on the 2012 Detroit Auto Show.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 1/10, 6:30 p.m.) Detroit. Wait a minute? Where were we again? Where was the snow? The mind-numbing cold? Or the particularly delicious eyeball-rattling salt storms? And WTF? Sunny skies? This was the 2012 Detroit Auto Show in the heart of the gutty, gritty Motor City? In January? Really? It felt more like the Palm Beach International Auto Show.
And while most of the country is enjoying The Winter That Hasn’t Started Yet, Cobo Hall rocked with enough of everything to please everyone in attendance from notable brilliance to yes, that old standby, relentless stupidity. After all this is the Auto Biz, where egos and blind avarice collide on a regular basis, and this is Auto Show Week, where the home runs can be truly grand, and the mistakes can be er, uh, truly horrendous.
But the best part about this show? It felt like an auto show again. Not a Green Convention put on for politicos in Washington and Northern California, and not an Apologist Convention for an industry that felt compelled to justify its existence. No, it was a full-blown auto show, with real cars that harbored real dreams and aspirations.
As it should be.
The week started off on a discordant note when the Detroit Free Press deigned to weigh-in with something they called the Automotive Leadership Awards on Sunday, which proceeded to canonize The Great Sergio all the way to full sainthood in the “executive leadership” category. Far beyond a classic puff piece from some bygone era, this was blatant ass kissing at its finest, a relentlessly tedious paean so embarrassing in its scope that it left outsiders far enough away from Sergio’s aura – those still lucid enough to decipher the linguini from the stromboli, and the smoke and mirrors from the unmitigated bullshit – mumbling incoherently.
Really? Couldn’t the media homers in this town stop their synchronized bootlicking long enough so we could get to the 2012 Detroit Auto Show without slipping and sliding on their collective drool?
Oh well, on with the show, where the two remaining domestic car companies flexed their muscles, and that Italian car company up the road got back into the compact car game. And the rest? Well, that’s another story altogether.
That was 30 minutes of our lives that we’ll never get back. The North American Car and Truck of the year started the proceedings first thing Monday, with the Hyundai Elantra and the Range Rover Evoque winning their respective categories. We didn’t really care, and we’re not really sure anyone else does either.
From the “Oh Shit, Now What?” File, the real Detroit Auto Show opened with Ford unveiling its drop-dead gorgeous Fusion, a stunning design and content statement that left every other automaker in the mid-size segment reeling. Suddenly the Malibu doesn’t reach far enough, the Sonata seems stale and the Camry looks easily ten years old. Ford matched the significance of the Fusion with a brilliantly executed reveal “in the round” in the Joe Louis Arena. (Oh, if only some of the other manufacturers would pay heed and take some notes so we might have been spared from some of the horrific atrocities that we had to sit through just to get a look at a new car. Geez.) The Fusion isn’t just a grand slam home run, folks. No, it is an emphatic reminder to everyone in the business that if they were counting on Ford to pull up lame with a sudden dose of incompetence and loss of focus, they’re sadly mistaken. And I haven’t even gotten to the new Lincoln MKZ Concept yet (more on that later).
Funny, but their “Fog of War” smells a lot like grilled Italian sausage with peppers & onions. After the sublime Ford statement, Fiat-Chrysler weighed in with its new Dodge Dart. With Dodge honcho Reid Bigland preening and posing on stage like it was some sort of body building competition as he plowed through a presentation fueled by bombastic pronouncements, the Dart was billed as a game changer bordering on the greatest thing since sliced bread. But then again that’s the Fiat-owned Chrysler these days. Fully engorged by the gushing praise and slavish devotion bestowed on their espresso-fueled leader by some of the lesser lights in the media, Fiat-Chrysler operatives now believe they can do no wrong (let’s just forget about that little Fiat 500 unpleasantness, shall we?), that they’re immune to the valleys of this business, and that they’re smarter than everybody else. And it’s starting to get embarrassing. The Dodge Dart intro just oozed with braggadocio and swagger. Big mistake. The Dart is a little more than merely competent with a modicum of good stuff and a whiff of Charger design cues thrown in for good measure. It allows Fiat-Chrysler to be represented in the mid-size segment. And nothing more. The rest? Italian-tinged smoke and mirrors at its finest.
And I want a car that looks like a Ferrari 458 Italia, goes 0 to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, gets 50 mpg in the city, emits nothing but a whiff of espresso and folds up in my briefcase when I have to park. From there it was on to GM, where they took great pains to demonstrate to everybody that they were truly in touch with their inner youth and were hell-bent on being a socially submerged, switched on company that creates cars out of clouds that appeal to the thought balloons of the youth of today. You know, the ones who couldn’t care less about driver’s licenses and who find the idea of actually owning a car analogous to some sort of act of heresy to the Social Networking Nation. And while desperately trying to get in touch with the over-sharing youth of today, GM opened their show with a excruciatingly tedious video montage of a cross section of people saying “I Want.” As in, “I want a car that does everything for me so I can do something else.” Or, “I Want a car that drives itself.” “I want a car that is good for me. And the planet.” It went on for far too long. So long in fact that with the constant harangue of “I want, I want, I want” resonating through the loud speakers I thought, “I want a gun.” We had to sit through that to see something called the Chevrolet Tru 140S (a white front-wheel-drive “affordable exotic” Coupe) and the Chevrolet Code 130R (a red rear-wheel-drive Coupe). These two concepts are GM’s open-source take on developing cars for people who don’t like cars, or something like that. The Tru 140S offered a shape reminiscent of the Cadillac Imaj concept of several years ago, only softened with rounder edges. And the Code 130R was GM’s blatant take on the new BMW 1 Series M (It should be the package size for the next Camaro but it isn’t). Both concepts were okay, but not the brilliant design statements that some would have you believe. They were derivative and largely forgettable, in fact. Which was too bad.
Why don’t your pack your things and leave quietly? We’ll even refund some of your money if you leave RIGHT NOW. The electric carmaker, Coda, was present and accounted for on the Cobo Hall show floor. But nobody cared, nobody stopped by and nobody noticed. VIA Motors had Bob Lutz hanging at its booth, but nobody really cared about that either.
Excuse me, Mr. Zetsche, would you come with us, please? Mercedes-Benz was the first German car company press conference of the week, which is always a treat. Not. German car executives always get up and bore the throngs to death with their detailed regurgitation of sales statistics and other minutiae, which leaves everyone in the audience looking like the crowd in the Apple “1984” Super Bowl spot, with mouths agape, and dazed and confused. And then they flip a switch and try to be hip and cool and entertaining, and instead it turns into an embarrassing display of irrelevance and tone deafness. Mercedes-Benz took the wraps off of their new SL550 sports car, which was fine, except it was parked in close proximity to a glorious 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300SL racing coupe. Guess which one looked more contemporary, cleaner and flat-out better? Mercedes design has imbued the new SL with so many design tricks, slats, flaps and gimmicks that it looks ponderous and uncomfortable in its own skin. The car actually has become a bit clownish. No, make that a lot clownish. But then it was nothing in comparison to the debut of the Smart For-Us pickup. Oh my. Described as “a pickup for the 21st century,” the Smart For-Us was the most embarrassing thing at the show. This rolling monument to tedium didn’t signal the revival of Smart - rather, it signaled the end of common sense at Daimler. The For-Us simply exists in a dimension of stupidity I’m not familiar with. It not only makes me wonder about the future of Daimler, it makes me start to question Deiter Zetsche’s sanity.
We came, we saw, we said what we had to say and now we’re finished. That is all. Porsche was simple, direct and to the point in unveiling the cabriolet version of its 2012 911, complete with ultra-slick convertible top. They also said they would be doubling global sales in six years. FYI, Porsche sold 118,867 vehicles in 2011, an increase of 22 percent and a record. Quite refreshing for a German car company press conference actually. That is until we had to sit through VW’s show immediately afterward.
Nope, nothing funny about it, actually. But how about this? You guys well and truly suck. Now that’s funny. VW’s press conference was so bad it was actually painful. Opening with a decidedly ridiculous video for its new Jetta Hybrid involving a guy rescuing another guy at the side of the road, followed by many blissful driving scenes that were, how shall I say, uh, relentlessly lame. I mean, as in really. Then the event went downhill from there when the OGCCESR (Obligatory German Car Company Executive Statistical Regurgitation) was followed by a group of acrobatic dancers that were there to introduce something called the eBugster. An alleged electrified Beetle convertible concept that basically telegraphed the look of the next generation Beetle cabriolet, the eBugster was an eYawnster in the first degree. And any focus on the concept was repeatedly interrupted by The Dancers That Just Would Not Go Away. Leaping, sliding, break-dancing, and generally annoying the assembled multitudes to their last nerve, it was an exercise in futility the likes of which I hadn’t seen since, well, since the Mercedes-Smart fiasco an hour before. And then chief designer Walter da Silva came out and immediately put an explanation point on the proceedings by calling the car “funny.” Funny?
The Rest of the Story?
Well, let’s see. BMW showed the new 3 series, which is slightly bigger and has a freshly designed exterior. Everyone is hand wringing about whether or not they screwed it up or not. My take? It’s certainly not horrible to look at. And I suspect it’s just fine and will continue to be the standard by which all sport sedans are judged.
GM showed off its Buick Encore, which is a C-segment crossover dubbed the “Baby Enclave.” It’s okay. Competent, nicely rendered and well, just okay. The big news from GM – besides letting the touchy-feely youth of the world tell them how to design their cars, that is – was the Cadillac ATS. I am impressed with the technical story, the attention paid to keeping the weight down, and the very real possibility that this rear-wheel-drive sedan could in fact be a genuine driver’s car. And GM is making no bones about the fact that they’re gunning for the BMW 3 series. But the design worries me in that it just kind of lies there. Yes, it continues the Cadillac design lineage, emulating BMW, which Cadillac is so intent on doing, by the way, but something is missing, especially in the front end.
Bentley unveiled its V8-powered Continental GT Coupe, which was still excellent even though it has eight cylinders instead of twelve, but then again, it would be hard to screw that car up. Audi showed its barely-disguised Q3 in something called The Vail concept. The right-sized Q3 will be another successful entry from Audi in 2013, there’s no question. Mini showed the convertible version of its coupe, claustrophobics need not apply. Honda showed the new Accord Coupe, which was only mildly interesting. Bolder, yes and appreciably better, but yet another truly evolutionary step. Wait a minute, isn’t this how they got in trouble in the first place? Acura showed a couple of new vehicles that were pretty much forgettable, but the NSX was very interesting indeed (more on that later), Toyota continued the Prius-ification of its lineup with its NS4 concept, a tidily-rendered bordering on beautiful machine that seems to have “I’m the next-generation Prius” written all over it. The Scion FR-S was very appealing - after all, what’s not to like about a lightweight, nicely proportioned rear-wheel-drive sports coupe with a very decent power-to-weight ratio? And its Lexus LF-LC Concept was stunning (more to come on that).
And now, on to our Autoextremist Awards from the 2012 Detroit Auto Show…
Most Significant Production Car: The 2013 Ford Fusion has simply blown-up the mid-sized segment with its brilliant combination of visionary design, scintillating content and overall operating efficiency. It’s a true game changer in every sense of the word. When it hits the showrooms next fall, the Ford Fusion will instantly be one of the hottest cars in the market. It’s that good.
Most Significant Concept Car That’s Least Likely To See The Light of Day: The Lexus LF-LC Concept (let’s just say right up front that names have never been a strong suit for Lexus) will never get built, but if this is an example of how Lexus is going about getting its mojo going in terms of design, we’re all for it. Designed at Toyota’s Calty studio in Newport Beach, California, the Lexus LF-LC is simply knee-buckling beautiful, inside and out.
Most Significant Concept Car That Will See The Light of Day: The new Acura NSX, though bristling with blatant design cues from the Ferrari 458 Italia and the Lamborghini Gallardo, is Honda’s stake in the ground from this day forward. The new Accord isn’t it, and the new Acura models can’t be it either. No, this car is the statement machine that Honda has needed so desperately since, well, since they stopped building the last one. And the fact that it’s going to be built in Ohio is significant in its own right, perhaps as significant as the existence of the car itself. Honda needs this car to be outstanding in every respect. Anything less and it will be over. The worst part about the new NSX? It’s three long years away.
Most Significant Luxury Concept and Best In Show: The Lincoln MKZ Concept is significant for a number of reasons. First of all it serves as a level set for Lincoln, a brand that has been wallowing between irrelevance and insignificance for so long now that we’ve lost track. Secondly, no one, and I mean no one believed the Ford Motor Company was serious about resurrecting Lincoln, or would have the fundamental desire to devote the company resources as well as the persistence and wherewithal to go the distance to get it done. Yet here they are with a dedicated team made up of the kind of design, engineering and marketing talent that can make an impact and will go far to reestablish Lincoln as a credible luxury player. That is if upper level Ford executives stay the course and never waver from The Plan of nurturing the Lincoln brand over the long haul. And that means over at least a decade. That’s a very long time. Especially in this land of quarter-based performance reports where three straight quarters of good times used to generate high-fives in the hallways, and conversely three straight bad quarters would signify that the sky is falling. Staying focused on the ultimate goal will take every ounce of strength the Ford Motor Company can collectively muster. The new Lincoln MKZ is an absolutely brilliant start.
And that's the High-Octane Truth from the 2012 Detroit Auto Show.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
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