No. 881
January 25, 2017
 

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Autoextremist.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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The Autoextremist - Rants


Tuesday
Jan102017

MOBILITY FIRESIDE CHATS, AUTONOMOUS GROUP HUG SESSIONS AND AN UNWANTED REMAKE OF SHAKESPEARE’S “MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.” WELCOME TO THE BRAVE NEW AUTO WORLD, FOLKS. AND BY THE WAY, WE JUST "GOTS" TO KNOW: WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH THE DETROIT AUTO SHOW?

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. Well, the Detroit Auto Show allegedly happened this week, but it was anything but. Instead, we will remember this gathering down at Cobo Hall as the show where the manufacturers completely lost the plot. There were WAYMO blue-sky prognostications and visionary portraits of a Brave New Auto World flying around than in Aldous Huxley’s original pitch to his publishers. And that’s all well and good, except that with visions of 20 percent profit margins dancing in industry executives’ heads – so they say - rational thinking left the building and the gathering hordes of the press and other assorted hangers-on were treated to lectures about how great our lives will be once The Autonomous Future arrives and how we will all be saved from ourselves.

The newly autonomized execs were so pumped up I thought they would predict that The Autonomous Future would stop famine and wars, but thankfully, they stopped short of that. Instead, they promised that autonomy would save and enrich our lives to the point that, well, just you wait and see, everybody, it’s gonna be great!

Things got so touchy-feely at one point that I thought we were being shown previews of a future Hallmark movie with the plot revolving around the fanciful – and lovely (in an “Old School” Olive Garden sort of way) – Autonomous Village, a very special place where shiny happy people who are kind and considerate live and everything is wonderful and beautiful because they had finally been freed from the drudgery of driving.

Yes, it got that stupid.

But what about the show, you might ask? Good question, because the 2017 Detroit Auto Show was frankly a complete bust. It looked for all the world like the old regional shows that used to occur around here 40 years ago when dealers wanted to "juice" local retail traffic in the worst months. With Bentley, Jaguar Land Rover, Maserati, Mini, Porsche, Rolls-Royce and Tesla all skipping the show, I kept hearing a young Ronnie Reagan in my head saying, “Where is the rest of me?

Maybe the show organizers and the willing manufacturers and supplier participants decided to reimagine William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” instead of putting on an actual auto show, and no one bothered to tell us. I am not kidding, because this was clearly a second-tier show pretending that it was still a big deal, and there weren’t enough mobility fireside chats and autonomous group hug sessions to mask that fact. And that’s how bad the show came off. There was a distinct air of something missing, like maybe everyone collectively had misplaced their keys somewhere and were stumbling around in the darkness for no good reason.

I should have been tipped off that this wasn’t going to be a memorable show when I tripped over the display in the lobby celebrating 100 years of the Michigan State Police, complete with three cop cars on display. Huh? I mean, thank you for your service but WTF?

It went distinctly downhill from there, with the first order of business being the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year, which went to the Chevrolet Bolt, Honda Ridgeline and Chrysler Pacifica, respectively. The organizers have been flogging these awards for years, but let’s face it - the entire process is in need of an overhaul, starting with the makeup of the juror panel. To say that there are marginal players still on the list is an understatement. I’ve been assured that things will get better, but until that time the credibility of these awards is suspect, at best.

Then, as if on cue, news of an arrest of a VW executive, Oliver Schmidt, who headed the automaker’s U.S. regulatory compliance office until March 2015, came to light. Were the U.S. prosecutors trying to send a message to VW and the industry with the timing? Yes, of course, but VW execs had privately admitted a year ago that things were going to go from bad to worse, with some executives even getting jail sentences. Not a positive note to begin an auto show, that’s for sure.

Another sign that the show was in deep trouble was when I realized that Smart had been given triple the space it would normally get, like it was something actually worth seeing. (Don’t worry, it still isn’t.) And then it became readily apparent that the Chinese company GAC, which is still not ready for prime time, as well as other assorted suppliers and part-time car companies were taking up space on the show floor because well, the show organizers had to fill up the space somehow. All together now: Not Good.

Ah well, let’s see what else was (sort of) worth talking about.

We know what we’re doing; stop asking us such stupid questions. If there were an annual award for arrogance in the auto world, Mercedes-Benz would win it going away, every year. Once again Dieter Zetsche got up in front of the carpal tunnel-impaired wretches in the press and did his usual “aw shucks, we’re Mercedes and you’re not” stump speech, this year emboldened by the fact that Mercedes won the U.S. luxury sales crown. But not before taking an opening shot at the Detroit Lions football team for no good reason. It wasn’t funny. He showed a forgettable E-Class (Yes, I said it. Forgettable), a couple of AMG GT variants and a GLA with something called an “AMG Performance Studio Package.” But the big news in the Mercedes display was the fact that it’s clear that company operatives believe that if a couple of AMG models were good, dozens more would be even better, right? Wrong. Mercedes-Benz once again demonstrated its unequaled propensity for overkill by – as I predicted two years ago – running the AMG brand into the ground by hanging those letters on just about every car on the show floor, to the point that AMG is rapidly heading to a place where it doesn’t mean a damn thing. The only car they forgot to slap the letters on was the Smart, but stay tuned, they’ll probably screw that up too. The High-Octane Truth? They don’t know what they’re doing and they don’t know when to stop. I just can’t wait for the AMG brand to be distilled down to a tape and stripe job with a logo slapped on the back. Nicely done, you unmitigated hacks.

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Mercedes-AMG GLA45 with AMG Performance Studio Package. 

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The Mercedes-AMG GT C Edition 50.

We’re Nissan, and we haven’t had an original thought in years. That is all. The fact that Nissan is openly cribbing the new Lexus design language for its Infiniti brand is so obvious it is painful. In Detroit they unveiled the Nissan Vmotion 2.0 concept (below), which doesn’t have even a fifth of the cohesive elegance and presence that the production Lexus LC500 has. There’s no point in asking what these guys are thinking, because they’re clearly not.

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Nissan Vmotion 2.0.

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The production Lexus LC500 starts at $92,000.

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For good measure, Lexus unveiled its new, top line LS 500 sedan, which made Nissan/Infiniti – and its competitors - look even worse.

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And the Lexus UX Concept was shockingly good in the flesh, by the way.

Say hello to our new models, Ka and Ching. Despite the singed eyebrows from the VW Diesel emissions cheating scandal, Audi keeps delivering profits to the VW Group hand over fist. And when you do that within the Evil Empire at VW, this is a very good thing because it means Audi is rewarded with a bigger slice of the development money pie. Thus, the debuts of the new Q8 concept (below) and the SQ5 production car. They also showed the new S5 Cabriolet, which was borderline uneventful. As long as Audi keeps crankin’, things will continue along. Good times.

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The Audi Q8 Concept.

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The shape is production ready.

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The Audi SQ5.

This Just In: BMW has officially descended into The Abyss of Mediocrity. A faction of the propeller heads has decided to phone it in until someone tells them to stop, apparently. The new 5 Series is so uninspired, uninviting and distinctly underwhelming that it’s flat-out shocking in its blandness. It’s as if no one gives a shit anymore over there. The BMW Concept X2 has some serious juice thankfully, but the 5 Series looks five years old right out of the gate. Make that ten. Take a bow, folks, you’ve officially moved to The Pathetic Zone.

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The new BMW 5 Series.

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The BMW X2 Concept.

We will fill every niche, every time, everywhere, every day. The New Chevrolet Traverse completes GM’s calculated offensive to leave no gaps in its SUV/cross over lineup. A serious step up for the nameplate and better in every way, the new Traverse looks to be a worthy competitor. My confidence in Chevrolet’s ability to market it is below zero, but maybe the product is good enough to overcome the stumblebums running Chevy’s “marketing” function. And that's a very slim maybe.

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The new Chevrolet Traverse.

We didn’t used to do derivative, but we’re finding it to be a comfortable space right now. GM showed the new GMC Terrain, an unfortunate mish-mash of me-too design gimmickry that was truly breathtaking. In a very bad way. The back ¾ rear detail is particularly offensive. Back in the day, GM Design would never do derivative, it was anathema and something that Bill Mitchell would never allow. Oh sure, he would draw inspiration from Italian designers, but he’d rather turn in his pen before copying a mediocre Japanese product. I detected a slide in GM Design with the Buick Avenir concept, which was distinctly uninspired, followed by the Avista, which was GM Design’s homage to the Tesla, apparently. It all adds up to a giant Bowl of Not Good. I suggest that GM Design’s new chief, Mike Simcoe, better light a fire under his operatives and start emphasizing inspiration, originality and genuine vision before it’s too late, because once you go off the rails in the Design Game, it takes years to get it back.

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The GMC Terrain.

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More Terrain.

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Oh, and Infiniti showed the QX50 Concept. What was the question again?

Alfa Romeo called - they want their 3 Series copy back. I used to think that Kia had it going on, an emerging automobile company with unlimited potential. Bristling with international design talent and an improved engineering focus, Kia had all the attributes of a coming brand, or so I thought. Then, they dropped a steaming load of mediocrity on the Detroit Auto Show, and in one fell swoop they destroyed any momentum they had, as well as destroying any reason to take them seriously. Let’s review, shall we? The Alfa Romeo Giulia is a blatant copy of the BMW 3 Series. And now Kia decides that doing a blatant copy that blends the Giulia and the 3 Series is actually a good thing? What the hell is going on out there? And the name Stinger? Did we miss the memo that decided that it was cool to be stuck in 1967 again? Don Yenko is not amused. Maybe they should have perused a Dodge Dart catalog of yore and called it Swinger. I don’t care what the (alleged) performance capability of this thing is, because it’s clear to me that they need someone in the decision making room with the cojones to speak up and say at the critical moment, “What the fuck are you guys thinkin’?” Until that happens, Kia goes back to Do Not Pass Go Land. The one unequivocal, undeniable thing about this business that never gets old is that you just can’t make this shit up.

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The Kia Stinger. Alfa Romeo called - they want their 3 Series copy back.

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So we copied the Ford Explorer, you gotta problem with that? VW unveiled the Atlas SUV and in the flesh it looked like their version of the Ford Explorer. As a matter of fact, while sitting in it we could easily have replaced the VW logo on the steering wheel with a Ford Blue Oval and barely discerned the difference. I’m sure VW dealers are breathing a sigh of relief saying “finally” but wow, a box, is a box, is a frickin' box.

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The VW Exp… er Atlas R-Line.

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The inside of the Atlas.

There were other debuts of note. Ford debuted a freshened F-150 pickup, which was very nice and will appear next fall, although the version with the body color bar in the grille was such an ugly non-starter we hope it gets lost long before it's approved for production. Ford also showed a production Ford GT in an unfortunate burgundy hue that didn’t do the car justice, in the least. Memo to Ford Design: Come on, man! Also, Ford announced that a new Ranger mid-size pickup is coming in 2019, and the return of the Bronco in 2020, which is long overdue. At least they didn't show the vehicles three years too early, so there's that.

Toyota revealed a new, "more expressive" Camry, which was a very big deal. They were all pleased and proud about it, but we’re not sure anyone really cared. They also took the wrap off of the NASCAR version at the same time, and we’re quite certain no one cared about that. Honda unveiled yet another iteration of its Odyssey van, which was the obligatory “better in every way.” Of course. VLF Automotive – the Bob Lutz company – showed the Force 1 V10, yet another iteration of a Viper coupe. It was handsome – I guess – but certainly nothing we haven’t seen before. And Cadillac showed the beautiful-in-the-flesh Escala concept, which only made us weep that it isn’t available to buy right now, even if it is heavily influenced by the Audi A7. And there were other debuts and reveals that weren’t worth talking about. Suffice to say, if, as a car company, you didn’t make our cut, you were eminently and officially forgettable.

My favorite guilty pleasure of the show was provided by Michelin, which displayed two, customized – and incredibly pricey - Singer Porsche 911s. As a veteran 911 owner from back in the day, I could have stayed at this display all day long and not bothered with the rest. Simply magnificent stuff.

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But my “Best in Show” in a decidedly downbeat and very disappointing Detroit Auto Show was, hands down, the VW I.D. BUZZ. I said back when the Diesel emissions crisis hit that the only thing that would repair VW’s image in this country would be distinctive products that marched to a different drummer, machines that only VW could build. An all-electric, modern rendition of a VW Bus with autonomous capability for way down the road would be a great place to start. Some of the features of the BUZZ are not going to make production, but you could tell that the basic shape was production intent. And kudos have to go to the normally staid VW executives for going with the name “BUZZ.” A little fun was much appreciated at this gloomy show. A production version of this vehicle appears to be on the docket and viable for 2020. VW needs to move that date up ASAP, because this vehicle is a grand slam home run if I’ve ever seen one.

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The VW I.D. BUZZ.

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And with the steering wheel retracted, for autonomous mode, of course.

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As I’ve said repeatedly, the Detroit Auto Show is headed down the wrong road, and this year’s debacle should be a giant red flag to anyone involved in putting on the show because it was a giant steaming bowl of Not Good. Yes, the mobility/autonomous love-fest handily masked the fact that the show just isn’t happening anymore and in desperate need of a new idea, but it could only conceal so much.

The organizers can start by ditching the hoary – and wildly inappropriate – NAIAS moniker and quit screwing around. Call it the Detroit Auto Show and be done with it. Then, they need to move the show to June, immediately after the Detroit Grand Prix weekend, because the difference between January and June around these parts is dramatic. Detroit is actually a beautiful city in the summertime, and the world’s automotive press could stand to see it in an entirely different light.

That’s one aspect of this week that needs attention. The other is the fact that some automakers have allowed the pendulum to swing wildly too far in the wrong direction. These companies believe that they can straddle both disciplines - building driver's cars and signing up for the autonomy revolution - without either one suffering, but it was clear that certain automakers fell off the wagon and descended into Fantasy Land, buying into the notion - "hands free" of course - that autonomy would be the panacea that will fix all the ills of our way of life. And that’s simply not true. Autonomous vehicles and idyllic ride sharing are all well and good, and yes, we will see that in real time in some major cities down the road, but to hear some of these manufacturer presentations you would think that we will all be sentenced to a life of being ride-alongs in no time. Well, it won’t be in no time, far from it in fact.

Yes, it will happen in select urban centers, but the reality for the rest of the country is that people not only still need to drive, they actually still love to drive. Combine that reality with the fact that we are, at this very moment, enjoying the finest machines ever built in each and every segment, and it’s understandable to see why the ardor for the open road isn’t going to cool any time soon, thankfully.

Let’s just hope the manufacturers in question can get their collective heads out of their asses long enough so that they can see the light.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.