LEXUS GOES LONG, VW FALLS ON ITS SWORD, BIG AUTO WRESTLES WITH THE NEW WORLD ORDER - WE LOATHE THE SMELL OF VAPORWARE IN THE MORNING, BY THE WAY - AND SOMEWHERE IN THERE THE DETROIT AUTO SHOW HAPPENED.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Well, it was truly special. Not. Here we were at another opening of a Detroit Auto Show, only this time it was different. What in the past had become a seismic event unto itself - one filled with hopes and dreams and boundless promises - had been reduced to apologies, whimpers and endless discussions about vaporware. All the manufacturers were connected, switched-on and mobile, but did they really know where the hell they were going and did they really have a frickin’ clue as to what would happen when they got there? No, not really. But make no mistake: they were dead set on not being left at the gate.
Did this create memorable moments? Not exactly. There was a distinct air of somnolence hanging over the proceedings that was not hard to miss. BMW and Mercedes were trying hard not to get sucked in by VW’s massive diesel emissions indiscretion; Hyundai trotted out the Germans they had hired who would hopefully lead them out of the wilderness and pave the way for their luxury aspirations; Lexus insisted that they ascended to the top tier; The Great Sergio offered up his usual cornucopia of excuses, obfuscation and redirects; and Ford and GM? Well… read on.*
*If I don’t mention your favorite car company don’t be alarmed, it just means that 1. They didn’t do anything to merit a mention. 2. What they did do was so mediocre and uninspired that it pissed us off. Or 3. They had the temerity to show up at a big-time auto show and stink up the joint so badly, leaving such a trail of winces and cringes, that it was too embarrassing for words.
But hey, it was all good anyway, right? Wrong. The 2016 Detroit Auto Show left a lot to be desired for one very big reason: Too many car companies took it upon themselves to weigh in on connectivity, the future of mobility, or both. And to put it charitably the distinct odor of vaporware hung over the show floor like a cloud of indifference. Why? Because this just in: It’s not the place for a discussion, think tank or PR apology tour. It’s not a forum for discourse about where the business is going in terms of car sharing or other notions; there are plenty of other places to do that. It’s called an auto show for a reason. It’s just a shame that too many of the manufacturers in attendance forgot that fact. They’re so afraid of irrelevance in the face of The New World Order that they’re scrambling to get a piece of The Future, even though they’re not really sure what that is, or what it means. And that tends to bring an auto show to a dead stop.
There were a few good things to be had, however, and we figured we’d make special mention of that by handing out some recognition – along with identifying the obligatory train wrecks – that defined this year’s Detroit Auto Show. (By the way, the frigid weather was not a good thing and it's time to rethink Detroit in January - see "On The Table" -WG)
To be clear, we’re not talking about the North American Car and Truck Awards because those are open to local "journalists" whose overwhelming priority is to get endless free press cars to drive, even though half of them are so far under the radar that the title "journalist" can only be applied loosely, at best. No, we're talking the Autoextremist High-Octane Truth Awards here, the no bullshit awards designed to honor those getting it right by weeding out the poseurs, the spineless weasels, and calling out the ill-equipped and barely-there hordes who came to play and came up woefully short.
Let's get it on, shall we?
The “Paul Blart Mall Cop III” Award. This goes to the GM Security detail that was ever present wherever GM's semi-top brass were gathered. I don't have any idea what these guys think they're doing, but whatever it is they leave an impression of paranoid incompetence, which isn't a good look. I have a better idea for GM. Don't have any executives at the auto show, just beam them in from the custom-built audio-video bunker in the catacombs deep under the RenCen. That way we can all get on with our lives with minimal "noise" - aka mindless executive speak - minimal interaction with GM's "crack" PR minions (as if), and no views of the proceedings blocked by GM's roving muscleheads.
The "We Don't Have A Clue And We Aren't Likely To Get One Anytime Soon, So Let's Just Go Ahead And Hire Us Some Germans" Award. This trophy goes to Hyundai for the whole Genesis thing, of course. Euisin “Your Tailor Wants His Suit Back” Chung, the Hyundai vice chairman, got up and put the assembled multitudes to sleep with his command of Detroit Marketing Speak, insisting that the new Genesis luxury brand would propel Hyundai to greatness because it would look good, drive right and that they would take care of their customers, which is pretty much what everyone says. The car itself - the Genesis G90 - was a classically rendered derivation of BMW, Lexus and Mercedes styling cues, and even though Peter Schreyer & Co. know what they’re doing, it is far too much “me too” to resonate distinctively in the market. Not. Good. Enough. More European engineering talent has been brought it in so that the Genesis will be in the ballpark dynamically, but it all remains to be seen. Do the streets and byways of this country really need another luxury nameplate? And will consumers embrace it on any level? A giant “we’ll see.”
(All photos courtesy of the manufacturers and newspressUSA unless otherwise indicated)
The Genesis G90.
The Genesis G90.
The "Pay No Attention To That Diesel Troll Behind The Curtain" Award. Or, we got nothin’ and we won’t have anything of any consequence to talk about until 2018. Audi trotted out Eugene Cernan (The Last Man on the Moon, in case you didn’t know), which was nice, but the meandering press conference was a masterpiece of saying absolutely n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Audi managers introduced the Audi lunar quattro (the company is assisting the Berlin-based engineering group “Part-Time Scientists” in the “Google Lunar XPRIZE”), the A4 allroad quattro and the h-tron Quattro - a hydrogen fuel cell crossover concept - plus they launched into the obligatory apologies about the Diesel Thing. They basically danced around for 25 minutes not landing a single punch. And when you're right between Mercedes-Benz and BMW displays, which had a modicum of lively stuff going on, it didn't go over well.
The Audi Radio Flyer... err lunar quattro.
Audi A4 allroad quattro.
Audi h-tron quattro concept.
The "We Don’t Need Your Stinkin’ Apologies" Award. VW came, they saw, they apologized, they apologized again and then they apologized some more. For a minute there I thought they were going to introduce the 2017 VW Apology. Instead, they rolled out a weak-ass Tiguan GTE plug-in hybrid that said nothin’ about nothin’. A truly pathetic performance, one of the worst in memory, in fact. Where was the BUDD-E all-electric van from the CES? Now that would have been worth talking about, and seeing. In the end, VW shouldn't have bothered. If Matthias "I Apologize" Mueller didn't have anything else to say other than to apologize, then VW should have just gone quiet at the show like Cadillac did. And let's pause for a moment to think about Mueller. Six months ago he was running Porsche on cruise control and soaking up the accolades that came with piloting one of the world's most desirable brands. Now, he’s in a 24-7 Shit Show that never stops. He wakes up apologizing, he brushes his teeth apologizing and he hums apologies to the musical interludes in his head. It's giant Wiener Schnitzel of Not Good for ol' Matthias, that's for damn sure.
The VW Tiguan GTE Active Concept.
The “How do you solve a problem like Avista?” Award. (Sung to “Maria” from The Sound of Music. Go ahead, you can do it.) It has become somewhat of a tradition now, after two years, that GM lavishes attention on its Buick brand the Sunday night before the Detroit show. Last year the Avenir sedan concept was introduced, which garnered raves from near and far (but left me exceedingly cold) and this year it was the Avista, the unfortunately named coupe concept based on the new Camaro architecture. (It sounds like a new anxiety drug; I can hear the commercials now: "Do not drink alchohol while taking Avista. This medication can increase the effects of alcohol. Keep Avista in a secure place where others cannot get to it...")
Apparently when a manufacturer does a concept these days it is accepted practice that the media genuflect and race to their phones and keyboards using words like “brilliant,” “must build it now,” etc., etc. This doesn’t sit well with me. Concepts are living, breathing entities, resting on historical legacies of everything that came before. Some concepts are memorable or even game changing, some are merely eye candy that never see the light of day, and some never see the light of day again for well, good reason.
Where does the Avista fit in all of this? As I tweeted while at the event, it’s a little dash of Jaguar, a little taste of Bentley and Tesla, and a giant dollop of derivative. GM Design phoned this one in, pure and simple. And this pains me to no end because GM Design has such an incredible historical legacy, with two truly legendary industry giants (Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell) having set the tone for this business by delivering creatively expressive machines with concept car presence to the streets and byways of America.
GM Design didn’t make its reputation doing derivative. And to see them do something like this, with three clear “familiarities” baked in, makes me wince. (It looks like a Tesla Coupe, frankly.) Is it handsome? Of course. And I will say this, the interior design team did a magnificent job, because the Avista had the best interior in the show, along with the Acura precision concept. But that's not the point and it's Not. Good. Enough. Part II. The fact that the Avista is a derivative of any number of cars is one issue. The other is that GM itself is delusional about Buick’s place in the world. The spin that Buick is a happening brand is a complete joke. And now they’re going to push Buick into the performance arena? For what, exactly? They should do a total redirect of the brand and just do business in China. The Avista exists in a vacuum. And it should probably stay there permanently.
I will say two positive things about the Avista, however. At least GM Design didn’t waste one of Buick’s greatest historical names – like Riviera or Electra – on it. That would have been tragic. And, it was painted in a beautiful shade of dark blue. Now, everyone needs to move on.
The Buick Avista concept.
The “Wake Me Up When It’s Over” Award. Who else could walk away with this one but the second most famous graduate of Unctuous Prick University? Yes, none other than Sergio “I’m the G.O.A.T” Marchionne really wowed the media yet again with his callous display of hubris at a press conference after FCA had introduced its new Pacifica minivan. A classic meandering Marchionne moment if there ever was one, he basically implied, among other things, that no one really could succeed him. Do you need to ask why at this juncture? I hope not. Sergio has created a management superstructure designed to fit his considerable ego and no one else’s. So that if it all comes apart after he leaves, he can say, “Told ya’!”
He also commented on the sorry state of the business, at least from his view, saying that, “If EVs become dominant the role of automakers as such needs to be redefined." Let me translate that for you, because what he really meant to say was, “If that happens we’re shit out of luck.” That’s because FCA has no advanced technical platform, and no partners in the wings to help provide the company with one. And in a world of pressing emissions and mileage standards, FCA is teetering on the edge of going belly up, no matter how many Jeeps and Ram pickup trucks they crank out.
Marchionne also announced plans for a revised strategic plan at the end of January (the guy just loves strategic plans), but he remains committed to his original targets. Of course he would be. Alfa Romeo will be "the new Audi by 2018," remember? No one in this business does delusional like Sergio the Great. No one. Let’s just put it this way: If he doesn’t identify a partner or a buyer in the next 18-24 months, he will be forced to sell off FCA piecemeal. Nicely done, Sergio.
The only real news from FCA, other than Marchionne’s blowhard performance, of course, was the introduction of the new (finally) Chrysler minivan, now called the Pacifica. FCA will need it to sell like gangbusters to give Marchionne more time to find a partner. I don’t doubt that it will sell, but will it be enough to keep Sergio’s Empire from imploding? It’s the biggest long shot in this business at this very moment in time.
The “Is She Going To Put Extra Cheese On GM’s Whopper, Or What?” Award. What in the hell was Sen. Debbie Stabenow doing at the Chevy press conference, exactly? GM top management, including Dan “I’m The Next Chairman, Just Watch Me” Ammann, was assembled to see the Cruze Hatchback introduced, which was a big yawn. And in doing so we had to endure yet another cringe-inducing performance by GM’s Chief Empty Suit, Alan Batey. (If this guy is this excruciating in public, he must be absolutely deadly in meetings.) And then Mary Barra and Mark Reuss drove out in the new production Chevrolet Bolt. The Bolt is indeed a worthy effort to be sure, but I have to wonder about the Bolt delivery date, which right now is scheduled for “the end” of 2016. We’ll see about that. But afterward I was again left with the same sinking feeling that I always get after watching GM in action at an auto show, and that is that without Mark Reuss and the True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development, GM would be completely overrun with marketing sycophants and PR hacks, accomplishing nothin'.
The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt.
The “Cocktails at 8:30 in the Morning? Yes!“ Award. The Lincoln Continental pre-reveal featured a jazz group that made the event feel for all the world like a nightclub at last call. The music had that misty, sad sack feel to it and the only thing missing were the martinis, with cigarette girls roaming the crowd thrown in for good measure. The good news is that the Continental looked even better than the concept car unveiled at the New York Auto Show last spring. And that doesn’t happen very often. The back end of the car still needs a new idea, but as I’ve previously stated, the Continental vs. the Cadillac CT6 battle will be interesting to watch. The CT6 is technically and dynamically more advanced, but Cadillac will have to spend a boatload telling consumers what it is, because CT6 means nothing and it looks too much like a CTS at first glance. The Lincoln has real, in-the-flesh presence and that wonderful Continental name which will resonate with consumers right out of the gate. At this point I think Cadillac is going to have the tougher road.
The “We Were Going To Get To It Eventually” Award. After five years of showing the new NSX, Acura finally showed up at the Detroit Auto Show with a new idea, the Acura Precision Concept, from its Acura Design Studio in California. It is said to signal the future direction of Acura design. I’ll say this: It’s a step in the right direction, Acura, with the best interior in the show (along with the Buick Avista concept). Now act accordingly.
Acura Precision Concept.
Acura Precision Concept.
The “Performance? That was so last Year” Award. What happened to Ford? The rearranging of the show floor seemed to hurt Ford (and Chevrolet) the most. The most striking thing about the Ford display was that none of their most interesting performance cars were in sight; instead they were arrayed on the second level, almost hidden from view, including a solid white Ford GT, which was gorgeous. This from a company that was supposed to have “performance” as a permanent part of its reason for being? It was disappointing, to say the least. I get the fact that the company’s emphasis this year was about the Future of Mobility and Ford’s role in it, including bringing in Ryan Seacrest to help communicate it. And there was a new Raptor pickup and the refreshed Fusion revealed, but Ford’s show floor was a letdown, big time.
A few odds and ends. The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class looked good, with its dramatic interior showing well. The BMW M2 was damn near perfect, the Porsche Cayman GT4 was perfect. The BMW X4 M40i was interesting (if you’re into gonzo crossovers). The GMC Acadia on GM 's new crossover platform was impressive. And the new Honda Ridgeline will hit a sweet spot for all previous Ridgeline truck owners, plus a good deal more. And the Kia Telluride? We liked it a lot.
And not a auto show thing per se, but the new commercial for the Nissan Titan XD, “Shoulders of Giants” is simply sensational and worth a look.
By far the most whimsically fun car on the Detroit Auto Show floor was the Toyota KIKAI Concept. We featured it in “On The Table” recently, but here are a couple of pictures to remind you what it’s all about. It’s even better in person.
And our Best in Show? The 2017 Lexus LC 500. It’s simply the most seductive combination of compelling design, real-world high-performance and flat-out desirability at the Detroit Auto Show. Lexus has been promising that they were getting serious about their projection into the high-performance market for years, and the LC 500 is convincing verification of it. I now consider Lexus to be a serious player indeed.
Lexus LC 500
Lexus LC 500
Lexus LC 500
In closing, I couldn’t possibly end this column without mentioning the death of David Bowie. When I got up at 3:30 a.m. on Monday morning, the news was burning a hole in the Internet. It seemed so trivial at that moment to be gearing up for another Detroit Auto Show, because the news of Bowie’s death was casting a pall over everything.
Some people may dismiss that thought, but Bowie wasn’t just another rock star. For a lot of people, he was a transcendent figure. Fierce, driven, creatively restless and passionate about his craft, Bowie influenced generations of musicians and created music – and art – that resonated deeply.
If you don’t let music into your life, I am sorry for you. But for those of a certain generation, music is so inexorably linked to memorable moments in our lives that it is indelibly inescapable. And Bowie provided some of the most riveting moments of all time.
My favorite – among many – of Bowie’s work was the classic “Under Pressure” performed here with Annie Lennox.
It's the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming, "Let me out!"
And from his 25th – and last – album, “Black Star” released days before his death:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place and bravely cried
(I’m a black star, I’m a star star, I’m a black star)
When someone of Bowie's stature departs, a little bit of all of us goes with him. But the fleeting moments of life that were measured by a distinctive beat, a classic chord or a viciously delicious vocal styling by him will live on in all of our memories.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this somber week.
Check out the latest episode of The High-Octane Truth on AutoextremistTV below. -WG
WELCOME TO THE "U."
Well, some of you knew this day had to come. After exhaustive and admittedly dangerous, double-secret research, paying off disgruntled moles buried deep in the administration, even resorting to taking a sweatshirt supplier and his wife to a blowout bash (who knew anyone could drink that much Knob Creek?), we have finally gained access - albeit surreptitiously - to the rarest collegiate apparel in the world. Yes, that's right, the one, the only, "The U." No, not that "U" - we're talking about Unctuous Prick University here, that shadowy institution of higher manipulation that dumped such dubious luminaries as Dan "Captain Queeg" Akerson, Juergen "$36 billion-to-0 in Just Eight Years" Schrempp and of course, Sergio "I'm the Greatest Of All Time" Marchionne on the automotive world. Operating out of an undisclosed location in upstate New York (even the locals don't know it exists), Unctuous Prick University is single-handedly responsible for unleashing some of the most egregiously nefarious executives and yes - unctuous pricks - on this business that the auto industry has ever seen. These carpetbagging mercenaries, interlopers and unmitigated hacks have specialized in malicious shit-disturbing, bombastic boorishness and willful disregard for everyone and everything in their path, leaving a legacy of mind-numbing hubris and egomaniacal rancor the likes of which this industry will never forget. With that in mind then, and knowing full well that some of you out there will recoil at even the thought of wearing the colors of UPU, we're going ahead with this offering anyway, because heretofore you had to be a graduate to get your hands on one. That's right, you can now wear your very own heavy cotton blend Unctuous Prick University sweatshirt - available in black with white - to wear proudly, flaunt in executive meetings and confound strangers wherever you go. $60.00, including shipping. (Available by special order only; please allow four weeks for delivery. Checks only, please. Autoextremist Inc., P.O. Box 13, Birmingham, MI 48012)