BOLTS, DOLTS, VAPOR MARKETING AND THE ANNUAL DANCE OF THE DRONES: THE HITS AND MISSES FROM THE DETROIT AUTO SHOW.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Well, it was another opening and another Detroit Auto Show, except it really wasn’t, because if it weren’t for the unveiling of the brand spanking new Ford GT supercar - which blew the lid off the show early Monday morning - the rest of the news down at Cobo Hall was remarkably muted, predictable or just flat-out boring.
But let’s get right to the star of the show first, because there was nothing even remotely close to the unveiling of the Ford GT at the Detroit Auto Show. Oh, there were other intros of note to be sure, but the new Ford supercar was so far and away the best thing to happen at Cobo Hall that the rest of the introductions seemed like they were at another, quieter show.
The Ford GT was a surprise for a number of reasons, first of all, because Ford was able to keep a lid on the machine and resist the usual temptation to have preview media showings and other excitement busters that have long been tricks of the PR trade in this business. That Ford executives bought into the “let’s keep it a surprise” right down to the last second was commendable and made the impact of the reveal that much more exciting. (Someone from the racing community talked at the L.A. Auto Show and spilled some salient details, but Ford didn’t crack and held the information close to the vest, which is simply remarkable in this digitally obsessed day and age.)
And secondly because the new GT itself is an eye-opener, with only minimal touches of visual heritage baked-in – and only if you squinted real hard – which was absolutely refreshing to see. This was no re-hash of a re-hash retro exercise, far from it, in fact. This new mid-engine machine bristles with adventurous body surfacing and a dramatic, aero-shaped rear along side and aft of the carbon fiber cockpit cell that is simply mesmerizing to behold from the back of the car. It has a brutal elegance about it that is undeniable and stunning in person.
(All Ford GT photos courtesy of newspressUSA)
Power is unexpected too. Instead of the flat-plane crank V8 out of the new GT350 Mustang (which for many would be the obvious choice), the new Ford GT is powered by a 3.5-liter, Direct Injected, Twin-Turbo, EcoBoost V6 with 600HP+ that has been under intense development over the last four years and raced competitively in the new Tudor United SportsCar Championship, delivering an impressive win at the 12 Hours of Sebring last year.
There are four key players at Ford who deserve kudos for making the new Ford GT a reality. Jim Farley (now running Ford of Europe), Raj Nair (Ford’s Product Development Chief), Jamie Allison (Director of Ford Racing) and CEO Mark Fields – who made the “let’s do it” call when it counted - and of course the talented group of True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development who have been involved on the project from the beginning.
The story behind the story? The Ford GT wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Three years ago a serious evaluation of the potential of the new Mustang as a proper GTLM racing machine was undertaken involving the key people mentioned above. This evaluation marshaled every crucial internal and external resource in order to explore the possibility of putting together a competition program for the new Mustang that would produce a machine capable of going toe-to-toe with factory entries from Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche et al in the vaunted GTLM category, the most competitive class of road racing in the world.
The program was fleshed out to the last detail, with every contingency taken into account and with costs figured down to the penny. The result was the baddest, most radical Mustang imaginable, a homologation special that would have been marketed and sold to professional racing teams as well as enthusiasts desiring the ultimate track car. Alas, that project made it to the final “go/no-go” meeting where it died on the conference room table.
And that was that. Or was it? In the process of evaluating the prospect of a balls-out Mustang-based GTLM racing machine, the key players realized that they had also identified the people and areas of expertise throughout the company who had the talent and the desire to make a tip-of-the-technological-spear project of this magnitude come to fruition, whereupon Mark Fields then asked the ultimate question - “what if?” And lo and behold the project was back on the front burner with a new code name – “Phoenix” – and with a new mission to project the technical future of Ford through a visionary interpretation of a next-generation Ford GT.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Simply put, when the new Ford GT comes to market in 2016 it will represent the innovative spirit that has been a hallmark of the Ford Motor Company from its very beginnings. It showcases the very best thinking of the most talented True Believers within the company, and when it hits select Ford showrooms sometime in 2016 it should be one of the most seductive combinations of purposeful beauty and sophisticated high performance - with an unexpected level of efficiency thrown in for good measure – available in the market.
The Ford GT was the unquestioned star of the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. Nothing else came even remotely close, in fact. But because there were other manufacturers and executives tripping all over themselves to be noticed in this annual Dance of the Drones, and there were other introductions of note and some that were, uh, less than that, here are my quick hits from the rest of the show floor.
Welcome to the Sea of Vagueness, which is hard by the Straits of Neither Here Nor There. The new Chevrolet display was nicely updated (and special mention should be made of the intro video that they were running, which was beautifully done). The freshened Volt was interesting, with Chevy sales chief Alan Batey apparently forgetting he was “miked-up” as he shouted at the assembled multitudes of media types and assorted hangers-on throughout his intro of it. Then CEO Mary Barra got up and proceeded to sound like a school principal reading the morning announcements over the PA, but that is her wont, apparently.
The new Chevrolet Volt.
The Chevrolet Bolt concept.
The cars? The Volt was freshened considerably and nicely done, I might add, and the new all-electric Bolt concept (unfortunate name, that) was a tremendous looking Citroen-esque design with a story behind it. Executives talked about a 200-mile range between charges, but no one could actually say when it would be produced or if it would be produced. The Bolt was one of those, “if we really wanted to we could do something like this” kind of lost in the sea of vagueness introductions, which ultimately means that it is much closer to being neither here nor there.
We’ve only seen this movie before, oh, at least five or ten times in the last decade and a half, but who’s counting? The automotive media types (and the rest who could wrangle an invitation) went absolutely crazy for the Buick Avenir concept, which was unveiled at a special media reception at Detroit’s Eastern Market Sunday night. The big rear-wheel-drive sedan bristled with absolutely every crease, roll and heavily nuanced detail that has been on every Buick concept from the last fifteen years. Apparently I missed the memo to the media that said you should genuflect and then wax on eloquently about the Avenir or you will never be invited to another GM press event again – as if that would resonate with me – because the media praise was gushing, relentless and misguided. (And the Tweet-holes’ ire directed against me because I deigned to point out the Avenir’s obvious deficiencies was laughable.)
Buick called it "a flagship sedan exploring progressive design with new levels of passenger well-being and technology integration." The Avenir – French for future – "is distinguished by its premium sports proportions and all-new interpretations of traditional Buick cues. It is the creation of a global team of Buick designers and sculptors who were inspired by historic Buick concepts, which pushed traditional boundaries, shaped future Buick models and influenced the entire auto industry," according to the manufacturer.
It is also the most derivative and disappointing work to come out of GM Design in years. Ed Welburn, vice president of General Motors Global Design disagrees, of course, saying that the “Avenir embodies Buick design, which centers on effortless beauty and presence without pretense. It demonstrates the growing international reach of Buick and offers an exciting vision of where it can go.” Except we've seen it all before on any number of GM Design concepts for the Buick brand over and over and over again (although I will say that the interior was sumptuously beautiful). The other thing about the Avenir that was particularly galling was that it was obviously heavily influenced by the latest Mercedes-Benz big car design language and frankly, having GM Design taking its inspiration from Mercedes has to have Bill Mitchell – the great GM design legend - weeping in his sleep. The other thing that was fairly obvious about the Avenir is that this is yet another example of a car being designed for China. And if this is what the influence of the Chinese market means to GM Design - and the rest of the world's auto manufacturers - going forward we can all start getting used to the idea of living in a world of reduced expectations.
What should have GM Design done with the Avenir? First of all, they should have made it an elegant, flowing coupe. And secondly, they should have called it the Riviera. If they had done that all would be forgiven. (I won’t bother commenting on the unfortunate Buick Cascada here, but you can see it and more coverage from Detroit in “On The Table.”)
We don’t have a frickin’ clue, we've never had a frickin' clue, and we're not about to get one anytime soon, so there. The new Nissan Titan was an embarrassing kaleidoscope of other manufacturers’ pickup truck designs. Nissan designers borrowed a whole bunch from Ford, a little bit from Chevy and Ram, threw it all together and called it good. Except it isn’t. If there was ever a rolling monument to tedium and Nissan’s incredible lack of original thinking, the new Titan is it. It just may perform a much needed service, however, and that is finally bless us with the perfectly legitimate reason for Nissan to simply walk away from the pickup market altogether, because they have demonstrated repeatedly that they can’t compete and are simply devoid of a clue. CEO Carlos Ghosn had the temerity to suggest that the Titan would meet “unmet needs” in the U.S. market. What are those again exactly, Carlos? Fat, derivative and clueless is no way to go through life, kids. Here’s an idea: How about making yourselves useful and take another whack at the Juke?
It’s called vapor marketing. We show you the car. You can’t get one. We pronounce it the hottest thing in the market. You can’t get one. We promise more hot cars. And you won't be able to get one of those either. And this is how we’re going to go toe-to-toe with Audi in the U.S. market in just three years. Alfa Romeo showed a 4C Spider in Detroit, which was lovely, in a Will Ferrell visiting the Olive Garden sort of way, but really? Does it matter? I know hard-core enthusiasts are shouting their huzzahs to the rafters that the 4C exists to begin with, but what are they excited about? Because they can’t get one and if they’re one of those pathetic first-on-the-block types they will pay a ridiculous amount of money for the privilege of acquiring one, and it’s all unmitigated bullshit. Alfa is a pipedream that will be built on the unfulfilled fantasies and wishes of enthusiasts who should know better. Here’s an idea: Call these carpet-bagging Italians’ bluff and keep your money in your pocket. Make them come up with an actual business plan that goes beyond the part about Marchionne fleecing consumers because he can.
Other bits? Mercedes-Benz did their best interpretation of “Anything you can do I can do better” by showing its answer to the BMW X6 M, the Mercedes AMG GLE 63 Coupe 4MATIC. We covered this thing in “On The Table” a couple of weeks ago so I feel no need to regurgitate it again. It was oddly reassuring to see the Niche-meisters from BMW and Mercedes-Benz pursuing every possible new niche, both real and imagined, at the show. And this Dance of Absurdity will continue on unabated, apparently. I joked on Twitter that I'm sure a six-wheel AMG Mercedes 850 crossover is in our future, because, after all, it's the answer to the question that nobody's asking. And Mercedes is now an acknowledged master at that sort of thing.
Volkswagen showed their latest crossover thingy (See “On The Table” – WG) and Porsche was up to its old tricks of playing with the option lists, loading each of its cars arrayed in its display with an average of $30,000 in options, including a new Cayenne Turbo S that stickered for $188,000! Talk about the Dance of Absurdity.
Audi showed its new Q7, which looked oddly proportioned and busy in the flesh. But hey, they’ll probably sell the shit out of ‘em. And Hyundai showed yet another Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking with its stunningly irrelevant Santa Cruz Crossover Truck Concept. Appealing to maybe 75 people in California who are still lamenting the dearly departed Subaru BRAT, the Santa Cruz was a design exercise that should have never seen the light of day.
Infiniti showed its Q60 concept, which is another in an endless series of concepts from Infiniti that seem to go nowhere. Admittedly handsome looking and a step forward in design presence at least, the best thing about the car was its shimmering metallic silver finish. There was a lesson in here for the other manufacturers, particularly Ford. Read on.
Proper color for a concept car is absolutely crucial, and Ford flat-out blew it with the color choice for its array of high-performance machines. The only glaring error in an otherwise stellar performance by Ford in Detroit was the fact that it painted its high-performance machines – the Ford GT, Mustang GT350 & GT350R, Raptor etc. – in a too subtle blue metallic that washed out under the unflinching lights of Cobo. The color by itself – in a vacuum - was fine. The color on Ford’s most impressive high-performance machines was a major miss, however. Not only did the color wash out in the reveal on Monday; once the cars were moved into position on the Ford show stand they looked dull and dusty. Even the stunning Ford GT suffered from the color choice, which, as you might imagine, was pretty hard to do. Watch for the Ford GT and Ford’s other high-performance machines to appear in a different color by the time the auto show circus arrives in New York in the spring.
No, I’m not going to talk about Toyota, Kia, Subaru, Lexus or frickin’ Ram trucks. Or Volvo, MINI, or Bentley for that matter (although the "Violette" paint on the Bentley Continental GT Speed convertible was absolutely fantastic). Honda showed its jet, its latest fuel cell vehicle and the wonderful 1965 Honda F1 car (see “Fumes” – WG)
The Cadillac CTS-V, which we previewed in “On The Table” a couple of weeks ago was hot, and the new Lincoln MKX looked very promising, with a technology story that will be hard to beat. (The juxtaposition of Cadillac, which is going all-in with its “let’s beat the Germans at their own game” strategy, against Lincoln, which is embracing its American luxury car mantra with confidence is interesting and will probably work well for both of them. A giant “we’ll see” still, however.)
And finally, there’s Acura, which, after four years of hints, teases, body bucks and chassis mock-ups showed the production version of its next-generation NSX. Acura says this: “specifically created to bring a ‘new sports experience’ to the supercar segment, the NSX challenges conventional beliefs about supercars — much as the first generation did a quarter century ago.” The NSX is powered by a twin-turbo 75-degree DOHC V6 engine with a 9-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT), with a three-electric motor Sport Hybrid system integrated with an ultra-rigid and lightweight multi-material body “with world's-first material applications and manufacturing processes," according to Acura.
All well and good, to be sure, but the reality of the 2015 Detroit Auto Show is that the moment Ford pulled the wraps off of its new GT, the NSX was an afterthought. There’s yet another lesson in here for the manufacturers should they bother to listen.
At the time Acura hinted at a new NSX it was a car company stuck in neutral going nowhere, spinning its wheels in a sand pit of mediocrity, desperate for a spark of anything that would indicate that the company had a pulse. The problem is that was four long years ago. Now, there’s nothing remotely new about the “new” NSX. And the introduction had an unmistakable stench of ho-hum to it, Seinfeld or no.
And the lesson? Manufacturers need to do a lot less talking, hinting and “concepting,” and a lot more of actually delivering the real hard goods in the flesh. Ford’s restraint in not tipping its hand with its GT was the way to do it. Acura’s reveal by drips and drabs wasn’t.
And that's it from the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. Let's face it, if it weren't for the Ford GT the show would have been Sleepy Town. Watching as BMW and Mercedes play the one-up game is starting to get absurd. Watching as manufacturers throw vehicles up against the wall to see what sticks out in the market is almost excruciatingly painful. And watching as one auto executive after another makes pronouncements about the business, the planets, the weather or the crowd, while no one is actually listening has grown beyond tedious.
I am proposing a fundamental redirect for the whole auto show game. We need a totally new idea before we beat this old one into submission.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.