Motor City Blogman: Onward From The Detroit Auto Show

Public days of the Detroit auto show, officially called the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) are dwindling down toward the final weekend as I write this. For the rest of us, the show is over and we’re concentrating on Geneva in early March, with a stopover in Chicago on the way.

The Chicago show in February is all about the public days, when its region’s huge population draws far greater attendance than Detroit, or even New York and L.A.  That, at least, is what the Chicago show’s formidable public relations specialists will tell you. Still, any local journalist knows well to avoid NAIAS during the public days, when Cobo is so crowded that you can’t get within 50 feet of any new car. Though it comes in the middle of the new model year, after Paris/Frankfurt, Los Angeles and the highly diminished Tokyo show, Detroit tends to set the tone for the auto show season. It captures the global automotive zeitgeist even better than Geneva or Shanghai. Here are a few things I noticed last week at NAIAS13 …

Sisyphean Chinese Automaker: They were back, again, for the umpteenth year. This year, “they” was an “it;” a single Chinese automaker, Guangzhou Automotive Group (GAC) with a three-car display appropriately relegated to the hall just outside the auto show. You didn’t have to pay or have a press pass to see GAC’s cars, with their vaguely high-tech hybrid-electric something-or-other powertrains cloaked in sheetmetal that appeared to be rendered by unemployed French designers prone to weekend-long benders. Which is to say, I didn’t bother to look closely at the three cars this year and risk being signed up for daily email blasts written in Mandarin. After roughly a decade of fearing that Chinese automakers would decimate the Detroit Three with next-generation Korean designs sold at Schwinn prices, the cars still look as viable in this market as Chinese milk. I did enjoy one of the GAC model’s names, though: Trumpchi.

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Corvette beats Porsche 911: Though we’ve yet to drive the new C7, it’s fair to say its launch first at the Albert Kahn-designed Russell Industrial Center, then on the floor at Cobo, beats the 991’s premier at the ’11 Frankfurt show for overall excitement and buzz. General Motors nailed this launch, and I believe it was talk of this impending extravaganza – not the new GM pickups -- that prompted Ford to quickly put together its Atlas concept. Alan Mulally simply did not want to show up for the party with just a couple of new vans and a Lincoln compact crossover concept with no engine to talk about. The C7 led the most exuberant Detroit show since before the Lehman Brothers collapse. Now all Chevrolet needs to do is make the Corvette the first car that budding toddler enthusiasts first learn of, the way it did with my generation via “Route 66” in the early ‘60s.

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About Those Pickups: The 2014 Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, and the 2015 Ford F-150 in the form of the Atlas concept, earned a collective “meh” from journalists and the public in the last couple of weeks. And why not? They’re only pickup trucks, after all. Unless you’ve got a breakthrough design like the 1955-57 Chevys/GMCs, the ’73 Chevys/GMCs, the first Dodge Ram or the ’97 F-150, you might as well hide them in the corner where only fleet buyers go. Whether or not the Atlas turns into the profit-margin sapping, lightweight aluminum can that Ford has been hinting it will become, it’s just another half-ton pickup that picks up the design cues of its current heavy duty counterpart. Same goes for the new Chevy and GMC, and the ’13 Ram pickup.

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More Evidence of Mulally’s Envy: Even without the new Corvette, the show would still belong to GM because of the Cadillac ELR, an extended-range electric using Chevy Volt mechanicals. It managed to capture all the elegance and desirability of the 2009 Converj concept. While the expected $70,000 price tag won’t likely leave any room for profit, GM is committed to making Voltec production mainstream and bring down costs. The only thing ELR lacks is a real name. Note to Cadillac: try Eldorado.

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A Breakout VW?: Volkswagen’s new America-centric Passat has given the brand a big boost in the U.S., but at 117,000 sales last year, it’s far from ready to challenge the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. VW of America’s best hope in finally breaking its sales record, which it set in 1970, may be in the production version of its Detroit concept. Let me take this opportunity to complain about the name. BlueSport? CrossSport? BlueCross? I can’t remember its name; I always have to look it up. Yeesh, it’s CrossBlue. Let’s hope Herr Piech has the distinctive name of some obscure nomadic Middle-Eastern tribe he’s ready to emboss on the CUV’s rear deck. Forget the diesel/electric plug-in powertrain; everything else about this concept is virtually production-ready. With crisp (read: boxy) sheetmetal, yet a masculine appearance that should put the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder and Ford Explorer on the trailer, the Vee Dub looks to combine minivan capaciousness without evoking Ford Flex frumpiness.

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Speaking of Capaciousness: After stripping off all the ridiculous carbon fiber on the Toyota Furia concept’s body, in my mind’s eye I saw the next Corolla, and it was good. Not great, mind you; even with all that Bangle-esque side surfacing, the Corolla will remain a fairly boring car. What intrigued me was the formal, upright roofline, making for a low cowl, like the 2013 Honda Accord. It’s a sign that front-drive compact and midsize car designers are once again designing them for what they are; comfortable, spacious commodity sedans with a wide-open view of the outside world for the driver. When you try to make a compact or midsize sedan “sporty” or “expressive,” you end up with compromised rear seat space and outward visibility. See “Ford Fusion” and especially, “Chevy Malibu.”

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And how about that Hyundai HCD-14: The rakish, “four-door coupe” roofline hints at an additional Hyundai luxury car, though the company says very little of the concept will find its way into the next Genesis sedan. I’ll leave it to Robert Cumberford to review the concept’s aesthetic in an upcoming issue of Automobile. I want to know about the hand-gesture controls. If you point out something with your right hand to your passenger, does the radio station change?

Uneven match-up: All-new versions of the Lexus IS and the Infiniti G-sedan, now called Q50, appeared at Detroit. The handsome Infiniti G50, even with its Nakamura Kink c-pillar, easily won this contest. Several people told me, unsolicited, that they found the IS ugly.

And finally, a trend to watch for:  Functional air scoops built into a sports car’s body, worthy of Formula 1 technology. Both the BMW i8 extended-range electric and the updated Acura NSX concept have bodywork around the c-pillar that creates a cove in back, presumably for aerodynamics and to create downforce. Both the C7 Corvette and the BMW 4 Series channel air from their lower front fascias over the front wheels, and out from vents behind the front wheels. The Ferrari F12 Berlinetta was first, with side scoops built into the bodywork first. It premiered last year at Geneva. I suspect we’ll see much more of this in the near future.

Agree? Disagree? Anything else that you think was big at the ’13 Detroit show? Leave your comments below.

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