DETROIT – For some sixty minutes, Chevrolet was the star of the show as press days began Monday morning. A group of newspaper critics and freelance writers named the Corvette its North American Car of the Year, and the Chevy Silverado its North American Truck of the Year. By 8:30 a.m., the Silverado news was history.
Ford unleashed its minus-seven-hundred-pound gorilla, the 2015 F-150, with an aluminum body over its high-strength steel box frame, obliterating any other news to issue forth from Cobo Hall for the rest of the morning.
Nevertheless, the 2014 North American International Auto Show is a very solid one. Though light on concepts, especially from the domestics, there are lots of important production and near-production cars, including Chrysler’s new midsize sedan, Mercedes-Benz’s new C-class sedan, and the third generation of the Honda Fit.
Herewith, a compendium of what we like, what confounds us, and what we learned about the future from the floor of Cobo Hall.
HIT: 2015 Ford F-150
It’s still ridiculously big, but I have to hand it to them about the aluminum body and the subsequent 600-700-lb weight savings. Let’s just hope Alcoa can continue to supply a ready source of affordable aluminum. — Joe DeMatio
Remember when the Ford F-150 debuted the “man step,” and we all thought it was kind of a big deal? Now that very F-150 will be constructed mostly of aluminum. Across the hall, General Motors unveiled the GMC Canyon, the “most luxurious, highest-tech midsize truck ever.” Chrysler reminded us that the diesel-powered, coil-sprung Ram 1500 is now hitting dealerships. These are all risky investments—the Detroit automakers still run on pickup-truck profits. But that’s precisely why the changes are necessary. Tougher fuel economy regulations are around the corner (2016). For pickups to thrive in that scenario, they must evolve. – David Zenlea
MISS: 2015 Ford F-150
I thought the evolutionary design for the 2015 F-150 just doesn’t go far enough. I was hoping for a bolder appearance that really underscored this truck’s capability. The headlights pop, but little else does. I wanted more attitude. The truck is revolutionary, with three six-cylinder engines and a 700-pound weight loss. You just don’t sense all of that from the design. Let’s see a little anger. – Greg Migliore
HIT: The Aluminum Industry
During its truck-and-pony show, I Tweeted that the new Ford F-150 has LED headlamps and taillamps, a 360-degree camera, and loses up to 700 pounds because of its profit-margin-sucking aluminum. Twenty minutes later, I got a Twitter message: “Alcoa is now following you.” That’s all you need to know. By 9 a.m., my auto show was complete and I was ready to go home. – Todd Lassa
REVELATION I: Material Witness
At least two engineering-editor geeks brought their own magnets to NAIAS to analyze the cutaway of Ford’s new aluminum F-150. One of the guys quickly dragged me halfway across Cobo. “I gotta show you something,” he said, cryptically. Upon reaching the unpainted cutaway of the F-150, he pulled a little magnet out of his pocket, stuck it on a few different indentations, and said triumphantly, “Look, the rivets are steel!” – Rusty Blackwell
HIT: 2015 Ford Mustang
I’d like it to be 5% smaller than it is, but it looks like a Mustang while also looking totally modern, and it surely will drive better than the outgoing one. Rumor has it that Ford Design did 18 versions of the 5.0 badge on front flanks before arriving at the perfect one. – J.D.
MISS: 2015 Ford Mustang
The car is a hit. Its launch here, where the public can touch the new Mustang for the first time, is not. It will outsell the Chevy Camaro, at least in its first full year, and it may be the best-looking pony/musclecar ever. It finally has an independent rear suspension. But Ford passed on the opportunity to make it the star of this show by launching it in an international, multi-city event last December. Then it sidelined the Mustang’s importance by bloviating on the F-150, which, innovative as it is, is still a work truck. The 1965 Mustang was a huge gamble for Ford fifty years ago. I wish Ford had been one-tenth as revolutionary with the new Mustang as it was with the new F-150.
HIT: 2015 Cadillac ATS coupe
I wasn’t that excited about this car—until I saw it. The ATS coupe looks so much better in real life, where the creases and proportions are much more striking. Pictures don’t do it justice. It’s edgy, but I like that it’s all in good taste. I really like the ATS with two fewer doors. –G.M.
The day after its unveiling, on Michigan Public Radio, engineering chief Dave Leone was touting how much aluminum and other lightweight materials the Cadillac ATS coupe has. It made me think about the old question of whether the Chevy Volt should have been launched as a Cadillac instead, to absorb more of its high cost. Aluminum-intensive $40,000 Cadillac ATS coupe, or $28,000 Ford F-150? – T.L.
REVELATION II: South Korean Luxury
New Hyundai USA CEO Dave Zuchowski says the Genesis (sedan) had been running about 20,000 per year. He thinks the new one can go as high as 30,000. Nonetheless, premium vehicles will remain a small component of the Hyundai total. “If premium vehicles [Genesis sedan + coupe + Equus] really get clickin’, they could be 10% of our volume—up from 5% now.” Zuchowski expects all-wheel drive to be 50% of total U.S. volume for the new Genesis. On Hyundai vs. Kia, he says, “Am I thrilled that they have a K900 now and a Cadenza now? No, because that’s more competition for us.” Differentation between the two brands will come from design. Hyundai is Fluidic Sculpture, Kia is The Simplicity of the Straight Line. Overall brand themes are Stylish & Modern (Hyundai) and Dynamic & Fun (Kia). –Joe Lorio
HIT: Kia GT4 Stinger Concept
Even though design editor Robert Cumberford dismisses it with “nice little car, but absolutely nothing original about it,” it still looks great and shows that Kia continues its upward march. As a car company, you don’t build a fun and affordable RWD sports car until you’ve achieved great success selling commodity cars, which Kia Motors America has done. And derivative though the styling might be, it makes the Subaru BRZ and Scion FR-S look like yesterday’s news. – J.D.
The Kia sports car concept is an absolute hit, in my mind. I talked to Peter Schreyer, Erik Klimisch (design manager), and a PR guy, and they all said it’s a doable car. I can’t remember a Kia press conference that created this much buzz. It helped they served popcorn and beer. The Stinger—awesome name by the way—would be a Subaru BRZ, Scion FR-S, and maybe even a Mazda Miata competitor. The proportions are excellent. The styling is attractive, and the crazy carbon-fiber wheel designs make it all pop. I like it. Build it. Now. –G.M.
REVELATION III: Lightweight Mercedes-Benz S-Class Doppelganger
At a special preview the night before the auto show began, Mercedes chief Dieter Zetsche unveiled the important new C-class sedan, a car that looks much like a three-fifths-scale S-class sedan. The sporty version has its three-pointed star in the grille while the traditional luxury version has an S-class grille design with a hood ornament. Zetsche claims that the new car is lightest in its class, having lost up to 220 pounds. Does he count the Cadillac ATS as a competitor? – T.L.
HIT: 2014 Porsche 911 Targa
Witness the magical glass roof disappearing act and you’ll be won over. Who hasn’t always wanted a 911 Targa in his or her garage? – J.D.
MISS: 2014 Porsche 911 Targa
I love the retro brushed chrome “basket-handle” B-pillar and roll-bar-in-one. But when I saw how the overengineered center roof panel is removed and stored below the engine cover and backlight, it made me think of the Japanese Domestic Market Honda CR-X Del Sol’s complicated removable roof with its mechanically actuated arms. At least the Del Sol’s targa roof was painted steel. The 911 Targa’s roof panel is made of a metal alloy, quaintly covered in black cloth to make it look like a ’65 Porsche 911 Targa’s. The Germanic version of an American car’s vinyl roof, it explains why hardcore enthusiasts would only consider a 911 coupe, or maybe a Cayman. – T.L.
HIT: 2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
General Motors product boss Mark Reuss called the Z06 the “big nasty.” Purists might scoff at some of the features (automatic transmission, supercharging rather than naturally aspirated), but I think they work in harmony to give the Z06 a modern dynamic without compromising the integrity of what this car means for enthusiasts. It’s going to be raw. It’s going to be a riot. I can’t wait to drive it. –G.M.
REVELATION IV: Dueling “no brainers” for Cadillac
Cadillac’s new global marketing chief, Uwe Ellinghaus, says “there’s still no decision so far” on whether its new Omega rear-wheel-drive platform will underpin a full-size S-class-like sedan or an even pricier production version of the Elmiraj concept. But he frames the debate: “In an ideal world, we’d do both. The volume will be with the sedan. The image effect will be with the coupe. It’s almost a no brainer that from a marketing point of view, I give the coupe a clear priority over a sedan. But … my colleague from sales sitting over there would kill me if I say this because he will remind me that the sedan segments, the world over, are far, far bigger. In China, coupes and convertibles are considered niche, niche, niche. This is the market where I say we clearly need the equivalent of an S-class or a 7-series or an A8.” A very tough decision, to be sure. One can almost hear the sound of the world’s tiniest violin echoing from the nearly deserted Lincoln stand. – D.Z.
HIT: 2015 Chevrolet Colorado (and GMC Canyon)
I was prepared to dismiss this as a desperate marketing exercise, but I was won over by the styling, which to me is just right: proportions are perfect, front end is masculine without looking cartoonish, as all three of the Big Three full-size pickups now look, and the efficient four-cylinder powertrain makes sense. I hope Americans embrace smaller pickups again, as they are all that half of pickup buyers really need. –J.D.
MISS: 2015 GMC Canyon’s (and Chevy Colorado’s) effect on CAFE
GM is positioning these midsize trucks as alternatives to the new Ford F-150, which is expected to breach 30-mpg highway with its optional 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6. That may work, especially with an expensive 2.8-liter turbodiesel available within a year after the midsize GM trucks’ launch, though the full-size F-150’s light-weighting will have a much bigger effect on Ford’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy, because the size of a vehicle’s footprint plays a large part in the 2016 standards. A Duramax diesel V-8 for the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra can’t come too soon. – T.L.
HIT: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG
I was really surprised how much I ended up liking this rig. It draws you in. It demands your attention. I didn’t expect that. I like that the GLA45 is more like a hot hatch, rather than a traditional SUV. I was expecting something more upright. This thing could be the rich cousin of the Volkswagen GTI. – G.M.
REVELATION V: Americans will buy luxury four-door hatchbacks
First the BMW X1, and now the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class and Audi Q3, not to mention the Buick Encore: proof that Americans have gotten over their aversion to expensive, four-door hatchbacks, so long as you give them all-wheel drive and suggest they’re crossover/utility vehicles, instead. – T.L.
MISS: 2015 Chrysler 200
A sleek and well-executed but utterly anonymous sedan. But perhaps I’ll be more impressed when I see it on the street. –J.D.
HIT: 2015 Chrysler 200
This car has more styling than the midsize segment demands. The new Chrysler will not be a segment-leader, but it has a decent-sized, competently designed, comfortable interior and lots of features for $22,000 to $30,000. Last year, the mediocre old Chrysler 200 outsold the VW Passat, surely with lots of price incentives, 122,480 to 109,652. With all the big profits coming in from its Jeep division, Chrysler needs to sell perhaps 150,000-175,000 new 200s per year for it to qualify as a hit. – T.L.
REVELATION VI: Is Fiat getting out of Dodge?
It might officially be time to start worrying about the future of the Dodge brand. First Fiat peeled away pickups. Then it sapped Dodge’s performance appeal by placing the new Viper under the new SRT brand. Now a new Chrysler 200 is debuting alone, as the Dodge Avenger bites the dust with no replacement. “We have no plans to rebadge the Chrysler 200 as a Dodge,” confirms Chrysler group head of sales Reid Bigland. Agreed, rebadges are wasteful. But an American volume brand with no pickup truck and no midsize car is not a volume brand. Chrysler loses out, too. A $21,700 midsize car, even one with a nice interior, undercuts any hope Chrysler has of evolving back into a premium brand. –D.Z.
REVELATION VII: How high can Jeep climb?
On the other hand, Fiat-Chrysler’s most credible premium brand is Jeep. The Grand Cherokee currently tops out around $65,000 and has been a huge profit generator. Jeep president Michael Manley thinks that’s just the beginning. “If you think of the prices that the competitors are asking, ranging from $65,000 up to $100,000 plus—albeit at small volumes—I have no doubt that, with the right kind of vehicle, we can play with those kinds of spenders.” Does he think the upcoming, three-row Grand Wagoneer can be that kind of vehicle? Manley nods his head and, just to be clear, intones, “he nodded.” –D.Z.
One of the biggest car shows of the year, a venue that historically has been incredibly important for VW, and all they could come up with was a Beetle with some skis strapped to the back? There should have been a production-spec, three-row crossover based on last year’s Crossover CrossBlue Concept, but that’s still years away. –J.D.
REVELATION VIII: Diesels Don’t Zoom-Zoom
Mazda North America CEO Jim O’Sullivan says the delay of the Skyactiv diesel engine is related to performance. He said the engine meets emissions requirements, but it doesn’t drive with enough energy yet. “We didn’t think the powertrain was ‘zoom-zoom’ enough.” –G.M.
HIT: Nissan IDx Concept
Nissan is trying to find plant space to produce the rear-wheel-drive, retro Datsun 510-like Scion FR-S fighter it unveiled at the Tokyo show last November. – T.L.
MISS: Nissan Sport Sedan Concept
It should be bad enough that this hint of the next front-wheel-drive Maxima seems to overcompensate for the anodyne, less-expensive Nissan Altima and Sentra sedans. It’s worse. Nissan displayed the concept on a stand surrounded by its elegantly simple, rear-wheel-drive, IDx Freeflow and IDx Nismo concepts, which only made the garish Maxima look even more overdesigned. Next time, remember to lift the pen, guys. – T.L.
Nissan’s global product chief, Andy Palmer, says that in Europe, nobody confuses Nissan and Toyota, in a tacit admission that Nissan’s U.S. lineup is boring. It’s no wonder: Europe gets emotive vehicles like the Qashqai; we get snooze-mobiles like the new Rogue. Palmer says the new Maxima is an attempt to put some excitement back into the Nissan lineup, but it’s a styling mess and doesn’t seem to me like the car that will rekindle the days of the early 1990s when the Maxima was a Very Big Deal. –J.D.
REVELATION IX: Don’t Give Up the Pickup
Nissan is working on a new generation of the Titan full-size pickup truck, and executive vice president Andy Palmer hinted something could be unveiled at the 2015 Detroit auto show. He also said Nissan will have a fully autonomous car on the road by 2020. – G.M.
REVELATION X: Jaguar Land Rover Goes Four It
Jaguar Land Rover is investing $800 million into a plant in the United Kingdom to build four-cylinder engines. The first one will be used by the upcoming small Jaguar sports sedan in 2015. “We are investing for our future,” JLR chief Andy Goss says. –G.M.
HIT: Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe Concept
Though it made its debut three months ago at the Frankfurt motor show, two critics, including a designer I know, spent precious minutes drinking in the S-class coupe concept and declaring it the best-looking Mercedes in years. Except for details like the sideview mirrors and the clearance between the 21-inch tires and the wheel wells, the Merc concept is pretty much the production car. –T.L.
HIT: World’s Fastest Traffic Jam
Chevrolet staged a commute down Interstate 75 from the Warren, Michigan, Tech Center to Cobo Center. The new Z06 was flat-bedded in camo and it was escorted by 50 Stingrays. –G.M.
REVELATION XI: Super Sport and Corvette at Le Mans Have a Future
GM’s performance and motorsports chief Jim Campbell would not say when Holden production will end. Chevrolet will sell the SS as long as Holden is making cars. He did say that GM will “build to demand” specialty high-performance models such as the Z28 and the Z06, with no supply cap. He also confirmed the new C7R will return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an event Corvette has not missed since 2000. – J.L.
REVELATION XII: BMW Plans Softtop 2-series, Toyota Project In a Few Months
BMW will add a convertible to the 2-series lineup, but not before the end of the year, product development board member Herbert Diess says. “Very likely” it will be a softtop, not a retractable hardtop, to further separate it from the 4-series convertible.
Later, BMW adds the 2-series Active Tourer, the FWD/AWD one-box model previewed by the concept. Regarding its joint venture project with Toyota, he says, “We need two cars on the same architecture. It’s a complex task. We need another couple months to decide what cars they will be.” –J.L.
REVELATION XIII: The Toyota FT-1 Concept is Eyewash
There’s nothing about Toyota’s FT-1 concept that hints at a production Supra, one industry insider suggests. The production model of the car that will share a platform and an engine from BMW (see above) will be different, as there are many body lines that couldn’t be reproduced in a factory. Design Editor Robert Cumberford disagrees about the complexity of the curves. “Not if it’s done in plastic.” – T.L.