2018 Detroit Auto Show Hits, Misses, and Revelations
Looking for cool cars in the Year of the Truck
DETROIT, Michigan—Porsche, Volvo, and Mazda all are absent from the North American International Auto Show this year, adding themselves to a list that for years have included Jaguar Land Rover, Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Lamborghini, and Tesla. While we miss the Volvo stand's coffee, local Volvo dealers set up a display of models, all in white, just outside the Cobo Hall show floor, where Mitsubishi nearby flanked a Mirage sedan with an Outlander on one side and an Outlander Sport on the other, all in dark paint colors, on an unadorned display in a dark corner. There was no Mini stand this year: on the short press conference day, Monday, the BMW stand had a lone Countryman surrounded by Bimmers, though by Tuesday the Mini was no where to be found.
GAC Motors' stand was bigger and brighter than ever this year. Its president, Yu Jun, announced the automaker would attend this year's National Auto Dealers Association meeting in Las Vegas, "in preparation for entering the U.S. market in the fourth quarter of 2019." But if NAIAS '18 was about anything, it was about trucks; from the new Chevrolet Silverado and Ford Ranger, to the Ram 1500 and the Mercedes-Benz G-Class. The Chevy Silverado and Merc Gelendawagen both premiered off-site, and this could be a good model for NAIAS shows to come. By the time press days start all the important stuff has been revealed, and we can concentrate on interviewing executives, designers, and engineers while we get to see all the new cars and concepts up close.
More time, in other words, to pick our hits, misses, and revelations…
HIT: Infiniti Q Inspiration Concept
Infiniti's Q Inspiration concept rolled into Detroit evoking thoughts of Porsche's all-electric Mission E concept—well, if you squint, anyway—and while I'm not always a fan of this design language, something about it works in this application. It features Infiniti's interesting VC-Turbo variable-compression engine technology, and if the next production Q70 ends up looking like the Q Inspiration, I won't complain.
Beautiful, even if it does look like it cribbed a bit off the Porsche Mission E's sheet. The only thing I don't like about this car's sleek, relatively understated styling is the unlikelihood that it will make it to production without gaining a dozen ungainly flourishes.
Karim Habib, Infiniti's new design chief, is excited about the future of the brand that in many ways has only just begun. Even though it has been around for more than 30 years the company has had its own organizational structure based out of Hong Kong for about the last five years. Habib has a tremendous opportunity to shape the direction of a brand that's climbing the luxury ladder, to provide inspiration for his team in Tokyo. While Habib said it's not necessarily a true vision of a specific new car in development, he indicated that there are several strong future design cues on the Inspiration. Too bad it's not the actual car, because with its mean, chunky mug, massive panoramic glass feature that extends down the rear of the car, its wide, sweeping rear end, and floating four-place seating and console, this is a package that shouts luxury and exudes future cool.
The return of the Infiniti Q ship remains two or three years away, but it's reassuring that the new car might take after this low-slung concept. After generations of uninspired flagship sedans, the Q Inspiration's cues promise a return to the spirit of the original Q45.
HIT: Lamborghini Urus
Yes, it'll cost more than a villa in Italy. Yes, it has a name that sounds hilarious if you put the word "infection" after it. Yes, Lambo snubbed the Detroit show and displayed the Urus off-site. I don't care, because this thing is fan-friggin'-tastic. I came into the Motor City prepared to write a half-dozen jokes at the Urus' expense, but after seeing it in person, I'm smitten. From the Periscopo-like wheelarches to the video-game interior, the Urus is sex on wheels—and it has four doors and a back seat to hold the resulting offspring. I drooled to the point that I nearly passed out from dehydration.
HIT: Bullitt Mustang
Pedants will say that it's just a trim package, but Ford nailed the Bullitt Mustang. It has more power than the Mustang GT, a manual transmission, and the exterior looks sweet. It's a fitting homage to what is arguably the best car chase movie of all time.
MISS: Toyota Avalon
There comes a critical point in a designer's job when, in working to overcome bland styling, he or she must lift the pencil. The new Avalon's designers overshot that critical point, and the over-designed side surfacing ends in unappealingly bulbous taillamps. Compounding the problem, this full-size sedan suffers from front-wheel-drive proportions, which simply don't look elegant on a car of this overall length. I wish the remaining participants in this dying segment would all switch to rear-wheel-drive. After all, the Chrysler 300 outsold the Avalon 51,237 to 32,583 last year.
Expect much that is good and right about the Avalon's underpinnings, making for a cush ride that buyers will love. The clean interior features loads of tech, and there is no reason to suspect this won't prove to be the best Avalon ever. But that exterior styling … oh dear.
Its grille is truly unattractive. Toyota seems to be pushing the Avalon in a sportier direction when its comfort, dependability, and safety are the reasons buyers go for it. The Avalon misses the mark by trying a little too hard to be something it's not.
And here we thought the Toyota/Lexus spindle grille couldn't get any worse. The new Avalon's front end is like an insect's bad dream. I don't know whether to drive it or set it on end and grill hamburgers on it.
HIT: Lexus LF-1 Limitless Concept
You might have arguments about the latest 3-D application of the Lexus spindle, but it works okay on this tall, luxuriously appointed, and very nicely proportioned shooting brake. If Lexus cuts back on sedans, just like everybody else (except Mercedes-Benz and BMW) in the luxury car world, the LF-1 would nicely fit between IS and LS.
It's just gorgeous, and aside from the LC500, this is the only other Lexus, concept or otherwise, that I've ever said that about.
MISS: Nissan Xmotion concept
Just what the world awaits: a compact crossover ("cross-motion," not "ex-motion," get it?) trying to be all butch and modern-day Xterra-like.
This chunky crossover concept isn't easy on the eyes. The wild body panels and goofy interior are pretty off-putting. The Xmotion doesn't quite tell us anything new about where Nissan is going in terms of technology either, beyond representing a further commitment to autonomous driving.
REVELATION: GAC GS3
HIT: Ford Ranger
Ford calls its new Ranger a "lifestyle truck," and the pickup doesn't go into production for about a year. Both points are irritating but, regardless, it's time for the Ranger's return. This model is well proportioned, and new Rangers will be available with a host of appealing features. Now, Ford, bring on the long-awaited new Bronco.
We've all been waiting for Ford's reentry into the small-truck biz, and the new Ranger doesn't disappoint. With its chrome bumper, embossed tailgate, and comfortingly familiar dashboard, there's enough F-150 lineage to make you forget this is basically an Americanized version of the Euro-Asia-Mexico-spec truck. I won't be able to attest to the Ranger's work ethic until I hook up my horse trailer, but my experience with Ford's full-size pickups leads me to believe I won't be disappointed. GM has set the bar pretty high—of all the small pickups, theirs is the only one that can tow that trailer worth a darn—but I think the Ranger will give the GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado a run for their money.
MISS: 2019 Ford Ranger
Yep, it's also a miss. The 2.3-liter EcoBoost seems like a great powerplant for the Ranger. But—that's it? That's the only choice? No economy-minded naturally aspirated four for the gardeners? No stout V-6 for the traditionalists? No diesel for us trailer-towers? Come on, Ford. Your F-150 has the most comprehensive engine lineup in the biz. The Toyota Tacoma offers two engines and GM's Colorado and Canyon offer three. The Super Duty only has two mills, but they're both gems. As the kids on the Interwebz say: "Needs more."
REVELATION: Why Ram doesn't need a new Dakota
In his last NAIAS press conference before he retires this year as Fiat Chrysler CEO, Sergio Marchionne said his company can't make a business case for a new midsize truck to replace the Dodge Dakota that ended production in 2011, even though Ford is back in the game with a new Ranger to take on the successful Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. More important than their middle size, these are "lifestyle" trucks, and Fiat Chrysler also has its own on the way; the JL Wrangler-based Jeep Scrambler expected within the year.
HIT: 2019 Chevrolet Silverado
Silverado fans get an all-new truck with loads of options, from workhorse models to more high-level luxury trims, and plenty of capability to boot. Reactions were mixed on the show floor to the muscle-car-inspired styling, but there's no denying Chevy's new pickup makes a statement, and it grabbed loads of worthy attention in Detroit.
HIT: 2019 Ram 1500
When I saw the first photos of the Ram 1500, I was not a fan, especially when considering the Limited model, which looks as if it crashed head-on into a chrome factory. But then I climbed inside, and—holy crow! This may be the best-looking pickup truck interior ever created, and yet it's not so far out that it will alienate the more conservative truck-buying crowd. This may prove to be a real embarrassment for Chevy, which decided to make the new Silverado's cabin look just like the old Silverado's cabin. Oops.
HIT: 2019 Ram 1500 and 2019 Chevrolet Silverado
Yeah, they're just pickup trucks, but they'll provide a sales boost for Fiat Chrysler and GM later this year, even as U.S. sales are expected to dip below the 17-million level. To help their makers meet mandated fuel economy gains, the Ram 1500 gets a standard 48-volt system for its V-6, optional in the Hemi, and loses about 275 pounds, while the new Chevy Silverado gets a new diesel and a rumored 2.7-liter twin-turbo I-4, and loses 450 pounds thanks to its mixed-material construction. I give the nod to the Ram for its nicer interiors, at least based on the pre-production display models, but it will be fun to see both Chevy and Ram try to chew away at Ford's 41-year dominance of the half-ton pickup truck market.
REVELATION: 2019 Chevrolet Silverado
Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Silverado launch, Chevy announced it would be introducing a diesel engine—and that it would be an inline six. I am of the opinion that diesels are at their best with six pots lined up in a row, and we all know that a big part of the Ram diesel's success was that its Cummins mill looked like (and, in fact, was) a scaled-down big-rig inline-six. GM's last straight six was the 4.2-liter Atlas, a good gas engine that, sadly, died out with the GMT360-based SUVs for which it was designed. We have yet to see if the Silverado's diesel works any better than Ford's new diesel V-6, but it certainly trumps it for the cool factor.
HIT: Mercedes-Benz G-Class
By now you've probably picked up on the general consensus that the 2018 North American International Auto Show represents something of a down year for one of the industry's annual events. That is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Mercedes' new G wagon is arguably the best thing on the show floor. As ridiculous—and pricey—as the G has been for years, it's also a vehicle that always makes enthusiasts smile, if only for the sheer absurdity of its existence in a modern world. The new version retains everything that makes a G a G, while finally bringing its interior appointments and resultant comfort to a worthy level. Like Jeep's Wrangler, it's a serious throwback that now doesn't always have to make you feel as though you just bought a used car from the mid-'90s. Expect to smile more than ever when you drive one, or see one coming your way.
The new Mercedes-Benz G-Class promises to be a capable luxury ute that sacrifices none of the utility that solidified its status as an automotive icon. The ever-so-massaged styling keeps the former-generation's rugged looks with some considerations given for new technology. Plus, the doors still have that military-grade sound when they shut.
You might not be able to tell the new G Class is new at all if you only see it from the outside—and that's exactly what Mercedes-Benz needed to do with it. The interior, on the other hand, is now much better executed, from ergonomics to materials to design. Too bad its starting price is more than a good annual salary.
MISS: 1979 Mercedes Benz G-Wagen in amber
Most of us who love cars like to see them running and driving, and taking a perfectly good first-year G-Wagen and entombing it in a block of amber seems like pure disdain for the vehicle itself and a giant FU to car lovers like me. Are there no car guys at Mercedes? Are they all just suits who see vehicles as nothing more than a commodity to be sold? I'd love to be there when the CEO retires: "Hey Dieter, you know that Rolex Milgauss we were going to give you as a retirement gift? Well, guess what? We encased it in a block of amber! Cool, right?" UPDATE: After two days in the frigid Detroit air, the amber has developed several massive cracks. I guess that's the Motor City saying FU to Mercedes.
REVELATION: Dr. Z still likes Detroit
Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche has a real fondness for The Motor City, and told Motor Trend's Alisa Priddle and myself how happy he is to see at least part of the city rebound economically. Zetsche moved Mercedes-Benz's usual Sunday night product reveal/party offsite from the Book Cadillac hotel to the historic Michigan Theater, an art deco ruin of a once grand live stage being used as a parking garage, where he unveiled the new Gelendawagen and enticed erstwhile Hummer enthusiast/Governator/failed "The Apprentice" host Arnold Schwarzenegger to join in on the festivities, which featured four or five Mercedes G-Classes zigzagging around the theater/garage. With pre-show shows like this, who needs a full day of press conferences?
MISS: 2018 North American International Auto Show
For putting a really loud band right next to the pressroom. Seriously, guys? We can barely write cohesively when it's quiet.
HIT: Volkswagen Jetta
This is the best-looking Jetta since the Jetta IV of the late-'90s/early-2000s, and its interior is fantastic. The car's sharp exterior creases and aggressive lines might not qualify it as a baby Audi A5, but it's an attractive design with more masculinity than any Jetta has had for years. And VW still offers a six-speed manual! I don't love that the car has grown larger in every way, but that is to be expected, and its increased size certainly won't hurt its appeal in the marketplace. Well done, VW. I can't wait to drive the forthcoming R-Line version.
The exterior of the new Jetta is fine, even if it does nothing to move me, not even in the way the dorky-lovable Jettas of the '80s and '90s did. But the interior design is, at least in higher-spec models, a tier or two more premium than the price tag.
The new Jetta successfully made the leap into the next generation with sharper lines and a more premium feel. The price is lower than the previous generation and should be much better to drive now that it's on the same MQB architecture as the Passat and Golf. Now show us the GLI already!
HIT: Volkswagen Jetta's interior
When I first saw the pics, the 2019 Jetta was on my "miss" category—from the outside, it looks like someone took the world's least interesting Audi and melted it a little. But I love, love, love the interior. All of VW's cabins look pretty much alike, and with good reason: They're perfect. With the 2019 Jetta, VW has found a way to modernize their interiors without losing the excellent ergonomics and distraction-free control layout. If this is what Volkswagen dashboards will look like for the next 10 years, I'm good with that.
MISS: Volkswagen Jetta
It's handsome enough, in a clean, German minimalist sort of way, but with its mix of Passat and CC design cues, it doesn't look at all new.
HIT: Volkswagen Passat GT
Every once in a while, a really great sporty sedan comes along and toils in obscurity—cars like the MazdaSpeed6 and the Ford SVT Contour. I think the Volkswagen Passat GT has the potential to be one of those cars. The 280 hp 3.6 liter VR6 is a monster in the Passat, and even if VW does nothing to the suspension, it'll work just fine as it is. The subtle red-striped grille and small black trunk spoiler give the Passat GT the modesty of one who speaks softly and carries a big stick. I expect this car to be really great—and to toil in obscurity.
HIT: BMW X2
The slick new X2 is a refreshing break from the cookie-cutter SUVs—sorry, SAVs—we're used to seeing under the Bimmer badge. Here, finally, is a BMW ute that manages to avoid both the frumpiness of the X3 and X5 and the silliness (and uselessness) of the X4 and X6. The X2 has a genuinely unique character, and yet looks every inch a BMW. The interior is just as handsome. I'm not a BMW fan-boy, but the X2 might turn me into one.
MISS: BMW X2
The flip side of that Nissan Xmotion concept, I guess, but if it's anything like the X1, I wish BMW would have kept the transverse-engine, AWD platform under just the Mini Countryman.
It looks like the designers were bored. So am I.
HIT: 2019 Jeep Cherokee
It takes a big company (or at least one run by a man who wears great sweaters) to admit it was wrong, and that's what Fiat Chrysler has done with its restyle of the 2019 Jeep Cherokee. Rather than modify the oddball styling of the '15-'18 Cherokee, Jeep designers have scrapped it for something more conventional. Some might accuse Jeep of watering down a unique design, but the Cherokee wasn't merely unique; it was ugly, as in U-G-L-Y-you-ain't-got-no-alibi. The new Cherokee looks like a proper Jeep, albeit a slightly squinty one, and that's just fine. I imagine most folks will concentrate on the front-end fixes, but don't miss the backside. The old Cherokee's rump looked as if the stylists went on strike midway through designing the tailgate. The new one looks a bit like a Mitsubishi, but that's OK—what's important is that it will no longer scare people out of the showrooms.
HIT: Hyundai Veloster
Hyundai's next-generation Veloster is an evolutionary step in design and promises to be a genuine hot hatch. The N Performance model is particularly attractive with 275 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque sent through a six-speed manual. We're looking forward to putting it through its paces and seeing how it stacks up against one of the most exciting segments.
The second generation of a radical, breakthrough design can be a big problem. Think of how Audi hasn't been able to do anything new or special with subsequent generations of the original TT. The Mark II Hyundai Veloster, on the other hand, makes me think more of the Mark II Honda CRX.
HIT: Hyundai Veloster N
Sure, we talk a lot about high-end super cars, but I don't think there's an automotive journalist out there who doesn't love a back-to-basics hot hatchback. Give us a simple car with a big engine and a buttoned-down suspension and chances are we'll rave about it, because chances are it'll be pretty darn good. That's why we're all so fired up about the 275 hp Veloster N, a car that might finally fulfill the Veloster's hot-hatch potential. Given Hyundai/Kia's uneven track record for suspension and steering tuning, I wouldn't call it a slam-dunk, but my last go-round with the Elantra GT (one of the most underrated and unappreciated cars in the Hyundai showroom, if not the entire new-car market) makes me optimistic. If it doesn't torque-steer like a lubed weasel, the Veloster N should be a gem.
HIT: Mercedes-Benz E-Class Coupe
Sleek and stylish, this wears the coupe proportions better than the C-Class, and nearly as well as the S-Class. Just really good looking, especially considering the E-Coupe has, in recent history, been the awkward, if not quite ugly, duckling.
REVELATION: Subscribe to Mercedes
During a roundtable discussion with Britta Seeger, member of the board of management and head of sales and marketing for Mercedes-Benz, she said that the brand will bring a subscription type program to a select market in the U.S. sometime this year. Several automakers have been toying with a subscription model as a way to bundle the entire cost of the vehicle (lease, insurance, etc.) into one fixed price, and allow subscribers to change into different models on a monthly basis, or other set time frame, or to simply turn the car or truck back in. "We would like to organize things so you could have a SUV in the winter and a cabriolet in the summer," Seeger said of one potential scenario. Seeger also said Benz has been testing variations of a subscriber program in several world markets to understand how best to formally roll something out.
With a silhouette that's much closer to the original than the most recent generation, the new CLS Class is simply gorgeous.
HIT: Kia Forte sedan
The RWD Kia Stinger's design language transforms nicely into the compact FWD Forte. In an inverse-sort of way, this proves what I said above about the Toyota Avalon; that large sedans need RWD proportions.
HIT: Kia Motor America
...for the "Kia Contenders" video which pits the new Forte against a Lamborghini Aventador. (Watch it here.) Great stuff—even us jaded hacks were laughing.
HIT: GAC Enverge Concept
The Enverge shows there is more to Chinese cars than ripped-off designs and toxic adhesives. Granted, there's a whiff of Infiniti FX about it, but is there anything truly new under the sun? The Enverge looks both futuristic and production-capable, with none of the comical awkwardness we have come to expect from Chinese vehicles. And they've even managed to give it a proper name, rather than calling it something ridiculous like GZ8 Pleasing Wolf Suitcase 390T. Okay, yes, you do have to get over the fact that it has no friggin' side windows. Still, if this concept car came from a mainstream automaker like Nissan or Toyota, we'd all take it seriously. A production version of the Enverge—preferably one with windows all around—would be pretty darn cool.
REVELATION: A Trumpchi by any other name
"GAC Motor Triumphantly Forges Ahead," reads the opening page of the Chinese automaker's English-language brochure. After years of appearing at NAIAS, last year for the first time with a stand inside the show floor, GAC has committed to importing its first model, the three-row GS8 sport/utility, to the U.S. market by the fourth quarter of 2019. The '20 GS8 will probably get an engine upgrade and will switch from AWD to 4WD, a representative told me. Asian market expert Michael Dunne says GAC is well on its way to certifying the GS8 for sale here, which leaves one issue, changing the brand name GAC Motors uses in China: Trumpchi. Here's hoping the new name rolls off the tongue better than Geely's Lynk & Co.