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2018 Los Angeles Auto Show: Hits, Misses, and Revelations

A tough act for Detroit to follow?

LOS ANGELES, California — Like the New York International Auto Show that capped last season, the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, or L.A. Automobility if you must, remains big and relevant even as all the major exhibitions of new sheetmetal contract. The L.A. debuts included the low-volume halos and icons and the high-volume models that keep the industry running, and there were even a couple of concept cars (remember those?) unveiled, too.

Alt-fuel environmentalists claimed auto-show victory with the number of hybrid and fully electric vehicle premieres, while enthusiasts hailed the latest Porsche 911 and Jeep’s new Wrangler-based Gladiator pickup. Contrary to our skeptical character, we found little not to like from the vehicles preferred by either camp—but there were a few misses. Read on to find out what they were, plus more on our favorites.

HIT: Jeep Gladiator

This is a hit for so many reasons, but chief among them are first, that Fiat Chrysler did it (we’ve only been waiting 25 years!) and second, that it did the truck right. The new Gladiator promises Wrangler-like off-road ability and open-air fun, with credible truck credentials to boot, including a 7,650-pound tow rating and 1,600-pound payload capacity. Hell, it’ll even get a diesel option. Wranglers are a bit clumsy in the handling department, so expectations for the driving experience will be low; the Gladiator is unlikely to disappoint. I think we can say that this new Jeep pickup has been well worth the wait. Incidentally, when I first heard the name, I was wondering why they called it “Gladiator” instead of “Scrambler.” Having seen it in person, I understand—the Scrambler was a toy, but the Gladiator is a truck. —Aaron Gold

It’s exactly what it should be, which is a pickup that’s first and foremost a Jeep. Even while the rest of Fiat Chrysler seems to fall into a mire of its own making, Jeep is on a roll with clear-eyed, smart updates to its historic product line. Well done. —Nelson Ireson

I’m not an SUV guy, nor am I a pickup truck guy, but the JL Jeep Wrangler design is irresistible, and this truck variant was done just right. Consider the show-stand Rubicon examples with the doors off, the top down, and the windshield lowered. You can even order a gas V-6 model with a six-speed manual transmission. Way to go, Fiat Chrysler. —Todd Lassa

REVELATION: The truck market is rough

By most accounts, the Gladiator will do everything Jeep hopes it will, namely continue to boost the marque’s sales. It’s a truck that Jeep has needed for years, and it will no doubt sell more than a few when the Gladiator hits the market next year. But by no means is its long-term success assured. I had a chance to chat with a former high-level PR exec at Nissan on the Jeep stand, and he stressed how hard it has been for the Titan to make a dent in the market. While I believe the Gladiator has a better chance than most given its heritage and position as a Wrangler variant, when our discussion turned to the Rivian RT1, one of the darlings of the L.A. show, the parallels to the Titan seem far more pronounced. Add to that the Rivian is an EV and will cost more than 60 grand to start, and you’re looking at some pretty strong headwinds. It all boils down to what Rivian expects to realistically do in the market. Like Lucid, Byton, and Faraday Future, et al, the larger question is whether it survive long enough to find out. —Michael Floyd

HIT: Lincoln Aviator

Lincoln’s new mid-size SUV could perhaps be called a miss if you focus too much on the fact that its styling is fairly derivative—yet admittedly quite handsome—but the thing ultimately just has too much going for it. There’s a massively powerful (450 hp, 600 lb-ft) plug-in hybrid powertrain; a still-muscular gas-only powertrain (400 hp, 400 lb-ft); standard rear-wheel drive; standout interior design; and myriad trim, color, and material combos. Perhaps most important, it gives Lincoln an ostensibly competitive vehicle in the mega-profitable and white-hot three-row luxury-SUV space. Also, well, its name is rad. —Erik Johnson

Who knew dash-to-axle proportions could matter on a tall SUV with the steering column on such a steep angle? Somehow, Lincoln design chief David Woodhouse and his team made the most of the Aviator’s new, rear-wheel-drive platform. —T.L.

HIT: Audi e-tron GT concept

What you’re looking at is a car that’s basically 95 percent complete; just a few little details to clean up and some final development work and this bad boy will be on sale in 2020. With a claimed 590 horsepower at peak capacity, a zero-to-60-mph time of less than 3.5 seconds, and tuning by the marque’s Audi Sport division (with a little love from fellow Porsche engineers who have been working on the Taycan with which it shares componentry), this is shaping up to be one bad mutha of an EV. Oh, and it looks as good as any Audi we’ve seen in the past decade. Buckle up buttercups, the electrified sports cars are coming, and this one is shaping up to be as good as any. —M.F.

Vegan interior or not, the e-tron GT will be one of the sexiest EVs on the planet when it officially rolls out in two years. Marc Lichte, Audi head of design, told me that the only parts it will share with the Taycan are its electric platform and windshield. The rest is pure Audi, and we’re sold. —Ed Tahaney

Gorgeous, crazy quick, and all electric, the e-tron GT appears to be the dream sedan of the near future. Whether it should worry Elon or not, the market will no doubt appreciate a legitimate alternative to Tesla. —N.I.

MISS: Audi e-tron GT Concept

To paraphrase The Beatles, it must be good looking ’cause it’s so hard to see. Yes, I attended the press conference and even managed to click off a few photos of the car and its designer, though I wasn’t close enough to get a single usable photo, even for Instagram. From what I could see, the e-tron GT concept looks like the new Audi A7, but with bold fender blisters. I returned to the stand on the second day, which is when I really get to look over the show cars and concepts, but the e-tron GT was gone. There’s only one “property,” and it’s at a special showing, I was told (full of prominent R8 owners, no doubt). Hope it’s back in time for public days. —T.L.

REVELATION: Audi e-tron GT concept

I’m hyperaware of everything at the show from my vantage point as social media editor, and the e-tron GT Concept blew up our Instagram, becoming the highest-ever performing post for the @automobilemag handle (follow us!). The fastback’s crisp lines and futuristic styling mark a great evolution of Audi’s design language, and it should be a strong seller when it hits the market in 2020. —Billy Rehbock

HIT: 2020 Porsche 911

Though I’ve long preferred the mid-engined 718 Cayman/Boxster, the Porsche 911 is still one of my all-time favorite sports cars. Like Jeep with the Wrangler, Porsche managed to thoroughly redesign the 911 without making it look much different, and the driver’s controls remain reasonably analog. One interesting detail is the seatbelt-style latch on the lower, inner edge of the door, no doubt intended to help meet side-impact standards on a car with frameless windows. I predict the oddly placed CHMSL will soon become a favorite standout design detail. —T.L.

The eighth-generation 911 made its debut at a spectacular event held at the Porsche Experience Center. This version of the iconic sports car is basically as wide and as powerful as the previous-generation GTS, and our own George Kacher touted its driving capabilities when he wheeled the prototype along the California coast. Some may not like the new taillight design or the wide, prominent grille, but the interior is an excellent blend of traditional analogue features and digital luxuries. I’m looking forward to spending some time in the driver’s seat. —B.R.

MISS: Porsche 911 transmissions

I know the manual is scheduled to launch about half a year after the PDK, but couldn’t Porsche manage to build just one 911 with three pedals to stand among the several on display? —T.L.

HIT: Mercedes-AMG GT R PRO

This racer for the street burnishes Benz’s standing as perhaps the world’s most consistent producer of brutal hardware, and its debut builds on a versatile and wide-ranging AMG GT lineup topped in breadth among sports cars only by the far more common Porsche 911. With a suspension adjustable for compression and rebound, standard carbon brakes, 577 horses, and chassis tuning honed through racing, the GT PRO stands as the pinnacle of the GT line—for now, anyway. But no one tops themselves quite like Benz and the AMG mad scientists in Affalterbach, so of course you can expect a GT Black Series to emerge soon. —E.J.

MISS: Hyundai Palisade

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Palisade crossover. It looks pretty good, has lots of room, and will do everything you want it to do if you’re looking for a vehicle of this size. I guess I’m just sort of burned out on seeing yet another leviathan of an SUV rolled out to the market. Yes, I get it, Hyundai needs this. Every mainstream automaker says it needs more bigger, smaller, medium, compact, subcompact, medium-big, small-medium crossovers. Hyundai has one in practically every segment now. Mission accomplished. – M.F.

 

MISS: Hyundai Palisade’s grille

I won’t have a serious opinion of the new three-row Hyundai SUV until I drive one. For now, it looks like any big, nicely finished commodity marque sport-utility with premium touches. But enough with the toothy big-rig grilles, already. —T.L.

HIT: Mazda 3

This could have been a miss, because Mazda doesn’t seem to have remedied the Mazda 3’s one glaring fault—the tiny back seat. Still, there’s way, way more than enough on the hit side to tip the balance, including the new Skyactiv-X HCCI engine (which we sampled and loved last year), optional all-wheel drive, and the manual transmission. We like the look outside and love the look inside, and unless Mazda’s engineers have been exiled to Neptune and replaced by the folks who did Hyundai’s chassis tuning in the 1990s, the new car is bound to be a hoot to drive. —A.G.

I’m surprised how polarizing this car is. The back seat may still be cramped, but the hatchback looks clean and sporty, to my eyes, and the sedan looks more cohesive than the usual hatch with a trunk. And, hey, in shades of the late-’80s Mazda 323 GTX, the new 3 will be offered with optional all-wheel drive. Is it too early to start dreaming of a hot Mazdaspeed 3 hatch to take on the Subaru WRX—T.L.

MISS: Mazda 3 hatchback

This is the rare case where the sedan version looks better than the hatchback. It’s a shame, too, as the Kai concept that birthed this five-door was all tension and aggression and compact-car menace, but shorn of its fat flares and daintier detailing, the basic design simply falls flat. It’s not unattractive, exactly, but it looks for all the world like an AMC AMX that spent a semester or three studying in Japan. Still, the car packs tons of interesting tech (like the Skyactiv-X engine), a knockout interior, and the promise of even better dynamics. Besides, you can’t see the awkward rear end and C-pillar from the driver’s seat. —E.J.

Looking like nothing so much as a reimagined, rounded-off last-generation Veloster, the surely fun-to-drive new Mazda 3 hatch does itself no favors with looks. Even with what is an astonishing dash-to-axle ratio for a front-driver, the 3’s proportions feel a bit off, and that C-pillar is both awkward to look at and to look past from the driver’s seat. —N.I.

I currently own the previous generation of the sedan, but always preferred the hatch. Not anymore. —E.T.

REVELATION: Detroit’s not dead, yet

Ford revealed a future reveal with a ’67 Mustang GT500 on display. This was to remind the auto press and general public that the all-new Ford Mustang GT500 would indeed finally be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show this coming January in Detroit. —T.L.

HIT: Rivian R1S and R1T

Every auto show has its share of upstart brands showing fancy futuristic products that will never see production, and that’s the assumption I think a lot of us made when we saw Rivian’s name on the schedule. But look at what it brought: A full-size SUV and a full-size pickup, exactly the vehicles that showgoers are looking for—and they’re powered by batteries. The performance and range specs (400-plus miles, zero to 60 in less than three seconds with the top battery spec) might have sounded fanciful two years ago, but thanks to Tesla, we know they are entirely realistic. Rivian has a plan and a plant (the old Mitsubishi factory in Normal, Illinois), which is more than many auto-show arrivistes. We’ll be cheering them on. —A.G.

Both the pickup and the SUV are smart, sharp designs that do the one thing any new brand ought to do more than any other in terms of design: not look like anything else. More important, with these two vehicles, Rivian establishes a clear brand image, especially through the unusual lighting signatures. As long as these big, brawny EVs live up to their stats, Rivian should be well positioned to snap up whatever market there is for electric trucks. —N.I.

REVELATION: In fact, it’s feeling better

Toyota also revealed a reveal when its ebullient group vice president and general manager, Jack Hollis, “unveiled” the chrome script that will be attached to the tail of the new Supra. Toyota scion and president Akio Toyoda will unveil said new Supra at the NAIAS this coming January in Detroit. —T.L.

MISS: Karlmann King

This massive rig looks like the appropriate car for a Batman villain. It’s based on a Ford F-550 chassis and tips the scales at 10,500 pounds. Karlmann is asking $1.85 million for the thuggish SUV. It’s not very good looking and probably would fit in better at SEMA than at the L.A. auto show. —B.R.

Yes, there is such a thing as too big—just watch the video at Karlmann’s booth, where the driver of this locomotive-sized SUV repeatedly fails to stay on his side of the yellow line. Of course, maybe anyone who can afford million-dollar SUV figures they can use as much of the road as they goddamn well please. But does anyone really want an SUV with styling inspired by “Tempest”? This thing belongs in an episode of the original Star Trek, not at an auto show. —A.G.

Imagine the world’s most expensive big-screen TV with wheels. #fail —E.T.

HIT: Toyota Prius facelift, now available with AWD

There’s a new front fascia, and even better, redesigned taillamps that lose the sword tips for the 2019 model year. And for the first time, there’s an all-wheel-drive option that distributes electric power to the rear wheels via a central diff (not individual wheel motors). Is it too early to dream of a hot Toyota Prius TRD hatch to take on the Subaru WRX and the as-yet imaginary Mazdaspeed 3? Uh, yes. —T.L.

HIT: BMW X7

Product planning is always a gamble: Automakers have to predict what people will want three to five years into the future, and we all know how fast history can change. But sometimes everything falls right into place, and the X7 is an example. Gas is cheap, people are spending money (for the moment, at least), and the time is ripe for another big, luxury SUV. BMW has a successful formula and it has stuck with it. How could it possibly go wrong? Well, the economy could drop or gas prices could spike before the X7 gets to dealerships, but the X7 is still nicely executed. —A.G.

MISS: Toyota Corolla hybrid in white

After years of phoning in the Corolla as a drab, out-of-date car that return customers automatically bought because it had a reliable nameplate on it, Toyota finally has redesigned its compact sedan to be a credible Honda Civic competitor. It has even added a hybrid version that will get “more than 50 mpg,” according to Toyota group vice president Jack Hollis. But why did Toyota paint the one Corolla hybrid on display in white, with a Smug Alert–style graphic on it? Worse, the picture of the car flashed on the screen at the press conference was all white, like a discount refrigerator parked behind all the stainless-steel appliances at the Home Depot. In white, it just doesn’t look any better than the old car. —T.L.

HIT: 2020 Kia Soul

The problem with designing an iconic vehicle is that there’s no place to go—either you end up with a series of lookalike redesigns or you make too many changes and kill the car’s appeal. But sometimes a manufacturer gets it right, and that’s how it looks with the third-generation Soul: A redesign that is true to the car’s original character and yet fresh. The turbo engine returns and the electric version will get more range. And with all the good stuff happening at Hyundai/Kia’s engineering department, the new Soul should be good to drive. This is definitely a car we can look forward to. —A.G.

MISS: Jeep Gladiator press kit

A little inside baseball: In the long ago, automakers gave out bulky (and often lavishly designed) printed auto-show press kits, but over the past decade or two they’ve gone to cheaper and easier-to-carry alternatives: CDs, then USB sticks, and now often simply a card pointing to an online repository. Only Chrysler (er, sorry, FCA) has kept up the tradition, and they usually go delightfully over the top. The 2014 Jeep kit from the Detroit auto show came in a metal first aid box and included a flashlight, bandages, and hand sanitizer, while the ’19 Ram box had a model of the truck and a ram’s-head logo USB drive. I’ll bet a third of the people at the Gladiator press conference were there for the press kit—which turned out to be a simple booklet and USB drive in a cardboard case. Come on, Chrysler! We know these things are ridiculously expensive and stupid and useless, and that unscrupulous wannabe journos are only going to sell them on eBay, but either do it right or don’t do it at all. —A.G.

HIT: Jeep Gladiator press kit

Aaron lives in Southern California, so he didn’t have to get through LAX security (which is its own Miss, by the way) with last year’s copper-tinged wooden box press kit with Bluetooth mini speaker and wiring. Yes, the Gladiator’s press kit is too minimalist, but this year I expect no issues carrying it through security. —T.L.

REVELATION: We think Detroit might just pull through, sir

By any measure, this was a great event and a promising kickoff to the auto show season, with important production vehicles like the Jeep Gladiator, Kia Soul, Hyundai Palisade, and Mazda 3 making their debuts. Still, something about the show just felt a bit . . . off. Maybe it’s the fact that the L.A. show has fashioned itself as the showcase of the future, yet there were few concepts or ideas we haven’t seen elsewhere; off-road pickups and family-size SUVs are hardly the stuff of the future. A good show, yes—but it just didn’t feel like Los Angeles. —A.G.

REVELATION: Car strollers for pushing your toddler at the L.A. show

They look like a fleet of Saturn Skys. —T.L.

For more debuts, check out the best photos from the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show here.

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