2019 Detroit Auto Show: Hits, Misses, and Revelations

We found more hits than misses at the final January edition of the show.

DETROIT, Michigan—Thirty years after Toyota launched Lexus and Nissan introduced Infiniti here, and 27 years after Chrysler smashed Cobo Hall's front windows with the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the North American International Auto Show is done with January. The reviews from jaded auto journos are mixed, and the press-day crowds were down despite Toyota and China's GAC flying in press from overseas. We're pretty confident, though, in saying what Detroit lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality this year. There is more to like than there is to avoid, even if the Japanese and Chinese automakers are the only ones left who still build concepts, and even though Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mini, Audi, and Volvo this year joined a bunch of other automakers who had followed Aston Martin's decision to leave town after its Zen display of a decade ago. Herewith, our regular compendium of criticism, the good, the bad, and the philosophical, this time about what there is to see at the 2019 NAIAS:

Too many are getting stuck on the BMW partnership and the long gestation process, nitpicking the design, and decrying the lack of a manual transmission (which by the way Supra chief engineer Tetsuya Tada has not ruled out, so call your favorite dealer and demand it). Can we all just agree that what Toyota has done is give the world what by all accounts should be a nimble, kick-ass, rear-drive sports car that's relatively attainable, price-wise? Call it whatever the hell you want, the fact that this car exists at all is pretty remarkable in this day and age. And it's all but assured that hard-core variants will be in the offing. Yeah, what a terrible thing Toyota has done . . . not. —Mike Floyd

Automotive journalists can be a funny group. After wishing for a new Supra for years, some of them were overheard describing the final production car as less than thrilling, with others going so far as to call it "ugly." "Look at all those fake plastic vents and intakes," they decried. But as Supra designer Nobua Nakamura told editor-in-chief Mike Floyd, those nonfunctional pieces could become functional on future variants of the car. I don't think the new Supra is perfect in the appearance department, and its roofline does look proportionally odd from some angles. But for the love of Suzuka, I'm excited to get a chance to drive it once test vehicles become available. If it lights up twisting roads as I expect it will, any niggling quibbles I have with its styling will go right off the nearest cliffside. —Mac Morrison

The biggest, most anticipated thing at this show is not an SUV, or even an autonomous tall electric sedan, but a sports car. Yes, it's essentially a BMW Z4 built in Austria by Magna, but at least it has its own sheetmetal, which is more than you can say for the 86. And I'd take that Toyota 86 over most of the cars on the market today. Since the beginning of time, sports cars have relied on sharing some components to make development costs work out. In his introduction of the car, Akio Toyoda said he hopes Toyota will build more new sports cars in the future. Here's to seeing him fulfill that wish. —Todd Lassa

This was easily the most anticipated car of the show, and I have no doubt it will be a blast to drive. But what is with Toyota outsourcing its performance cars? Sure, it's great that Toyota will be selling a re-skinned BMW. But right in the same room as the BMW Supra is the Lexus LC, a 2018 Automobile All-Star and proof positive that Toyota knows how to design scintillating cars. With all the emphasis on making Camrys and RAV4s better to drive—which they are, by the way—what does it say when you outsource your halo sports car? I can't imagine the effect this must have had on the morale of their engineering corps. "Nice job on the new Camrys, and oh, by the way, that new Supra? We're getting BMW to do it." Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to have the Supra back—but I'd prefer a Toyota Supra. —Aaron Gold

REVELATION: The Supra almost wasn't a Supra

In a chat at the Detroit show with Supra chief designer Nobua Nakamura, he told us that in July of 2013 that he and his team started sketching out ideas for a model that was at first billed as a nameless sports-car project. It was only after seeing the positive reception given to the FT-1 concept—created by Toyota's Calty design house in California—at the 2014 Detroit show that the FT-1 would become the primary design inspiration for the sports-car project that would eventually be dubbed Supra. And the rest, as they say, is history. —MF

HIT: Akio Toyoda

For giving the best speech I've seen at an auto show in years, if not ever. No boring sales numbers. No bits of badly faked enthusiasm. Toyoda-san's speech was funny, it was to the point, and though it was scripted—I was reading it on the teleprompter along with him—it's obvious he's seriously jazzed about this car (even if it is an automatic BMW). —AG

HIT: Fernando Alonso

My wife thinks so, anyway. Alonso appeared briefly on stage with Akio Toyoda for the Toyota Supra launch. Toyoda was gracious in acknowledging that the two-time Formula 1 champion (for Renault) and one-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner (for Toyota) is driving another marque at the 24 Hours of Daytona later this month (a Cadillac). —TL

For the jaded, it might be easy to look at the new GT500 and see just another jacked-up performance variant of Ford's pony car. I get that . . . but whatever. More than 700 horsepower (what's the final number, Ford?!) from the 5.2-liter supercharged V-8, a dual-clutch gearbox, zero to 60 mph in the mid-three-second range, a sub-11-second quarter-mile, magnetic dampers, and an optional Carbon-Fiber Track package with carbon wheels, rear-seat delete, and more? Find me a challenging road course and let's get it on. Now. —MM

RELEVATION: Mahindra

This plucky Indian company is showing off its not-road-legal CJ-5 clone right in Jeep's back yard. That takes cojones!—AG

Rare is the car that gets scalped and doesn't look great, but even rarer is a car as stunning to behold as the LC droptop. For all the coupe's beauty—okay, some folks don't like the spindle grille, but I think it works there—its overall attitude and stance strike me more as coming from a place of aggression. This concept elevates the LC to true elegance. I wouldn't be shocked to see examples of the eventual production version at various concours d'élégance in the coming decades. —Erik Johnson

Yes, please. We love the LC hardtop, which was a 2018 All-Star, and with the top down, it takes the LC's delightful GT style to another level. —MF

And here I thought it couldn't get better than the LC coupe. Built it, Lexus! Build it, build it, build it!—AG

It's a damn shame what's happened to Cadillac. Yes, I get it, its sedan sales are cratering and OMG it needs crossovers ASAP. I'm sure the XT6 and XT4 will be sales salve, but they come off as old GM badge-engineered exercises, and beyond the expressive grilles look uninspired. While they may put the brand back in the black, it's sad to see really capable cars like the CT6 be minimized. At least Cadillac gave that car some serious attention in the form of the 550-hp CT6-V (which already is sold out). There is some hope in the form of the emerging EV strategy. Maybe those cars won't have alphanumeric names. —MF

As another grizzled veteran told me, this three-row luxury SUV would have been a hit in 2012, or even 2016. While there's nothing wrong with the new XT6 other than the Honda Pilot-esque side surfacing and the too-familiar GM interior plastics and switchgear, there's nothing about it that pops. While I once believed that rear-wheel-drive proportions don't matter on a tall SUV, the new Lincoln Aviator and even the 2020 Ford Explorer (gasp) have proved otherwise. —TL

There is no good reason for Lincoln to make this car, and yet the company did it anyway—and not just as a concept, but as a production model (albeit a very limited one). Lincoln is a brand trying to find its way, but I think this was a very cool manner in which to remind people where the marque has been. Better yet, Lincoln launched it in the city that will appreciate it most. Some might argue that the B-pillar ruins the effect, and they'd be right, but it's the thought that counts. —AG

An 80th anniversary is reason enough for me for this car, and by the way, the 1961-69 Lincoln Continental sedans also had B-pillars (although with frameless doors). Wonder what those dual rear hinges weigh, though. —TL

I like the IMs well enough as a whole, and it's nice to actually see a more fanciful concept at an auto show these days. It has augmented reality tech, rich-feeling and tasteful fabrics and interior materials, and might end up influencing the next Maxima, but the coolest thing about it is the 3D-printed latticework supporting the dashpad. It's reminiscent of bridge trusses and brings a cool industrial vibe to the chic cabin. —EJ

The Chinese market, which has shared the larger Passat design with the U.S. in place of the smaller European version, now catches up by getting a larger car on VW's MQB platform, while we get only new—and very familiar—sheetmetal and interior bits, but no MQB. Makes me question VW's stated commitment to building midsize sedans to market to customers of other brands that have discontinued theirs.—TL

HIT: Cadillac's '59 Eldorado

Cadillac reminded us of its place in America's car culture by displaying a beautiful red 1959 Eldorado convertible. Best yet, its position high above the show sees it simultaneously overlook and turn its back on the suicide-door Lincoln Continental. —AG

MISS: Cadillac's '59 Eldorado

This most iconic postwar Cadillac for its record-height tailfins is not the Caddy I would put on display above its modern, Escala-influenced designs, unless the target market for the new models consists of Elvis impersonators. A mid-'30s Cadillac V-16, a 1957 Eldorado Brougham, even a '67 Eldorado FWD coupe or the Cyclone Motorama car on display last year—any of these would have been more elegant and tasteful. —TL

I can hardly believe I'm writing this, because I haven't found anything to like in the Ford Explorer since it premiered in the late 1980s, in part because it helped spawn the SUV revolution (and yet, I don't harbor any ill will toward the original Jeep Cherokee—go figure). The fact that the Ford has continually sold so well, including the thoroughly mediocre 2011-19 model, proves my point. Its design doesn't knock my socks off, I don't see much appeal in the performance ST variant, and I can't say whether I'll like it after driving it—that's not what critically reviewing static displays at an auto show is about. But like the new Lincoln Aviator, the Explorer proves that RWD proportions can make a difference on otherwise anodyne SUVs. —TL

 

REVELATION: The 2020 Ford Explorer is a hit. Or a miss.

I want to like this new Explorer. I'm from the generation that experienced the first-generation model as a teenager in the '90s, most notably when my basketball coach bought one and drove some of us in it to and from games from time to time. Riding high and tall was a new experience for most of us back then, one the masses obviously bought into big time. So while personally I'm not much of an SUV guy, the Explorer holds a special place in my heart. The 2020 Explorer has more interior space, various drive modes, various engines, and useful features in the cargo area, and the ST model on the show floor looks a bit mean, especially from head-on. Yet there's something I've not yet put my finger on, exactly, that can explain why I remain unsure if I like this Explorer overall. I need to see it in the real world, drive it, ride in it, and play with its features before I will know. Judged by some conversations, both with others and overheard during the Detroit show, I'm not the only one who feels this way. I suppose if your definition of a "hit" is a vehicle that knocks your socks off at first sight, then the Explorer failed me in that regard. —MM

I'm a big fan of the current STI, and a wide-track 341-hp version sounds like a little slice of heaven. And when you look back on those years when we were denied the STI, it's cool that the S209 will be exclusive to the U.S. market. But for crying out loud, how long are we going to have to wait for the new STI? Just bring the damn thing already and stop screwing around with the old one. This is a limited-run car—Subaru plans on about 200 examples—so the price is bound to be astronomical, maybe even topping sixty grand. Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution Final Edition wasn't exactly the hot seller everyone imagined, and I wonder if the same fate could befall the STI S209. —AG

REVELATION: Subaru's STI S209 is the poor enthusiasts' 911 GT2 RS

No matter how high the markup, the Subaru STI S209 will be far cheaper than the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, a special high-performance model released just before the last two full redesigns of the base 911. Are the Subaru and the Porsche both parts-bin build-outs?—TL

I'm bored of SUVs and tired of crossovers, but when an automaker launches one that actually looks great, it's worthy of note. The Telluride's boxy shape is cool enough, but its clever and attractive detailing is why I like it, including the stacked headlamps and DRLs and the interesting jog in the beltline trim at the B-pillar. —EJ

At last, a unibody, transverse-engine large SUV that's not trying too hard but manages to look like a rugged off-roader anyway. —TL

MISS: Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo (sort of), and BMW (kind of) . . .

. . . for skipping the Detroit Auto Show. They'll say that attending makes no business sense because they don't sell many cars in Detroit, and as much as we like reporting on the glitz, car sales is what auto shows really are about. But Detroit is ground zero for America's car culture, and if you aren't willing to represent at Detroit, I have to wonder if you really understand the American market. It's true, a lot of Detroiters wouldn't be caught dead driving a foreign car, but you earn points for showing up. Audi, M-B, Porsche, JLR—you ought to be there. (Volvo gets partial credit for providing the keynote speaker, and BMW was there . . . at the Toyota stand.) Meanwhile, Chinese automaker GAC was at Cobo Center with a line of shiny cars and fresh-faced product experts to extol their virtues. Bottom line: If you're not willing to show your cars off to a city full of gearheads, remember that there are plenty of up-and-comers ready to step up and take your place. —AG

REVELATION: Tenacious GAC

Europe's loss is China's gain, as GAC returned to NAIAS again with an intriguing electro-autonomous "bullet-inspired" concept designed in the automaker's L.A. studio. It has 3+2+2 seating and an "aircraft-inspired" aisle, plus a central cargo system in which a floor console box can move on two tracks between the second and third row. Thanks to President Trump's tariff war with China, GAC has pushed back its intended entrance into the U.S. market with the GS8 three-row SUV from late this year to the first-half of 2020. It may announce U.S. dealers after the National Auto Dealers Association convention in San Francisco later this month. If the tariff debacle gets solved, GAC might need some more of the extra space left by Mercedes or BMW for the June 2020 NAIAS. —TL

REVELATION: Hyundai offers relief to U.S. government employees

Auto shows are driven primarily by new-product launches, but of course industry news is also on everyone's radar. During the Hyundai press conference centered on the reveal of the Elantra GT N Line, the company elicited applause from the gathered crowd when it announced it will offer relief to Hyundai owners who are among the U.S. government employees whose income is affected by the federal shutdown. Hyundai did the same thing in 2013, and the program will extend auto-loan and lease payments for 30 days for customers who financed their vehicle through Hyundai Capital. Call Hyundai Motor Finance at 800-523-4030 for more information and to take advantage of the offer. —MM

MISS: CES

CES is the show that pushed Los Angeles back from January to November, and pushed Detroit forward from January to June, because automakers thought they'd grab more attention by dazzling the Vegas show's Silicon Valley constituency with a bit of connectivity here and a bit of autonomy there. The joke's on the automakers, which barely get a mention in non-automotive press coverage of the 2019 CES. My Motor Trend colleague, Alisa Priddle, notes that just three cars have been launched at CES over the years, including this year's Mercedes-Benz CLA-class. Did Daimler get more coverage in Las Vegas than it would have received in Detroit? Meanwhile, a journalist I know who attended CES this year (I was lucky to miss it, again) said the tech-savvy crowds ignored all the future mobility stuff, but drooled over a Fiat Chrysler display of the Jeep Gladiator. Overheard: "I'd buy that if they'd build it. "—TL

REVELATION: Automakers are helping workers affected by the shutdown

Hyundai Capital isn't alone. According to Automotive News, several manufacturers' captive finance arms, including Toyota Financial Services, Ford Credit, GM Financial and Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, are offering payment deferrals or other aid. Independent lenders, including Ally Financial and JP Chase Morgan, have made similar provisions to work with customers, and Chase has extended that protection for overdraft fees and other costs to regular bank accounts. As the shutdown drags on and financial stresses mount for some 800,000 affected workers, it's good to know that (some) automakers and (some) banks have their back. —AG

MISS: The Detroit auto show

There's no denying this year's edition of the Detroit show falls into the "down year" category. With the exodus of many automakers from the show floor, more than one journalist and industry veteran commented that the Detroit expo hadn't felt so flat since the 2009 edition that occurred during the Great Recession. Walking the show floor with one automotive public-relations executive, he said with disgust, "This is the Motor City, why isn't everyone supporting it?" Then, as we passed the display area of Chinese company GAC, he pointed to it and said, "These guys will take over this entire show if we let them." Will the Detroit auto show's move to June in 2020 bring back some of the lost luster?—MM

REVELATION: The final January Detroit show was actually great

The vibe was decidedly pessimistic going into this year's North American International Auto Show. The number of press conferences scheduled was paltry, the number of brands displaying their wares was even lower than before, and the weather forecast called for bitter cold. Given that, it makes some sense that outlets might choose to downplay coverage, and the floor was noticeably less populated with journalists than in years past even with the reduced square footage. But they missed out. There were consequential debuts all over the place, from the Ford Explorer to the thrilling new Toyota Supra. In fact, there were a number of interesting new sporty cars unveiled, including the STI S209, CT6-V, and rip-snorting new Mustang GT500. My only disappointment was that GM didn't debut anything to help send off the January version of the Detroit show with an even bigger bang. FCA only showed the new Ram HD, but that's at least something. —EJ

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