Features

What We Learned from the 2015 Detroit Auto Show

Motor City Blogman

The Ford GT, Buick Avenir, Acura NSX, Volkswagen Cross Coupe concept, Infiniti Q60 concept, Nissan Titan XD, Hyundai Santa Cruz and that self-driving Mercedes-Benz thing from CES were among the stars of the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. But there was more than just new sheetmetal during Press Days. With the world’s automotive community descending on the Motor City all at once, NAIAS also was a chance to speak with several of its leaders. Herewith, a compendium of what they said in formal interviews…

Sergio Marchionne: Alfa Romeo aims directly at BMW

When Fiat brass first talked about Alfa Romeo’s new, rear-drive platform for its upcoming models, the plan was to compete with BMW, but at lower prices. Then last year, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne started to talk about becoming a direct competitor.

“We’re going to be pretty much in shooting range of BMW,” he said at his NAIAS press conference. “I don’t think you’re going to see any difference.”

The first new sedan off the platform premiers this June 24 in Milan, Italy, the date of the brand’s 105th anniversary.

Don’t rule out a next-generation RWD Chrysler 300?

Alfa Romeo will share its new rear-wheel-drive platform with Dodge, Marchionne told reporters at last May 6’s five-year plan outline. When I asked whether Chrysler also would get the platform, Marchionne emphatically said “no.” Despite the plan’s intentional lightness on details, it was pretty easy to extrapolate where Chrysler is headed – it looked like the next 300 and a three-row crossover might be based on the next-generation, 2017 Town & Country minivan (there will be no new Dodge minivan going forward).

Not necessarily so, says Chrysler president and CEO Al Gardner of a FWD 300. “No decisions made on that right now. The current car’s replacement, we expect to roll out in the ’18, ’19, ’20 range, we have a long way to go to get there.”

Of course, assuming a typical four-year lead-time on a car that almost certainly will need a new platform, Chrysler has little more than a year to make a decision. Gardner also wouldn’t bite on whether the new, E-segment (full-size) three-row crossover “that goes up against a Traverse or Acadia, or something of that shape, size,” would be based on the new minivan. “No guarantee it’s going to share that platform,” he said.

Quick Fiat redo

Marchionne said that by moving the Mazda Miata-based sports car from the Alfa Romeo brand to the Fiat brand, the car was delayed only by three or four months. That suggests the sole changes were to badging (it may be called a “Fiat Abarth,” with, I think “Fiat” still the car’s brand name) and to the grille, which must have lost the signature Alfa nose.

“It’s a minor delay,” Fiat president and CEO Jason Stoicevich confirmed. “It isn’t anything particularly disruptive. It was nice to pick up another product for the portfolio.”

Fiat hasn’t determined exactly when it will show the new sports car, Stoicevich said, though he’d like to have it in time for the warm weather convertible-selling season. That seems optimistic, though, as summertime is about when the ND Miata will begin to trickle into Mazda showrooms. I’d look for the Fiat closer to the end of the year, still “convertible season” in places like California.

Mazda’s most important new model this year might be the CX-3

While enthusiasts inside and outside of Mazda can’t wait for the ND MX-5 Miata, it’s the new CX-3 subcompact crossover that’s likely to have the big effect on the brand’s sales. Mazda’s North America CEO, Jim O’Sullivan, notes that the biggest outflow into compact CUVs comes from midsize cars. He expects the biggest outflow into B-CUVs to come from the millions of Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra and Mazda3 owners.

“The [C-Segment] pool is so big. It’s huge,” O’Sullivan said. “When there’s not a lot of manufacturers offering B-SUVs, it’s a competitive advantage for us.”

Why a ‘tweener’ Nissan pickup?

“We believe that for what we want to become in the U.S. – we’re number-five today, we want to catch up with, we hope, one of our Japanese competitors (Honda), maybe one day the second one (Toyota) — we think maybe we can’t ignore the segment,” said Pierre Loing, Nissan’s vice president for product strategy and planning in the Americas. “It’s very difficult for a Japanese competitor in the segment.”

The answer, Nissan decided, was a “white space” model, a near-heavy duty pickup for the 150,000 customers who each year switch between half-ton and one-ton pickups, “half up, half down.”

Can GM both raise the Chevy Volt’s range and cut its price?

Global product development veep Mark Reuss was a bit irked when I suggested that the 2016 Chevrolet Volt might not come with a price cut along with its 50-mile pure electric on a full-charge range.

“If we continue to offer a value equation that doesn’t make sense, people aren’t going to buy it,” he said. Reuss meant that if GM doesn’t continue to offer a value equation, as the technology becomes more mainstream, it will never grow its audience. GM has already managed to take about $10,000 out of the car’s cost.

But Chevy is talking about the added value of a lot more stuff, and more range packed into the new version of the car. When automakers talk like that, it often means much more equipment with either a slightly lower or slightly higher price equals a much better value. If Chevy manages to significantly lower the sticker, the Volt will be pretty close in price to the Bolt (concept), which GM says it can sell for about $30,000, after the $7,500 federal tax rebate for zero-emission vehicles.

“People ask why electric vehicles and E-REVs aren’t mainstream,” Reuss says. “And I think price has a lot to do with it.”

The Chevrolet Bolt’s chances for production

Excellent.

“Should the Bolt go into production (laughs) … that’s a joke… anyway, should that go into production, we’re not (worried about cannibalization with the Volt), because there’s vastly different utility between the two,” Reuss said. “One of them, you can drive across the country, and with the other, you can’t.”

Not all-aluminum for the Cadillac CT6

When I wrote, recently, that the new, Omega-based 2016 Cadillac CT6 will be built of aluminum, I should have said it will be aluminum-intensive.

“You won’t find an all-aluminum vehicle from GM, because we’ll use a mixed-metal, and mixed-material approach that’s very sophisticated, that puts the strength and weight-reduction where it actually works, instead of a pure-aluminum, or a pure-whatever,” Reuss said.

But more than enough aluminum, and cost, for the Buick Avenir

“We don’t have any production plans for that car, but it’s built with a pretty dialed-in reality,” Reuss said.

Reality is, as much enthusiasm as there is for the Avenir to become a rear-wheel-drive production sedan, the sophisticated material mix that Reuss describes above is easier to cover with a Cadillac sticker price than with a Buick sticker price. Let’s hope the bean counters figure it out.

(Temporarily) lower gas prices don’t make Reuss yearn for Hummer

He says he wouldn’t want Hummer back, as GM is learning to rely less on trucks, though he’d like to take on Jeep, again.

“There definitely is an opportunity for us to do something in GMC or Chevrolet that is a rugged, off-road type,” Reuss said.

Meanwhile, over at Google…

Director of Google’s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, spoke at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit during NAIAS’s third preview day. That gave me the chance to ask him how soon he’d like to see a car like the Googlemobile unveiled last summer, without a steering wheel or pedals, hit the streets as a consumer product. Google plans to test the cars on Northern California roads, first with temporary controls, then without controls, after California law changes to allow it.

“By doing the work the team’s trying to do at home, we’re trying to move the time (to full autonomy) forward,” Urmson said. “We really do think it’s closer to five years than fifteen.”

Dieter Zetsche: Autonomous cars as rolling chicanes?

Mercedes-Benz brought its Luxury In Motion F015 autonomous concept, a sedan with controls, but which could be operated in full autopilot, from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas held a week before NAIAS. Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche talked about autonomy at length (you’ll find more from interviews with him and Urmson in a coming feature in AUTOMOBILE), which begged the question; when the automotive world goes autonomous, what becomes of AMG?

“By transforming part of traffic into autonomous car traffic, we reduce the unpredictability of traffic in average, which might give you more room for individual maneuvering,” in your Mercedes AMG. “Autonomous driving is a choice.”