Falling immediately after the holiday news lull every year, the Detroit auto show commands an outsize share of media attention. Along with the Super Bowl and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the presence of all that new technology and shiny sheet metal creates a welcome distraction from mid-winter blahs. But despite a rebound in auto sales, this year’s show, in the newly refurbished Cobo Center in downtown Detroit, was devoid of much drama or excitement. After the fireworks that surrounded the unveiling of the latest version of America’s favorite vehicle, the Ford F-series pickup, at around 8:30 a.m. Monday morning, the show was almost as notable for what was missing as what was there.
Any car made in China
Since 2006, more Chinese automakers have been occupying tiny alcoves at the Detroit show with the promise that they will be selling cars in the U.S. in the very near future. Since 2006, those promises have gone unfulfilled, and necessarily so, since no cars made by Chinese automakers can yet meet the quality, reliability, and safety standards demanded by the U.S. market. BYD (its e6 seen above) became the latest to declare its intentions, disclosing before the show that it planned to begin selling cars in the U.S. late next year, but neither it nor any other Chinese maker was in evidence at Detroit.
Volkswagen has set some very ambitious sales targets for the U.S. and punishes executives when those targets aren’t met. Its results last year were particularly disappointing, as VW sales fell in a rising market, and it finished the year behind Subaru. Impartial observers say one reason for VW’s shortfall is that it isn’t competitive in fast-growing segments like compact crossovers; its aging Tiguan sells at one-tenth the rate of the segment leader, Honda’s CRV. Signaling another difficult year for VW, no evidence of a Tiguan replacement materialized in Detroit — only the Beetle Dune Buggy (above).
A concept for the second generation of Acura’s mid-engine sports car was shown at the Detroit auto show in 2012 (above), indicating that a replacement was well under way. Two years would ordinarily be more than enough time to finish development, and Honda (HMC) has been dripping out details (turbocharging!) but no NSX of any description showed up this year.
Following the successful debuts of the CTS, ATS, and XTS, Cadillac fans have been salivating over the prospect of a long-imagined line-topper with a big V-8, four doors, and rear drive — a flagship car to stir the soul, like the mighty Cadillac 16 concept from 2003. What they got instead was the Elmiraj coupe (above), which had been already shown at Pebble Beach in August and is only a few inches longer than a CTS coupe.
Alfa’s return to the U.S. has been delayed so often that it has become a long-running joke. At the Detroit show, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said Alfas will begin to trickle in during 2014 with the limited-production 4c (above), but any car with broader appeal, like the Giulietta, wouldn’t get here until 2015. Both cars were no-shows in Detroit.
Alfa is one leg of Marchionne’s premium strategy; the other is Jeep, which ranked as the seventh-bestselling brand in December. To boost it even further, he’s planning a subcompact Jeep that would be based on a Fiat platform like the Panda 4X4 or the 500L. Designed for global sales, the baby Jeep will be more than a foot shorter than the 2014 Cherokee (above). The vehicle remains unnamed, although Marchionne insists it won’t be called “Jeepster.” You can look for or it at next year’s show, but you won’t see it as this one.
Fiat-Chrysler or Chrysler-Fiat?
Now that the way has been cleared for Fiat to acquire 100% of Chrysler, Marchionne must decide what the new company will called and where it will be headquartered for tax purposes. That’s a big issue for both Italy and Michigan, but they won’t get any answers at the auto show. Marchionne suggests that the company’s heart will remain in Italy but that the U.S. will claim its financial head due to the greater availability of capital here As for the new company name, it will incorporate both “Fiat” and “Chrysler” but which one comes first is as yet undetermined.
One of the less-noticed casualties of Detroit’s 2009 economic collapse has been the decline of the fanciful concept or “dream” car. Back in the day, the opportunity for designers to unleash their imaginations was considered good for morale and inspiration for future models. But at a cost of a million dollars or more, they became an unaffordable luxury, and today’s concept cars are mostly exaggerated versions of upcoming models. Some, like Acura’s ILX and Mini’s John Cooper Works (above) are so restrained that they are almost indistinguishable from production models. The absence of more creative efforts sucks some of the energy from the 2014 show’s floor.
Green no more
Consumer interest in alternative fuel vehicles rises and falls with gasoline prices, and most manufacturers are downplaying their efforts at this year’s show. Just try to find a Volt at the Chevy stand or a battery-powered Leaf at Nissan. But you’ll have no difficulty getting a glimpse of the Corvette Z06 (above), Ford Mustang 5.0 liter V-8, or SRT Viper, as long as you fight your way through the crowds.
Auto shows are mostly about titillation, not transportation, so the paucity of minivans on display does not come as a huge shock. Still, their sales are several times greater than all the two-seat sports cars put together and 2014 happens to be 30th anniversary of Chrysler’s pioneering Caravan (above). With Chrysler due to redesign its iconic van for 2015, you might have expected to find some hint of what it will look like somewhere at the show, but no.
The biggest newsmaker at this year’s show was also the least visible. GM’s (GM) new CEO, who has already been dubbed “Queen Mary” by one blogger, was guarded by a security detail and surrounded by photographers and news crews on the few occasions when she appeared in public. By contrast, Ford (F) CEO Alan Mulally, who had made news earlier in the month opting out of the Microsoft CEO race, was as omnipresent as a politician before election day, shaking hands and posing for pictures. By next year, Barra may be such old news that she can do the same.