10 things I learned at the New York auto show


I've long argued that the Internet and 21st century business practices have made auto shows all but irrelevant. High-quality images of new models pop up online days before they are "unveiled" on stage. Worse, shows have lost their fantasy element because automakers have stopped creating concept cars that never make it out of the design studio, preferring instead to display lightly disguised versions of upcoming production models.

The New York International Auto Show, which opened to the public Monday at Manhattan's Javits Center, has seemed even more irrelevant than most. It comes at the tail end of the model year when both manufacturers and dealers are more concerned with trying to sell down this year's models than they are about planning for the future. Although the industry is paying more attention to the New York show, it is more about moving the metal than bending it.

And yet there is lots to be learned by wandering around the show floor, eavesdropping on conversations, and following the flow of the crowd. Here are 10 things I learned at the 2014 show:

1. When Toyota listens, customers benefit

Every year, the Camry is recognized as one of the best-selling cars in America -- and one of the blandest, with lumpy styling and uninvolving dynamics. But when Camry's sales leadership suddenly turned fragile, Toyota (TM) escalated what was scheduled to be only a mid-cycle 2015 refreshing into nearly a complete redesign, with snappier sheet-metal, an upgraded suspension, and sharper steering. The near-universal reaction to the spicier recipe? "Wow!"

2. Hyundai discovers that design decay is real

A long-established axiom of car design is that the more fashionable the design, the faster consumers will lose interest. Hyundai pretended it wouldn't happen to its cars when it introduced the midsize Sonata in 2011 with its fast-back roofline and shoulder-high accent crease. To nobody's surprise, sales started to sag after a fast start, and now Hyundai is coming to market with a more conservative and refined design for the 2015 Sonata with edges instead of swoops. Some lessons are learned the hard way.

3. Bill Ford is loosening up

Possessed of an historic family name, Bill Ford has rarely sought attention for himself, putting company first. But with Ford Motor (F) celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Mustang, Bill Ford appeared at a Mustang publicity event at the top of the Empire State Building, lent his name and signature to a limited run of some 2,000 specially outfitted cars, and drove one onto the stage at the Javits Center. Ford explained that his first car was a Mustang and it is still his favorite, which means he probably won't be seen in an F-150 pickup anytime soon.

4. Acura is still in the woods

Despite a management shakeup and a reorganization, there is still a lot of work ahead for Honda's (HMC) step-up brand. Although the TLX shown at the show replaces two older models and displays the brand's typical innovative technology, its beaked grille, unimposing presence, and lack of narrative interest aren't likely to stir many buyers of entry-luxe cars. Wrote one reviewer: "If you were hoping for a fresh-faced bold new offering, you're plum out of luck."

5. This is Marchionne's moment - for better or worse

Fiat-Chrysler's CEO says Jeep and Alfa-Romeo are the twin pillars of his pan-Atlantic company, and both were getting ready for their close-ups in New York. The Alfa 4c is merely an appetizer for the meal to come, but the Jeep Renegade, which is built alongside the Fiat 500, will be the stiffest test yet of Marchionne's ability to meld the personalities and strengths of two very different companies. A failure of the tiny Jeep to perform up to the brand's reputation for toughness would significantly tarnish a valuable asset.

6. Ditto for Carlos Ghosn and Nissan

In his second decade at the head of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn is trying to boost the automaker's image, along with its volume, to rid it of its reputation as the "discount brand." He's putting a new emphasis on design themes that are both more adventurous and more consistent across product lines. The Murano crossover at New York displayed some stylish flourishes along with the new corporate front end, but customers will be the final judges.

7. There is no such thing as too much horsepower

Around the auto show, Manhattan traffic was crawling in pre-Easter traffic jams, but that didn't stop Chevy from giving its Corvette Z06 convertible a big send-off. Despite a new automatic transmission, its 638-horsepower is mostly unusable on public roads, and its race-track engineering makes it unsuitable for daily driving. Still, General Motors (GM) bragged that "The Big Nasty" was its most powerful car ever, capable of getting to 60 miles per hour in less than 3.5 seconds, and somewhere adolescent boys were dreaming.

8. Slices of the luxury market get slimmer and slimmer

Watching the unveiling of the 2015 BMW X4 made you wonder how much longer the upscale German manufacturers can continue to profitably slice and dice the outer reaches of the car market. The X4 has a hatchback and all-wheel drive, but BMW makes four other models that are similar in size, function, features, and price. Dealers will have their hands full managing all the variants, and trying to keep customers' heads from spinning.

9. Celebrities still sell

On TV, Mad Men's Don Draper sells Jaguars and Chevys, but in real life, actor John Hamm provides the voice-overs for the new Mercedes-Benz campaign. He made a popular flesh-and-blood counterpoint to the 186-mph S63 AMG 4matic Coupe when he made a surprise appearance on the Mercedes stand. Several dozen camera phones were mobilized as Hamm obligingly posed in a trim 21st century suit that observers noted was better tailored than Draper's baggy Brooks Brothers wear from the '60s.

10. Mary Barra is the industry's newest superstar

General Motors' new CEO drew larger crowds around the show than Hamm or any of the cars, and she set off a near riot when a scrum of reporters and photographers turned ugly after one New York appearance. The melee forced Barra to retreat and put GM product development chief Mark Reuss in the role of de facto bodyguard. Once the controversy over GM's botched ignition switch recall dies down, Barra's news value will fade, but her place in history will remain, and GM will have to learn how to better manage it.

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