Entries from the Floor -
The last day of the auto show is always the best to wander around a manufacturer's booth. These booths are like nation states, where, although you don't need a passport to enter or visit, there's a psychological border you have to pass to enter and a distinct national (or corporate) flavor when you step off the neutral access pathways and onto an OE's designated area.
No doubt part of the glory of the auto show is that it's like the EPCOT center, where all the countries of the world are in easy access. The problem is that these car companies are acutely aware of this ideal and some manipulate a certain perception they're hoping to promote in the U.S. market other than giving writers and potential buyers genuine insight into the corporate psyche of the car or truck builder. Would recommend to anyone who can travel to other countries to visit any of the big car shows -- Detroit, Geneva, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Bejing -- to get a sense of what the homefield players are really like. To see GM, Ford, and Chrysler in Detroit is a sight to behold. Toyota, Honda and Nissan do amazing things in Tokyo. And there's nothing comparable with seeing Audi, BMW, and Mercedes with their own buildings in Frankfurt.
-- We had a smart fortwo in the office a while back (a small 40-mpg microcar). My first time in anything that small. They look cool, and you could probably fit one in a half-ton pickup bed. What struck me most during my short drive around L.A. was how the automated manual worked. Or, more truthfully, didn't work. Definitely fun because you can manually shift the fortwo with the paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel, but when in Drive mode, there's a dramatic lag on the 1-2 and 2-3 shifts. So much so it feels like you're in a rocking chair: nice take-off from a stop, then a complete relaxing of the powertrain, shift, then back up to speed. I suppose that's the whole point of the computer-controlled manual, but this ain't gonna fly in the States. And since smart had a display with some reps here in Detroit, I decided to find out about the system. Maybe there was a future tech story here. What I found, however, after having waited until the third day to talk to someone, were several attractive women answering questions about the mini cars. I asked if there was someone who might help me with some technical question, and this tall blonde responded: "What is it you wanted to know? Maybe I can help." For the next 35 minutes, she patiently answered all of my (what I thought were) fairly technical questions about the internal and software issues with the auto/manual. I'll admit I'm a sucker for a beautiful woman, but when she can get technical about transmissions, there's a whole other level that kicks in that has me saying thank you at the next appropriate moment and getting the heck out of dodge before I make an idiot of myself -- though my wife will be the first to tell you it's funny to watch. Still, I walked away smarter about the smart car, and that was probably the intent.
-- Had chance to hook up with one of the Lincoln/Mercury guys who walked me through the next-generation Ford nav/Sirius system available as an option in Ford's upper-line models first, then will get rolled out to the rest of the lineup. And it's impressive. Not only does it do the normal things we've come to expect from a nav system, it does new things like real-time traffic, updated five-day weather forecasts anywhere in the U.S., a graphic real-time look at coming and going storm systems, storable photos, and a jukebox feature. You'll even be able to get information on your favorite sports teams, game schedules, and player stats. All this will be packaged with a new larger, high-quality eight-inch touch screen. You can expect the system to make it first into Lincoln and Mercury. Volvo, Jaguar, and Land Rover also are scheduled to get it quickly as well.
Most Interesting of Show 2008
1) Ford F-150 -- It's all about trying to maintain market share. That'll be the new gauge of success. Hundreds of minor upgrades, efficiency improvers, and attention to the smallest interior details have taken truck evolution to new heights. This is the big dog of the pack, and Ford can't afford to take too many risks with so much on the line for the company. Built to make current customers a tad happier with “their truck.”
2) Dodge Ram -- Also incredibly important to the parent company. Dodge allowed their designers and engineers room to play and explore. The result is more drama and, possibly, new buyers coming to the full-size truck. Big news is that the new full-size four-door is finally here, coil-spring rearend, a better-proportioned Charger face, a hugely improved interior layout, and the RamBox is the closer. Dodge is going after more than a maintained marketshare.
3) Hummer HX -- Exactly what we want to see from the brand that's suppose to dominate the world of four-wheel drive. So nice to see an OE not bow to the gods of political correctness without good reason. Capability can be defined in many ways, and the HX is a good execution and fun concept. Real and exciting is not something you usually see from a glitzy auto show. A good direction.
4) Ford Explorer America -- A wonderful "What if…?" exercise that gives us a glimpse of what Ford thinks it needs to make people happy in the future. My only hope is that Ford doesn't try to pass it off as an Explorer. The name is rich with imagery and heritage. Would almost be a shame to put it on something that desperately wants to be liked and is nondescript.
5) Toyota A-BAT -- Speaking of nondescript: The idea of a Prius pickup truck has some forward-looking cache to it, but this looks like something a Scion buyer would cozy up to, rather than someone looking to purchase their first truck. If you don't want a pickup buyer, don't give it pickup-truck attributes. If you want to give car people extra access and capability, build the configurable station wagon, not the reconfigurable light-duty Ridgeline.
6) Kia Borrego -- I have a funny feeling about his vehicle. Ten years from now we'll be saying this full-size, full frame, coil-sprung, V-8 SUV was the beginning of the right idea, rather than looking for more poseur or imposter SUVs. Crossovers, flat minivans, or station wagons are nice for what they do, but they don't do what they're supposed to do—pull and haul. A frame and V-8 will.
7) Honda Pilot -- I like the courage here. When all the world is going toward more aero shapes that want to turn everything into wagons and sleek minivans, Honda takes its trend-setting Pilot, still basically mounted to a minivan platform, and makes it more boxy and angular -- just like a traditional SUV. Certainly it looks more modern, but with a hint of retro. Who would have thought Honda could ever go retro? Also see a little Honda Element there, too.
8) Land Rover LRX -- Where the Hummer HX is a solid bull's-eye for the brand and those who love it, this one is worrisome. The success of the current LR3 and LR2 may be steering the company too far in the future. This LRX has some clear implications for the brand, which seem to put capability and 4WD prowess in the backseat. I get nervous when designers and engineers are allowed to stay in separate wings of the building. More of the crossover-itis seems to me.
9) Subaru Forester -- Maybe the best example of how an associate-SUV can still borrow from the originator. Actually plays and drives like a capability-first player, but style and looks are clearly headed to the wagon end of the spectrum. Sure would be nice to have a diesel in there to give it more torque credibility.
10) M-B GLK -- This one has me baffled. I'm sure it'll drive well and have some stunning and precise technology, but the proportions seem all wrong. Too small and too stretched and seems to exist only to compete with its BMW rivals. Still, a German diesel could really make this appeal to the truck crowd.
11) Chinese trucks -- Probably the biggest story of the year, before the show, and the biggest story that never happened by show's end. We'll hold our breath as we keep hearing about the Romanian, Indian, and Chinese micro-truck builders that are ready to take the compact truck segment by storm. It seems like there should be a place for a basement-priced compact, but so far, no go. We'll keep waiting.