Detroit 2016: Three Reports From the Floor

This year, our correspondents were former Jeep and Lotus engineer Ian Sharp, currently head of Hybine Propulsion Systems, Inc; industry reporter and editor Patrick Rall; and Daniel Stern, of Daniel Stern Lighting, who also edits an industry trade magazine. They had rather different impressions.

Concept cars

My pick for the best concept is the Buick Avisita, a gorgeous car.

buick avista

FCA was one of the few companies without a concept, but I give them credit for having the performance cars front and center in the Dodge display, and they drew a lot of attention. Most kept their performance cars to the rear, or did not have many on display for the first two days.

The new Chrysler Pacifica and Lincoln Continental seemed to be getting the most attention from the press, which does draw people into those displays.

Paucity of Product, Performance, and Pizazz

Despite record North American sales in the last year, and predicted record sales next year, it just didn’t feel like it at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. Perhaps the manufacturers were not prepared for it.

chrysler area

The show is at Cobo Hall through Saturday, January 23, 2016, from 9 am to 10 pm (no admittance after 9 pm); and on Sunday, January 24, until 7 pm (last admittance at 6 pm). Tickets are $13 for adults, $7 for adults aged 65 or older, $7 for kids from 7-12, and free for kids under seven, with a guardian. Cobo Hall can be visited from the Detroit monorail.

There was an odd cadence to this year’s NAIAS; it should have given off a better vibe. The buzz of previous years seemed missing. Perhaps the fact that the only major Chrysler launch this year was the minivan set the tone of my peripheral and background thought processes.

My first impressions, which are usually accurate, was that things seemed off from the start. We marched off, somewhere between an amble and a canter, to the Chrysler stand to await for the first event.

Some of my mood may admittedly have been from having to get up at 4:00am for a cold drive downtown, not being able to hunt down a cup of coffee, as it was eerily reminiscent of my commutes along similar early morning cold, crisp, and at the same time slushy roads in the past; getting into work at Jeep/Truck Engineering at this ungodly hour was never part of my European DNA.

fca overview

On the floor, the lights were glaring bright as before, trying to elicit warm fuzzy feelings out of the charging media — akin to a Black Friday rush at Walmart. The glare of the LED artificial light bouncing off appliance-white vehicles hurt one’s retinas. The unnatural lighting was somewhere between a rave party and the outside courtyard of a white mansion at high noon.

dodge viper

208,327 people visited the NAIAS on its opening weekend; 700 vehicles were on display and over 50 had debuted at the Press Preview. 70% of the show floor was new or changed; new exhibits across all companies cost more than $200 million.

As the day wore on, elevated the temperature in the hall to South Beach summer levels of temperature and humidity. It seems that Cobo still struggles with heat even on 10° F days.

Normally, people complain about lack of space at Cobo, but this year I did not hear as much of it. That said, supplier stands were on the main floor padding out the show space.

Chrysler minivan launch

I have not been a fan of Chrysler styling for the past few years, but I have to say that this new van is well proportioned, with nice front and especially rear styling. The list of technical features matched its attractive styling.

pacifica

tim kuniskisWhen the hybrid version came on stage, with an accompanying claim of 80 mpg, there was hardly a gasp or raised eyebrow. This to me seemed stretching the city cycle electric mode a little to the incredulity end of the spectrum, and in these days of “Dieslegate” a trifle naive and on the risky side. [Editor’s note: the first 30 miles are full electric.]

The presentation was aptly done, with a well rehearsed slick presentation by Tim Kuniskus. The most impressive feature, as reported from on the stage was the reduction in weight of 250 lbs. Knowing how hard it is to achieve this, especially with a new product with new features, was the most impressive feature to me (but then, I tend not get too excited by all the electronics and wizz-bangs.)

Jeep

Jeep had its traditional products on display with little change; generally, the styling looked bold and modern. In contrast was an incongruous display of suspension parts that looked like they could have come to Europe towards the end of WWII in their packing wooden crates, but then again I guess it is a brand that can quite justly have a leg in the past and present.

jeep boxes

jeep axles

Motorsports

verizon racing carGiven my natural inclinations and tendencies towards the motorsports side, feeling that this is truly integral to a healthy car company, I was surprised at the paucity of motorsports shown.

Yes, there was an Indycar surrounded by long legged lovelies, but it was a Verizon display. Similarly, there was a Mazda LMP car on the stand, but it looked orphaned to the Mazda brand, with no description except to the interested knowing what it was.

Most surprisingly, the new Ford GT was shoved to the third row seating position outside of the exhibit hall, at one far end of the concourse. It could not have been any further away from the main Ford stand inside; given that this is a major branding effort on behalf of EcoBoost made one squint, in a deep non-understanding quizzical thought, at who put the Ford stand together. Only a lonely Ford intern was charged with offering any product knowledge, which was minimal. [This may have changed for the public show days.]

British brands

The UK brands’ showing, although previously announced as a no-show, was abysmal to say the least. With a perfunctory carpet and a couple of Astons, Jaguars, and no Range Rovers, it was a sorry tale. As a Brit I was hugely disappointed by this indifference.

aston martin

When we do something we can do it very well, and when we decide to not do something well, we can do that equally with aplomb. However, it was embarrassing, not to put too finer point on it, as it reflected very poorly as a major Western nation with a sizeable auto industry. Even the erstwhile but perennially struggling Lotus did not have a presence as far as I could see, even though it sells the Evora in the US.

There really isn’t any reason why some of the best known brands in the world, even niche brands known through Top Gear, could not be present is a mystery. It was abysmal and disrespectful to the NAIAS, in my opinion, to not even make the effort.

Chinese and Indian brands

There was not a sniff of any Chinese or Indian brands on the main floor, depsite displays by Michelin, Aisian, ZF, and other Tier 1 suppliers on the main floor. This seemed mysterious given that in prior years they did display here.

Volkswagen

Volkswagen reminded me of Shakespeare’s “I think that one does protest too much” in its statement of bright and piercing LED lighting with a Teutonic white laboratory style, saying, “We are not downcast by our recent hash of diesel sleight-of-hand.”

Gathered around were Volkswagen hipster types in small groups dotted over the display, but somehow looked nervous, as if Ricky Gervais was going to pop up and make an awkward and offensive statement at any time. It looked like a deliberate attempt to say we are not worried, but I can’t think of any car company that would not be worried by a potential $87 Billion charge against its profits, not illuminated by the harsh LED lighting below.

above FCA

I could not grasp why VW didn’t send along two WRC (World Rally Championship cars) – and heavens forbid one of the drivers and a video montage. To spend all that money on motorsports and not leverage it seemed crazy, even if rallying is not that popular in the US. Maybe VW didn’t want to draw attention to itself by having something loud and raucous, hoping to get by and away without to many Ricky Gervais types being drawn to the flame.

Technology

Most of the presentations were done in clichés of connected cars, autonomous driving, etc. This focus on the electronics in vehicles leaves me cold, both from a concern about all these electrons flying “too and fro” from cars, radar beams, radio frequencies passing around and I am sure through me, to — “what happened to the sheer joy and pleasure of driving?”

cobo hall

Don’t get me wrong, I love my cell phone and being connected, but as with these devices I fully anticipate a backlash against these connected cars at some point when life just becomes electronically bland. We must remember that we still send people into space to relate what the human experience is in that environment.

Wrap

Considering that a Presidential visit is about to take place on Wednesday — a President who put his job on the line with controversial bailouts of GM and Chrylser — and with record sales, I was surprised by a nuanced feeling of ho-hum, not many new exciting products and technologies actually making it onto production vehicles, with everything like the promise of fusion power or fuel cells, always ten years away.

Bright lights, dim views

The basic general idea of an auto show is pretty simple: carmakers are supposed to attract and entice attendees to come see the automaker’s cars.

dodge floor

How to do that? Again, pretty simple: position the cars so there’s enough room for people to view them from every angle, close up and far away. Shine more-or-less steady, more-or-less white light on them from all around. Not too bright so the attendees have to squint or don sunglasses (the Germans were evidently out sick when they taught that), and avoiding shadows which hide the cars. Choose background sounds, music and narration, that’s relevant to the cars and the maker. Speaking of relevance, place emphasis on what makes new and updated models special, interesting, and, well, relevant.

green

Marc Rozman wrote, “The 'Nightclub’ mode was fun at first, but if you were there as long as I was, trying to get photos, it got old. Most people were reacting positively to it. It only takes place once an hour and for about 5 minutes. I would say GM’s display was pretty boring compared to FCAs. In this day and age of sound and video everywere you go, it was more in tune with the younger crowd.”

FCA did exactly the opposite of all that. Their display seemed deliberately designed and executed for maximum repellance. Some of the vehicles have comic-book styling apparently meant to appeal to lonely 7th-graders (of every age) flunking everything but Smoking Area. Perhaps that’s why the entire display was erratically lit with blinking, flashing, multicolored, directional light that made it all but impossible to actually see or photograph anything, and bombarded by raucous, grating, random thrash guitar noises. One tends to focus on getting away to somewhere quieter and less obnoxious — international airport runway? — rather than on the cars.

storm trooper fiat

Not even the one and only new vehicle escaped the overspanning theme (“Go away! Scram!”) of the whole display. [Editor’s note: the Chrysler display setup apparently cost around $200 million, was assembled in the UK — presumably for tax write-off reasons — and shipped to the US, where it took 100 trucks to move it to Cobo Hall.]

purple

The Chrysler Pacifica minivan, a nice enough people mover with styling cues and front and rear light units suggesting the designers paid careful attention to the 2008 Audi A4, which nevertheless has been pre-hobbled by craven application of the American auto industry’s beloved options-bundling scam. Want headlamps better than 1987 halogen technology? No problem! you can get 1994 HID technology, but you can’t just specify them and pay the $500 or so they’d cost as a standalone option with plenty of profit margin built in. No, to get them you’ll have to spend many thousands of dollars to buy a high-spec model which also comes with a whole bunch of other stuff you probably don’t want.

pacifica tail

It’s 2016; there is absolutely no reason -- not cost, not complexity, no reason at all other than pure greed -- that the equipment of each and every vehicle coming down the line couldn’t and shouldn’t be specified in line-item detail by the buyer, as is common in Europe. But nope! Why? Because they said so.

hybrid minivan

silver van

It’s probably just as well, then, that the upgrade lights are yesterday’s HIDs instead of today’s better, less costly, less power-hungry, more durable LEDs. Because we know how this story ends; when HIDs were first commercialized in the early ’90s, the whole industry congratulated itself and smugly predicted that the halogen headlamp would disappear from new cars within a decade. That didn’t happen for exactly this extortionate option-package/trim-level reason.

alfa romeo

Oh, sorry, the Pacifica wasn’t the one and only new thing from FCA: the first Alfa-Romeos (aside from an exotic car nobody bought in 2008) in the American market since they sold a dozen or so 164s here twenty-one years ago. Now there are three new Alfa-Romeo models -- the Giulia 4-door, and coupé and cabrio versions of the 4C, all clumsily Americanized with such crudities as red rear turn signals.

alfa romeo

Cowering in a corner, off by itself, without even the meth-headed lighting on it, was a solitary Ram ProMaster City, the capable and thoughtfully-executed Americanized version of the Fiat Doblo, with bright green paint talking about its award-winning fuel economy and excellent cargo capacity.

Also see Ian Sharp’s report

Dodge showing off its horsepower

392

Dodge didn’t have any news for the show, but no other automaker showed as much high powered diversity, attracting show-goers who suffer from the need for speed.

hellcat engine and car

The Hellcat Challenger and Charger, both in bright red (replaced for public days by models with the new stripe package), were the centerpieces. They were flanked by a 2016 Viper ACR with the Extreme Aero package, on a rotating platform, and a B5 Blue Charger Scat Pack. In that one little area, we have the world’s most powerful sedan, the world’s most powerful muscle car, the most capable street-legal track car, and a 485 hp sedan that offers more bang for your buck than anything else sold in America. Just those four cars combine to create 2,544 horsepower.

NAIAS 2016

Further towards the back of the Dodge display, there were a pair of Plum Crazy purple cars, one Challenger and one Charger, along with a virtual drive of the Dodge Viper GT (using the actual car) and a Challenger 392 Hemi Shaker Scat Pack.

The Plum Crazy Challenger and Charger, new for the 2016 year, are likely to draw a ton of attention.

More plum crazy cars

plum crazy cars

Finally, while it isn’t a high performance car like the Viper, Challenger or Charger, the Dodge Durango was on display with the handsome Brass Monkey wheels that have been so popular on the 707hp cars. Should the company begin offering Brass Monkey wheels on the Durango R/T, I suspect that it will become a very popular option.

Detroit 2016 car show

The video below offers a quick look at the Viper GT virtual drive with an untrained driver behind the wheel. He crashed in the first corner, as did most people who played during the course of the day. If you are headed to the Detroit Auto Show and you love high performance vehicles, the Dodge display is certain to be worth the trip to the Motor City.

  

Also see show news and photos, Chrysler Pacifica, and 75th Anniversary Jeeps

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