2008 NAIAS reporting | Other auto shows
Today, Chrysler released the Dodge Avenger, the Dodge Viper, and the new NASCAR racer. Due to accidents and traffic volume on the local freeways, we came in just afterwards, but we spoke with two pleasant gentlemen who styled the Avenger, inside and out.
Even hours after the presentation, the floor was still crowded, as other automakers had completely empty displays. It was a repeat of yesterday's performance. Despite strong introductions by others, albeit less well played, the Chrysler Group really seemed to carry the show.
The Avenger looks quite good in person - stronger and more muscular than in the photos, we believe, and also neater and cleaner inside and up front. The interior is a refinement of the current Dodge themes. (For more, read on.)
We spent some time in the minivan displays, both the out-of-car display (photo coming) and the actual vehicles. The display seats were comfortable once we reclined a little - they were set in the default position of right-straight-up with headrest all the way down and in the back - which may affect some reports of the seat comfort. The bucket seats were quite comfortable, not nearly as hard as some recent seats. The bench seat is set at what appears to be an odd and awkward angle, and the demonstration setup confirmed that this was, indeed, fairly awkward and uncomfortable.
Chrysler’s Kathy Graham wrote: “Stow 'n Go is standard and Swivel 'n Go is always an option. The second row Swivel seats do not stow, but they are removable (they are on wheels). Third row seats always stow into the floor, regardless of the seat system you choose and you always get the second row covered storage bins with any seat system.”
With standard Stow 'n Go, the seats were far better, despite the angle of the rearmost seat; but because the seat has to have room for storage behind it, legroom in the third row is severely limited, and that's with the second row of seats as far forward as possible, which restricts their legroom (though not terribly).
GOING TO THE AUTO SHOW: Cobo Hall is a much more friendly arena than, say, the Javits Center; it has parking inside, on the roof, and all around at private garages, not to mention shuttle service from the Detroit Zoo and other locations. If you’re not coming first thing in the morning, the Zoo plus shuttle may be the best way in.
On our first day the Cobo Hall Roof parking was ideal, at $6/day. On our second day that (and every private garage within one block - there are quite a few garages right by Cobo Hall) was full so we used the underground Ford Hall lot, about three blocks away, which is considerable more pricey but still half of New York’s standard $30-and-an-attitude; and it’s park-yourself so there’s no waiting. You can also park far away and take the Detroit People Mover.
We were pleasantly surprised at the surrounding area, having heard descriptions that made the RenCen area sound like the bad parts of Baghdad. Police presence was clear but so were a large number of businesses and office buildings which could not have remained if the neighborhood was as bad as, well, large parts of Detroit.
In short - by all means, if you live in the area, go to the auto show. It's probably the most grand show in the country and the facilities were surprisingly good.
On the whole the system works well. With the table up, as far as we could tell, room was even more restricted; the passengers would have to accommodate the knees of the people facing them. It might still be a good configuration for relieving boredom on long trips by playing cards, or for that matter the usual diner-on-wheels configuration. As you can see, there is storage behind the seats, but we're not sure about stowage. It appears that the swivel seats do not stow - though the seat backs do fold.
It was hard to get a chance to see the new minivans, which were roped off most of the time; even when a few were shown, more were kept roped off. TV reporters spent quite a bit of seat time in the demonstration seats and in the minivans themselves, but don't appear to have been testing them for comfort; we can say that the buckets are surprisingly comfortable compared with the last generation and the bench seemed okay when actually installed in a van, but legroom is not as good as in the pre-stow models. Two questions remain unanswered: ours on the weight of the minivans, and CNN’s (they quoted us!) on where you put the table when you're not using it.
The minivan interior looked good to us - not too cheap, not shabby, on both Dodge and Chrysler. Of course, tastes differ. Unfortunately, the windshield wiper defrosters have not returned, at least not based on the models we saw.
In addition to the various production and concept cars, a version of the new Viper was shown with various Mopar Performance accessories. With the Mopar cold air intake, chrome fresh air feed, and revised grille in place, the engine is rated at 670 horsepower. A coilover adjusting suspension and special Mopar wheels help to keep the power to the ground as well.
The new Dodge Avenger NASCAR body was also shown. As a reminder, all lights on this thing are actually decals. The guy peering in gives it scale (actually he wouldn't move).
The Viper was still on-stage, looking strong and sexy in person - more so, probably, than in photos. The Viper remains a very impressive vehicle, even more so in this generation (though many will probably continue to regard the first generation as the high point). The curves were interesting - particularly the detail around the tail-lights.
We spoke with Ben S. Chang, senior designer and the man responsible for the interior of the Avenger as well as the Nassau show car. First, we asked for the source of inspiration on the watch-like instrument panel, and he showed us his watch, to which it indeed bore a strong resemblance. He said he was not influenced by the Lexus IS, which was also watch-influenced, but by his own watch. As for whether it could make it into production, he didn't see any real obstacles in terms of cost or materials; it was a decision that would have to be made through normal channels. Ben also designed the climate control knobs - with the chrome rings and integral buttons - we've admired on other Dodge designs, which appear to be making their way through the entire product line.
Ben introduced me to Ryan Nagode, who led the exterior styling. I was most curious about the front clip, since most of the rest of the Avenger’s styling appeared to be strongly influenced on the Charger (as, Ryan told me, it was). He said he was looking for a sinister, aggressive appearance, and was most strongly influenced by his sunglasses; the grille wraps all the way around the front of the car to the headlamps, providing a full graphic of the front end. The corners, he said, are like boxing gloves - protective forms in all corners.
As for the headlights, which to an old Chrysler guy bring up visions of Diplomats past, he said he tried to move the elements up to tuck the lights under the grille; and he thought the linear part underneath the dual headlamps added to the overall look. (Unlike typical Chrysler headlamps, the Dodge Avenger clearly shows both of the dual lamps). He also said that they had tried to differentiate the models, using black on the R/T and silver/chrome on the tothers; and in the grille, the base model was body color, while the others were chrome. That means any Avenger should be easy to differentiate from the front.
We asked about aerodynamics, and Ryan said they had put a lot of time and effort into it, especially as the Avenger is four inches taller and 1.4 inches wider than the Stratus. It was a large challenge; the corner shapes in front and rear were based on wind tunnels, as was the degree of grille lean. Full aerodynamic testing was conducted on the vehicle with a large number of full scale and partial models; they also used their knowledge base, of things that had worked well in the past. Though the recessed grille looks as though it would be a problem, they carefully placed gaps only where needed for the air intake (which comes from both the top and bottom portions), and Ryan assured me that the recessed grille was not an aerodynamic issue. Indeed, they worked carefully with the hood to overshadow other gaps, so that there would not be large, noticeable gaps.
Part of the reason for the resemblance to the Charger is the desire to sell the Avenger in Europe, where the Charger is not sold (the 300C is there instead). They worked to ensure that the Avenger would have clearly American styling to keep its unique identity when sold abroad. But, in the end, according to Ryan, “It’s all about getting rid of the boring sedan.”
For details and photos of the cars, see our Dodge Avenger page and Dodge Viper page.
The North American International Auto Show is immense - as is everything in Detroit having to do with cars. From Utica, we took the long, straight Rochester Road down to a great slash of a highway, Route 75, which led us right to the downtown - and from there we drove up a corkscrew to park right on top of Cobo Hall. The only thing not out of scale was the parking price at $6 for the full day - a far cry from the New York show's $30-if-you-can-get-it.
The show floor is far more upscale and lavish than New York as well; the displays are larger and seemingly pricier, and the lighting is far, far better, with the vehicles not having to contend with the harsh glare of a multitude of overly bright spotlights.
The Chrysler display stands opposite Maybach, whose display is far, far out of proportion to sales - even sales adjusted for the price of the vehicle. The Chrysler area is widely spaced, with plenty of room. The minivans stood alone, unless you count the small crowd of reporters apparently always present, checking out these key vehicles a full day after their introduction.
The working press is everywhere, this being the largest and most important show of the nation, but Cobo Hall seems to easily deal with the crowds. The press room is overcrowded, to the point of having no seats available even at less than peak times, and the wireless network was once again swamped, but that was true in New York, as well. The show seems far less dingy than New York, and far more in keeping with some of the players here.
At 20 minutes to go, the Chrysler area was well-packed, and reporters had been drifting by since 11 am, picking up free drums. The air was filled with drumming as we waited. Chrysler had (and still has) a juice bar set up with execs getting interviewed in an intimate setting by reporters who merited such treatment.
At noon, Senior Vice President of Design Trevor Creed entered the stage, noting that Chrysler always followed the beat of a different drummer. He invited the huge audience to join with them in getting inspiration; as each concept showed up, to put down their pads, press kits, and cameras and to drum, and quite a few of the audience, not to mention the entire front row - from Dieter in the middle to Ralph Gilles at the end - did just that. Most of the execs seemed to be enjoying themselves, and Ralph Gilles was certainly having a good time; their reactions were captured from time to time on the big screens.
The Trailhawk then drove quickly up the ramp and onto the turntable. Trevor noted its merits, mainly full interior space and amenities, huge skylights, unique interior and exterior design, and the off-road angles (approach, departure, etc) of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
The drummers then invited members of the audience to join them on-stage, so they could show someone how to drum; they chose a man from three rows back on the end, and he showed no aptitude at hand drumming, but then tried using drumsticks on a "standard" drum set brought out from backstage; then the African drummers brought out rock-style drum sets, and drummed with sticks, as in the background the canopy suddenly lifted off the Chrysler Nassau, which drove rapidly on stage, stopping at the turntable. Trevor Creed noted that it “in some ways” resembled the shooting brakes, luxury cars with wagon rears for hunting trips (echoing stylist Alan Barrington).
The Nassau cut an impressive figure, first sheathed except for its bright lights shining through cutouts, then accelerating with impressive speed and precision onto the stage. As the diesel-powered Trailhawk was, the Nassau was almost silent despite having a 425 horsepower SRT Hemi engine.
Trevor then introduced the designers - Tom Tremont, Alan Barrington, Ben Chang, and Kevin on the Nassau; and Ralph Gilles, John Legalia, Nico, and Cliff on the Jeep (the names were shot out a bit too rapidly for us), and wrapped up. It's worth noting that Ben Chang and Alan Barrington both worked on the Avenger.
You can't see it from the photo above, but the Jeep stylists were also brought out.
Then we went to lunch, where another reporter, in imitable fashion, nabbed my souvenir drum as I ate - surreptitiously grabbing it from between my legs, with the kind of behavior I expect from the press corps. (When we landed at LaGuardia, one of the wings was missing.) Chrysler supplied box lunches, turkey, pastrami, or chicken; all a bit soggy but well intentioned and well received, complete with fruit, potato chips, and desert (followed by ice cream bars served by roving waitresses, if you wished.) A second drum, complete with drumsticks, was built into the press kit.
The Nassau looks much smaller than it is; reporters behind me were trying to figure out its size, assuming it was near Caliber in proportion, when in reality it is pretty much a full-sized LX car. The stylists did a remarkable job in making it look smaller. The license plate cover is a clever way to avoid a nasty cleaning problem for the more painstaking owners; it presents a much simpler surface less likely to attract dirt. The hatchback looks fairly practical.
The interior of the Trailhawk is simply amazing, especially if you like shiny things. If they can make this, they'll sell a bunch of them.
The BMW and Toyota people seemed very interested in the Nassau, not to mention the Trailhawk. So were representatives of other automakers. Some reporters seemed to think that Chrysler had captured the show - despite some rather impressive introductions by other automakers, and the first Chinese automobiles to be shown in Detroit.
I also discovered once again that I loathe Nikon software, and should have taken JPGs instead of NEFs... (Correction: NEF works fine if I remove all Nikon software and go back to Adobe Camera Raw.) Note - Nikon tech support contacted me shortly after this article was posted, much to my surprise. I have to appreciate their pro-active stance, but their main recommendation was that I try the new Nikon Capture NX software - at a price of just $150. I consider that rather a lot considering that after I got their camera to fit my old equipment, I discovered it had specifically been designed not to work with most of my old equipment, despite their literature. In particular, I needed to buy one of a very small number of very overpriced flash units, sold only by Nikon. We won't get into the lens issues, complex as they are, but I noticed that other camera makers don’t charge for the software you need to deal with their RAW files.
Capture NX is a Universal Binary, and should be much faster on a new MacBook; I haven't put the trial copy onto my iBook G4 yet.
Even hours after the unveiling, the two concepts are hot, with TV reporters filming and others taking photos. It seems Chrysler has its groove back, at least in styling.
These are more photos of the displays, so you know what to expect:
Chrysler seemed to be on top of things this year - not only did they have enough press books for everyone, even with the drums included, but they also had good coverage of people. Putting all the stylists on stage made the concepts more human somehow; and of course the performance went well. Lexus' hot new F series got much less attention, partly because it was introduced via the "droning announcer" method. (Though tomorrow they are bringing out another sexy sports car with a hybrid V10.) What’s more, and this really endeared me at least to them, they set up their own wireless network, supplementing the bogged-down and nearly unusable main Cobo network.
The show is a lavish display of excess, not only in the cars themselves, but in the displays. It should be fun.
For details and photos of the cars, see our minivans, Dodge Avenger, and Dodge Viper pages
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