By Cory Wolfe
As another year falls into the grasps of history, a new one lands filled with drinks, dreams, and the Detroit auto show. With all its shiny cars, crazy automotive espionage, and endless cappuccino, Cobo might just be my yearly heaven. Or is it my own personal hell, taunting me with sore feet, pushy journalists, and a severe lack of sleep? This year may just pin it towards the latter... This show sure can make someone relatively young feel frighteningly old rather quickly. Then again, a smart and well-prepared individual likely wouldn't have this problem, nor would that individual attempt to lug a 20-pound camera bag on his back for two days straight. Yeah, what the hell was I thinking when I bought that? I need a bag with wheels, not one that will put me in a chair with wheels. Enough about my poor planning, though. Let's get on with all the pretentious nitpicks and juicy behind-the-scenes commentary through the eyes of one exhausted photographer.
Surprise! There's No Surprise
Auto show season is upon us; its that time of year when automakers tend to go out-their-mind with introductions. This year, though, brought us a decidedly restrained show full of boring. Not only were the majority of the vehicles unsurprising, the reveals themselves were just average. A few lifted covers, various fog machines, and numerous turntables were the norm. Nissan, most notably, didn't even bother to try a bit of secrecy with its concept Titan. There it was, 7 am on day one, sitting out on display a full day before the press conference was scheduled. Lincoln was another offender in this regard, however not to the same degree; they at least waited until the day of to let it out. Beyond those, every automaker seemed to wait. Hold on, come to think of it, is it really any different? It's like clockwork, 12 am hits, the embargoes drop and each ensuing unveil is ruined in the process. There's very little in the way of true surprises any more. With the exception of Buick, everything was either leaked, teased, or previously shown. Leave it to the brand that's capitalized on little old lady's proclaiming "That's not a Buick!" to have the one true shock of the show.
The biggest disappointment with the show in terms of the lack of surprise has to be the sheer number of non-debuts. No, I don't mean the carry-over models; I'm talking about those aforementioned introductions that were already shown. The Bolt? Electrified at CES. The M2? Revealed in October. The S90? Displayed in December. The 911 Turbo? Announced in November. The G90? Disrobed in Korea. The entire Mercedes press conference? Printed from the photo copier. The number of true world premiers were truly lacking at this show. Even the models that were generally something new were actually just new versions of existing debuts! A few more or less doors, an added trim, a bit more dressing; there was even a concept version of a production car that originated as a concept. Seriously, why?
Oh Big Beautiful Concept, You
While there were many debuts that literally put at least one journalist to sleep, there was a bit of excitement to be found at others. Perhaps one of the best kick-offs to an auto show ever, Buick proved once more that it can make a damned nice concept. What the Avista lacks in clever naming can be suddenly forgiven upon sight of that beautiful body. Every detail of this car is exquisitely perfect. This is one vehicle that could really change the perception of what a Buick is, unlike those silly commercials. It's not even that far fetched, in all honesty. Sure, many of the exaggerated details would never make it to production, but the heart of this concept could. With a platform that is just begging for my capacity and a powertrain that's been picked from the parts bin, I can't imagine it would be difficult to bring to reality. If the reception from the media days are any indication, there will be a lot of people shouting "Take my money!" during public days.
Another concept that I was pretty impressed with was the Acura Precision concept, albeit with another terrible name. This one is bit different than the Buick in that you have to see it in person. No, really, you do. Pictures do not do this car any justice, instead making it look overly angular and uninspired. Once you're up close and see how the light hits each panel as the car rotates on the turntable, its something to appreciate. Like the Buick, this is a vehicle that could help Acura become more than just the tarted-up Honda it's always been. There's an identity here to be established, and thankfully, its shield-less. With that said, this one isn't likely to be sitting in your driveway with a huge bow on it for Christmas. In fact, it never will be. What may actually come from this, however, is a new design theme for Acura; a design full of diamonds. Let's hope the diamonds stay with the concept while the rest reinvigorates the brand's appeal.
There is one car that looks like a concept, feels like a concept, and probably even smells like a concept, but it isn't one. The Lexus LC500 is by far the most shocking production car for that reason. Lexus has come quite a ways from the quiet days of yore when it was best known as a Japanese Buick. It's recent style revolution to change that image has been mixed, to say to the least, with each redesign gaining more spindle and more katana-formed angles. It hasn't been pretty. This car, however, is something to behold. This is a design that was lovingly sketched and nitpicked to perfect. Every line has a divine purpose as ordained by the design deity. The detail, precision, and craziness of this design could put most exotics to shame. Lexus, somehow, managed to craft a beautiful car. Yes, a beautiful Lexus finally exists; I never thought I'd say that.
Are We Sharing or Are We Copying?
In the automotive world, you'll quickly notice that new trends spread like wildfire throughout the industry. From the tail-fins and rockets of the 50's to the velour and design by cardboard box of the 80s, or the faux fender vents of this past decade; these trends come and go like that drunken hook-up you wished you never had. It's not just limited to design either, as I've come to find after sitting through numerous press conferences. By the end of the show, there was one spec I was continuing to hear over and over and over. I'm fairly certain a 3.0 liter turbocharged 6-cylinder with about 400 horsepower is the next must-have item on your luxury-sports car. First Buick, then Infiniti, and finally Lincoln all hit with exactly the same engine specs, while many more have varying horsepower figures but still employ the same basic engine. It's a repeat of the 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cylinders that everyone and their mother has.
Corporate Jealousy and Espionage
Media days at an auto show means a couple things will be present. For one, you'll see everyone hitting up the cappuccino stands trying to get as much a caffeine buzz as possible before running to the next press conference. You'll also notice an abundance of pushy people getting in your way at every step. Within these droves of human annoyances are a few different types of people. You have the determined photographer, the erratic journalist, the elitist CEO's and their protective posses, and finally there are the numerous manufacturer issued spies that run about making comments, taking notes, measuring gaps, etc. That last one is what I want to focus on. Let me just get this out of the way: I hate every single one of you. You get in my way constantly fiddling with sun visors and rubber moldings. No one cares what you think about company A's fit and finish compared to your company B's. Please, for everyone's sake, find a new, more meaningful job.
As much as they got in my way, there were some funny conversations to be heard. At the launch of the GMC Acadia, there were reps discussing the downsizing. Pretty much went like this: Rep A to Reb B: "Wow, this is suicide! They just handed the market to you and your new crossover. What were they thinking?!" Meanwhile, I'm siting beside Rep A trying to casually take a picture and pretend I'm not paying any attention. Hilarious. Then, we have the Honda Ridgeline and various reps crawling underneath to check out the bed construction. Afterwards, they point out how the bed is designed to appear separate all in the name of looking more traditional and manly but is really just a faux cut-line with some rubber weatherstripping. Finally, I'll leave you with a positive comment from another rep examining the Lincoln Continental. As he was admiring the door handles, he took note of the soft-close feature saying quite sternly "We don't have that." I wish I would have caught which manufacturer he worked for.
The Swedish do Everything Better
As a tired, hungry, and dehydrated photographer, sometimes you have to find time to stop and replenish. That actually doesn't happen, the stopping part that is. In this context it means switching from running to stationary not to relax, but to import photos and send them off to some online editor in a timely manner. Generally, this means working while waiting for the next press conference to begin. You can however, get lucky and sit down in the one of the various automakers' lounges. Here, you may do your work in a nice comfy seat with some delightful cappuccino. After running around I finally found my favorite spot to be: The Volvo Lounge. Staffed with genuine Swedes (one was pretty cute, too, not going to lie), they put the most care into making their drinks. Other lounges simply make a cappuccino while they lovingly crafted a cappuccino. Absolutely wonderful, I'm going to miss the Volvo Lounge.
Final Notes of the Quick Variety
After the photos I needed were taken, edited, and uploaded off to Romania, I finally had some free time to roam the show floor. This is the best part of media days at an auto show. Unrestricted access to nearly every car on the floor is a wonderful thing. There's no one to stop you from getting into any car you wish, except that damned Alfa Romeo Giulia; the Italians have no trouble denying you. I took this opportunity to sit in a few new releases as well as a few older releases I've been eager to fondle with the utmost disrespect. Readers beware: I suspect I may ruffle a few feathers with some of the following comments.
- Lincoln Continental: This car surprised me. I saw the spy photos, the press shots, etc. and I expected it to be a disappointment. In person, it has a certain presence, an air of prestige in which Lincoln has been lacking in recent years. This continues insides where it truly exudes luxury. They really nailed the look and feel of the materials, at least in the pre-production cars on display.
- Ford Fusion: As a vehicle that was already in my personal top 3 of its respective segment, I wasn't expecting anything crazy. In fact, I wasn't sure how I felt about the refresh at first. I don't know what I was worried about. The updates look good, but that's not the story here. Neither is the addition the delicious Sport model. I sat in the the new Premium trim and was blown away by how good it is.
- Chevrolet Malibu: Here is where I should say about how much of an improvement this model is over its predecessor. I'm not. Don't get me wrong, it's better, but its entirely incremental. The biggest departure is its looks and it does, in fact, look fine; it's certainly not offensive at all to my eyes. My gripe lies with the interior and what looks and feels like a downgrade in materials. Maybe I shouldn't have sat in the Fusion first, as that car makes this one feel positively cheap.
- Volkswagen Golf R: "Ah ha," you're probably thinking, "Here comes that bias!" Unfortunately for you, you will see no such thing. While I have briefly sat in a MK7 GTI before, it was at another auto show and I really didn't have much time with it; I didn't this time either. I did, however, have enough time to come away rather disappointed. As a current MK6 GTI owner, I really noticed a difference in quality between the two. It's enough of a downgrade to question whether I'd really want to every upgrade.
- Mazda MX-5 Miata: Oh sweet Jesus, if there is one car I would have liked to bring home with me, its this one. Such a gorgeous little car. It's as close to a perfect package as you can get and it fits me like a glove. Great touch points, slick shifter, comfortable seats, and practical enough considering its a roadster. If I had to nitpick, it would be over the rather useless cup holders and their nearly impossible to comfortably use position.
- Chevrolet Bolt: Strangely enough, I really like this little electric car. It's the first one of its kind that could actually be used as your only vehicle without having to shell out an arm, leg, and perhaps a testicle or two. The expected performance is even appealing and perfectly acceptable for its price. I could see myself owning a Bolt in the not too distant future. Am I crazy? I hope not.
Genesis G90: This car gave me an experience opposite to that of the Continental; I expected it to be legitimately surprising. In all honesty, it wasn't. Inside and out, this car failed to feel special. It has the content and everything falls in line within the segment, but it's value price betrays it. It looks and feels a step below its competitors, even if its just slightly so. Perhaps that's something to be proud of. Personally, I'd hand over the extra cash for the real thing, one with a soul.
With that said, this show wasn't its best year, nor was it the worst. A bit lacking in excitement, this years show didn't blow me away with exotic reveals or highly anticipated debuts. It was merely an adequate showing in Cobo. Does it matter? Of course it does. Despite everything, this was still an important show that somehow managed to feel more hectic than usual. It almost seemed as if attendance at media days greatly increased over my last stint here, having to fight more than usual for a good seat at each press conference. All in all, I think I may have to go back to press days for more touchy-feely goodness. It's just too bad I won't be able to enjoy Volvo's lounge... That was some damn good cappuccino.