Think Pieces

Michael's thoughts on the auto industry, its products, and/or this website.

Noob at the Auto Show

I've been to the auto show many times before. But this was my first time with access during the press preview days. Hence the title.

North American COTY and TOTY Winners

The first presentation announces the winners of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. I figure the Silverado has a lock, and that either the Camry or Fit will win the car award, so I tour the show floor instead of attending.

Then the Aura won, which surprises me since it has yet to come close to winning any comparison test. I later discuss the Aura's win with one of the few dozen prominent journalists who voted. His interpretation, which struck me as spot on, is that journalists felt that the Aura represents a huge step forward for Saturn, while the Camry and Fit are not large improvements for their companies.

So, these awards don't so much indicate which car is best as which is most significant, much like Time Magazine's Person of the Year is not intended to indicate which person is the best, but which had the most impact on the world during the year.

2008 Chrysler Minivans

I misread the location of the Chrysler presentation, so I arrive a few minutes late. I still catch far too many minutes of celebrity chef Bobby Flay teaching Chrysler president Tommy Lasorda how to make a chocolate cake. While sloppily icing the cake, Lasorda explains the relevance: like Flay's cooking, Chrysler's products combine quality ingredients with a little extra kick.

Lasorda then, at long last, introduces the new vans. After they drive onto the stage, he runs through their many innovative features, including skads of storage spaces, a one-touch power third row, a six-speed automatic, ambient lighting, and second-row windows that roll further down than anyone else's. He says he's saving the big one for later, and hands the presentation over to Chrysler's top engineer. The engineer says the new minivan is "a lot of fun to drive" before passing the baton to the top designer. The designer praises the new exterior's "purposeful modern look" (I'm not seeing it) and then rightly devotes the bulk of his talk to the minivan's innoavative interior features, ending with the big one, second row seats that swivel to face the third row, with a table between them.

In the last minute of the presentation the chocolate cake is served to a couple sitting around the table, completing the loop. Because of the overly long set-up and intervening materials, it wasn't exactly the "a-ha" moment someone thought it would be.

After the presentation I go sit in the new Town & Country. I find that it includes a large number of insightful features, but that the execution isn't as solid as it should be. Rear seat access and space are both severely limited with the second row swiveled. If you move the front seats well forward and don't mind interlacing legs with someone else, you can sit facing another adult back there. The sliding center console wobbles. And some of the instrument panel bits are very flimsy.

The square styling suggests a large amount of room, but they don't feel significantly roomier than the current vans. I later check the specs, and the interior dimensions are very close to those of the current vans. The Toyota and Honda vans both offer significantly more legroom.

Ford and Lincoln

The next presentation is by Ford. Ford's two presentations of the day are in the Cobo Arena, a small stadium. Aside from having more seats than the presentations on the show floor, the arena's stadium seating guarantees everyone a good view.

Bill Ford starts, then hands off to new Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who hands off to Mark Fields, and so forth. Each segment begins with an energetic video with extra-loud music. (Nearly every presentation includes music that is almost painfully loud.) At the conclusion of the video, a modest special effect provides a transition from the video back to the stage, where a concept or new production car drives up and disgorges an exec. After talking, each exec walks off the stage, the car drives away, and a new video begins.

Aside from the superior seating, well-done videos, and relatively fancy choreography, I enjoy the Ford presenations because its execs' presentations seem more sincere and heartfelt than others'. They know what shape their company is in, and they badly want to fix it. None of them simply goes through the motions. Later in the day, at a similar presentation for Ford's premium brands, the vow of Jaguar's chief designer to return the brand to its glory days evokes spontaneous applause from the audience.

What about the products? The Ford concepts look less impressive than I had expected, and the Five Hundred's new "Fusion-inspired" front end isn't enough to heat up demand for the car. On the other hand, the redesigned Ford Focus looks quite a bit better in person than it does in photos, and the Jaguar concept is marvelous. After the presentation I sit in the back seat of the Jag, and find that the rear headroom is viable, if barely so. So it's likely that the production car's roofline won't be much higher.

Bill Gates puts in an appearance via video link from the Consumer Electronics Show to announce Ford's exlusive use of SYNC through the end of 2008. SYNC, developed by Microsoft, integrates cell phones, iPods, and other such devices into the car's controls. It allows these devices to be operated with voice commands, and includes text-to-speech functionality for those who want to run through their text messages while driving. Tech-savvy people in the audience eat it up. Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, stresses that SYNC will be introduced in a dozen Ford models for 2007, including the affordable Ford Focus.

2007 Toyota Tundra

Toyota presents the crew cab version of its new big pickup. The presentation--which I watch on a TV screen in the Toyota area after failing to get a seat--includes the ads. These compare the components from "other pickups" to those in the new Tundra. The ones in the new Tundra are big and beefy. For example, the front brake rotors are 13.9 inches in diameter and are squeezed by huge four-piston calipers. I ask a Toyota rep how much these rotors will cost to replace if they warp. He responds that hopefully their size will mean that they won't warp.

The Tundra is large even compared to other full-size trucks. The instrument panel is tall and massive. The optional mirrors are enormous. In the back seat of the crew cab, I stretch to get my toes under the front seats--they're that far away. Front or back, I feel like I'm sitting in a truck designed for a giant. Which may well be what many people are looking for. Me, I prefer the interior of the Chevrolet Silverado. Aside from appearing more upscale, the lower, more compact instrument panel seems sized for the average person rather than a giant. The Chevrolet's front seats are also the most comfortable of all the big pickups.

2010? Chevrolet Volt

I fail to get a seat at the GM presentation. So I catch it over the many monitors in the GM area as I wander about looking at GM's vehicles. The presentation focuses on a GM concept that always powers the wheels with an electric motor. A battery pack--not ready for production until 2010 to 2012--holds enough energy to go about forty miles. There's a small gas engine aboard to recharge the batteries, overcoming the limited range problem that crippled GM's electric car, but people who recharge every night after the typical commute will rarely use it. Great concept, except it's just a concept. The toughest part are the batteries, and they're not here yet.

Acura Concept

Acura presents a new sports car concept. The music as the car is unveiled is so loud and yet so heavenly that some in the audience no doubt thought the rapture was upon them. But, no, it's just another concept sports car that, despite all the talk from Honda's head honcho about the "fine balance of technical precision and emotion" (think Art & Science), doesn't strike me as anything special. If a Japanese design firm rebodied a Corvette, this would be the result.

I mostly miss Audi's and Mercedes' presentations because the seats are taken well in advance. Apparently if you want a seat you've got to skip at least the previous presentation. The Mercedes presentation includes a small ice rink on which Mercedes demonstrates the traction of its all-wheel-drive vehicles. I somewhat hoped they would do some hot laps around the small rink, but instead the cars were driven slowly for short distances. The pack of journalists who snagged seats were never in serious danger.

2008 Nissan Rogue and Bevel Concept

I see this from my seat in the Nissan area. Nissan shows a new compact car-based SUV, the Rogue. Lots of loud music again. Lots of fancy talk about this being the crossover for young people crossing over into the responsibilities of adulthood. There's something about the Rogue being for people who much move quickly from oblivious to obligatory. I'm not impressed by the vehicle itself. The ends are too long and rounded, making the new Nissan look much like a shrunken Subaru Tribeca with a slightly less goofy face.

Nissan also shows a concept intended for older men, the Bevel. Totally over the top, I wonder how they justified the expense.

BMW

My last presentation aside from the Ford presentation already described is by BMW. I learn what happens when German engineers are allowed to write their own presentations. (At least I hope no PR pro was responsible.) The presentation is extremely dry, beginning with the make's tradition of announcing its sales figures for the recently concluded year at the Detroit show. They then show a few cars, one of which is entirely impossible to see, and the other two of which can barely be seen. And I'm in the seats! No matter, I already know what a 7-Series, the new X5, and the new 3-Series convertible look like.

Someone later tells me skipped the BMW show on purpose because it's always dreadfully boring. A BMW tradition, it seems.

DCX Party

Each year Chrysler hosts a party at a bar across the street from Cobo, all food and drinks paid for by them. But wait, there's more. Tending bar are DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche, all-time leading NFL rusher Emmitt Smith, and a pro-baseball player anyone who knows baseball would know. The last hands out signed balls. Many in the crowd are starstruck. I suppose I would have been as well, but I was told beforehand that this was likely, spoiling the surprise.

Thanks for reading.

Michael Karesh, TrueDelta

First posted: January 7, 2007
Last updated: January 10, 2007

Also:
Day Two at the Auto Show
Day Three at the Auto Show

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