The phrase, “Like kids in a candy store,” came to mind watching the crowds ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the multi-colored, gleaming exhibits at the 2011 North American International Auto Show – aka the Detroit Auto Show. Compared to last year’s rather subdued and timid affair, this year’s show, which closes tomorrow, really rocks!
Americans are excited about cars, and whether they are dreaming over shiny and gumball-colored concept cars offering promise for the future, or comparing the many fuel-friendly economy models, there really is something for everyone this year.
“The main thing … is that it’s grown in size and vigor, the mood is more upbeat. It is a signal that the car business is making a good comeback,” said Don Hicks, President of Shortline Subaru, who attended the show’s Media Day event preceding the public opening.
“There was great spirit in Detroit … everybody is very excited,” said Pete Tynan, General Manager of Tynan Volkswagen, who also attended Media Day. The optimism is also apparent in the substantial increase in attendance over last year – expected to hit 750,000.
“It’s all eye candy,” according to Hicks. “The displays are spectacular and the technology is unbelievable.” Unlike many years past, much of the technology on display will make it to showrooms sooner rather than later.
Hicks, who also owns Porsche of Colorado Springs, was particularly keen on the Porsche 918 RSR, which uses a unique energy-storing device that can be tapped by electric motors driving the front wheels and boosting output to 767 horsepower. “Amazing,” enthused Hicks, Is it for sale? No. Will it be? Some version of it is likely in the fairly near future.
Electric and hybrid cars are a major presence at the show and are expected to figure heavily in future new car sales, both because of fuel economy and environmental desirability.
Automotive journalists at the show named the Chevy Volt hybrid, which hit showrooms this fall, the North American Car of the Year. Toyota unveiled a couple of additions to its Prius lineup: The Prius V adds 60 percent more cargo space and seats five; the Prius C is a smaller hatchback. Toyota clearly is leaning on its hybrids to help repair a reputation battered by media focus on recall scandals.
Ford showed off three versions of its new, compact, C-Max minivan: gas, gas-electric hybrid and plug-in hybrid – the hybrids have an electrically-generated speed of nearly 50 mph and are expected to get more than 40 mpg. Ford also introduced its electric Focus, which it says will beat the Volt in energy efficiency.
There was a mini “test track” on the lower level of Cobo Hall, where show-goers could take a spin in one of these intriguing hybrid vehicles.
Other notable gas-sippers included a new Honda Civic Si concept car, very similar to the ninth-generation Civic available for sale this spring. Chevy introduced its new Sonic compact, and Buick its new Verano, a premium compact with upscale interior finish. The two cars will be built side-by-side in a factory just north of Detroit.
Chrysler, now owned by Fiat, showed off its Fiat 500 subcompact, already popular in Europe and making its American debut. Hyundai’s 40 mpg Veloster sports a one-door coupe style on the driver side, and two-door sedan style on the passenger side. “Forty miles per gallon seems to be the new benchmark,” said Hicks. “We saw a lot of that.”
Diesel engines are making a comeback, especially among European manufacturers. Volkswagen showed off its redesigned, larger Passat, which comes in three versions, including a diesel. “I think the diesel will be most prevalent,” said Tynan. “It’s already popular in Germany, where gas costs $8.00 a gallon and they want a car that goes 100 to 125 miles per hour.” The Passat diesel is rated at 43 mpg, according to Tynan. It will be in showrooms this summer, he said.
It wasn’t all about size and efficiency, though. Chrysler also unveiled its updated, full-size 300 – the redesigned grille is already the creating buzz. BMW is showing a smoking-hot 1-Series M Car and a sophisticated new 650i convertible. You like muscle cars? How about the Ford “Boss” Mustang? It sports a 444 hp V8 and a top speed of 155 mph.
Trucks and SUVs still lead in popularity; the Ford Explorer won the North American Truck of the year and GMC dazzled with its 390 hp Sierra All-Terrain Concept, a hint of things to come in 2013.
The NAIAS has been a blossoming party of sorts for American automakers. Their emergence from the financial disaster of a couple of years ago has been nothing short of astonishing. Once hammered for boring style, quality and general unresponsiveness to consumer desires, Ford, GM and Chrysler have turned the corner. Their models’ quality, safety and efficiency now often exceed foreign makers’ and they are in the forefront of automotive technological developments.
Ford and GM are hiring and all three automakers are beginning to turn a profit. Japanese and European automakers are also ramping up their U.S. production. “This is really supporting the American economy,” Tynan said.
Tim Jackson serves as president and CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association