2000 Detroit Show: The Final Word

January 17, 2000

Barry Gilcrest stood wide-eyed and slack-jawed, staring at the Jaguar F-Type concept car tucked neatly into a corner of Detroit’s Cobo Hall. "I’ve always loved Jags," said the suburban auto parts salesman, "and this one, well, I just have to have it."

2000 Jaguar F-type concept

2000 Jaguar F-type concept

"I just have to have it," gushed Barry Gilcrest over the Jaguar F-Type concept.

For the moment, the open-topped F-Type is just a concept vehicle, a fantasy in chrome, if you will. But Gilcrest might not have to wait all that long. There was an audible gasp when the covers were lifted on the sleek two-seater during last week’s press preview. The message wasn’t lost on officials from Jaguar’s parent, Ford Motor Co., which would have to authorize the project. When asked what would be the only thing to prevent Jaguar from building the sensuous sports car, Ford CEO Jac Nasser had a one word answer: "Stupidity."

As always, the North American International Auto Show is awash with new products — there were a total of 56 concept and production vehicle introductions during a four-day media extravaganza that literally ran morning to night.

Vehicles like the F-Type, the updated Nissan Sentra sedan, and the completely redesigned Chrysler minivans fall into traditional product segments. But a sizable share of the vehicles on display at Cobo Hall aren’t as easily defined. The Pontiac Aztek has a car-like chassis clad in a macho, sport-ute exterior. The Chevrolet Avalanche starts with an SUV cabin, then bolts on a shortened pickup bed. Chevy’s SSR prototype has been dubbed the "Corvette truck," for it has the sleek look and performance of a sports car, but a stylized pickup body.

"The boundaries are disappearing," suggested Dr. David Cole, director of the University of Michigan’s Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

The era of no-compromise vehicles?

In an era of heightened competition, manufacturers are facing pressure to come up with no-compromise vehicles. "Segment-busters," like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, aren’t likely to sell in huge numbers, like the mainstream Ford Taurus or Toyota Camry. But they are designed to carve out a small, loyal — and profitable — new market niche.

A study by the consulting firm, AutoPacific, Inc., suggests that nearly half of the SUV-like vehicles on the road in mid-decade will actually blend attributes of both cars and trucks.

This shift only underscores the dramatic change in the car business that one can’t help but see at the 2000 auto show. "The whole industry is changing," said General Motors Corp. Chairman Jack Smith. Indeed, Smith acknowledged, it’s hard to find any aspect of the auto business that isn’t being rethought. So it was perhaps not surprising that despite all the new sheetmetal on the floor of Cobo Hall, these products seemed to fade into the background at times.

2000 Ford 24.7 wagon concept

2000 Ford 24.7 wagon concept

The controversial 24.7 cars were as much (if not more) about connectivity as about driving.

One of the most controversial concept vehicles to debut this year really served as a "box" for new technology, Ford officials acknowledged. The chunky, futuristic 24.7 featured an array of voice-activated, Internet-connected telematic technology designed to appeal to a generation of wired consumers.

"Go back 100 years, Henry Ford put the world on wheels. Today, Ford Motor Company will put the Internet on wheels," declared Ford Chairman and founding family heir Bill Ford Jr.

His company all but orphaned one of the more eagerly-awaited of its concept vehicles, the Equator, a full-sized SUV meant to compete with the likes of the macho Hummer. Instead, Ford focused on the Internet — revealing, among other things, a new partnership with Yahoo! — and the environment.

PNGV: supercars and super economy

Those attending the 2000 NAIAS will get to see the first two prototypes to roll out of a joint industry/government consortium called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, or PNGV. Popularly dubbed "supercars," they’re designed to deliver 80 miles per gallon, or nearly three times the fuel economy of today’s midsize sedans. Yet if the Ford Prodigy and GM Precept ever do make it into production, the automakers promise to sell them for roughly the same price as the current Ford Taurus and Chevy Lumina.

2000 GM Precept concept Pearce

2000 GM Precept concept Pearce

GM’s "moonshot" Precept brought them in range to meet the government’s 80-mpg gambit.

"It was a real moonshot," said GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce. A long-time opponent of corporate fuel economy standards and other government-mandated standards, Pearce believes the PNGV could show a better way of achieving common goals. "Command-and-control regulations are not the way to get the industry to do the right thing. The market will get us to do the right thing."

Though there’s general consensus consumers aren’t willing to pay more for green technology, it’s clear buyers are demanding the industry come up with cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Honda spent much of its time in the media spotlight focusing on its own green machines, including the recently introduced Insight, the first hybrid to go on sale in the U.S.

Like the Prodigy and Precept, it uses two separate powertrains under its hood, in this case, a gasoline engine and an electric motor. Insight sales are likely to reach only about 4000 a year, but Honda aims to become more mainstream when it introduces additional hybrids in mid-decade. In 2003, the automaker also plans to become the first to put a fuel-cell-powered automobile into mass production, CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino revealed. That would put Honda a year ahead of such competitors as Ford, DaimlerChrysler and GM.

"It’s a real horserace," acknowledged General Motors Vice Chairman Pearce.

The mantra: more for less

To get a glimpse of some of the industry’s biggest changes, consumers need only look at the window stickers on display at Cobo Hall. Since the mid-1990s, new car prices have been falling by as much as one percent annually. And that doesn’t fully account for all the additional hardware that’s becoming standard equipment each year.

"Customers are demanding more for less," said Mazda Motors’ new president, Mark Fields. "If we don’t respond to that, we’re in big trouble."

A lot has changed since the 1999 North American International Auto Show. Ford has acquired Volvo. Nissan has relinquished a controlling stake to the French automaker Renault. GM has signed deals with Honda, acquired a 20-percent stake in Fuji Heavy Industries, the producer of Subaru vehicles, bought out the Hummer brand, and announced plans to buy out its partner in Saab Automobil.

The industry spent approximately $350 million to mount this year’s Detroit auto show. GM alone invested $50 million on its own, 165,000 square foot, two-story display, dubbed the "GM Experience." The goal was to underscore the vast breadth of its global product line.

But despite all the attention paid to the Internet, to branding and to mergers, the auto show remains a reflection of the fundamental truth of the new car market. The bottom line is product.

"Our ability to innovate will be tested more than ever before," said DaimlerChrysler Board Member Juergen Hubbert. "The carmaker of the future has to turn itself into a dream factory that serves the needs and desires of consumers."

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