2010 Detroit Auto Show: From The Outside Looking In

January 12, 2010
2010 Fiat 500 BEV

2010 Fiat 500 BEV

We don't use the word "I" very much in our writing at TCC, but this time, I suppose I'll have to: I'm going to give my take on the 2010 Detroit Auto Show from the vantage point of my office, which lies -- inconveniently -- about 1,000 miles to the south.

What can I add to the discussion from here in New Orleans? Well, while Marty, John, and Bengt are surrounded by the "trees" of the convention, I think I've got a pretty good view of the industry "forest", and I've spotted about five trends that look to have some staying power. Of course, NAIAS is far from over, and a few more themes may emerge before our gang stumble onto redeye flights and the Detroit booth professionals return to their, um, booths. If you spot something notable that I've missed (it wouldn't be the first time), feel free to send an email or leave a comment below.

* * * * *

1. Real EVs

Seeing alternative vehicles at auto shows is nothing new -- in fact, you could argue that we've seen them for over 150 years -- but many of those have been profoundly experimental. This year, however, things look a bit different: we're not just seeing hybrids (though there are lots of them), we're also seeing a bevy of battery electric vehicles like the Fiat 500 BEV (lower left) and the revamped Audi e-tron (above left). And of course, there are the hybrids-of-a-different-color, like the Chevrolet Volt, which John had the chance to drive over the weekend (minus the terrible dancers). In fact, it's practically a rarity to hear any news from the show floor about a pure combustion engine; hybrids and EVs have nearly become the norm.

Now, I know there's a big difference between auto expos and real life. There's a lot of media hype surrounding EVs, and I'm wary of getting too caught up in the giddiness of it all -- especially when neither consumers nor the charging infrastructure are quite ready for vast numbers of battery-powered vehicles. However, many of the models being show at NAIAS are both viable and desirable, which means there's at least a 50/50 chance that some will find their way onto American roads.

Even better, the automakers themselves seem to be embracing the technology rationally, taking it all in stride. Of the lot, I think Audi's approach is most interesting: the company has refused to do anything in the "mild hybrid" school, insisting that they're in search of the real deal, be it EVs like the e-tron, hybrids, or efficient combustion engines. To me, that says that even power junkies like Johan de Nysschen see the future, and it's far less gassy.

One surprising thing, though: the lack of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But then, maybe that's in keeping with this year's level-headed tone.

2011 Ford Mustang GT

2011 Ford Mustang GT

2. Stronger American offerings

Yesterday, Marty announced that two Ford vehicles -- the Fusion Hybrid and the Transit Connect -- had been named the 2010 North American Car of the Year and Truck of the Year. That's not surprising, given the great work that Ford has been doing over the past year, and with several new models in the pipeline, including the widely anticipated 2011 Ford Fiesta and the 2011 Ford Mustang GT (at left), we expect the good times will continue to roll in -- and out of -- Dearborn.

General Motors is pulling its weight, too. Not only has it produced the darling of Detroit, the Chevy Volt, but it's also showing some other solid contenders, like the Cadillac XTS Platinum concept. The XTS may not be the wackiest thing on the floor, but it's solid, and it's a very smart hybrid. For a company in transition -- one that's missing some key staff -- that's not too shabby.

Chrysler doesn't seem to be holding itself together quite as well as GM, but in many ways, it's had a tougher time of things. Chrysler had to manage not only a bankruptcy, but also a de facto merger -- and in the process, the company's product development ground to a halt. However, credit goes where credit is due, and you can't say Chrysler isn't trying. Frankly, I like the Chrysler Delta (née the Lancia Delta), and if I wasn't so bummed at the thought of trying to parallel park it every day, I might even consider buying one down the line. The Fiat 500 BEV, though, is definitely on my short list -- far above other small models like the Honda CR-Z.

Fiat 500 Abarth

Fiat 500 Abarth

3. Small is beautiful

Taking twin cues from the tech world (where tiny = sexy) and Europe (where tiny = fuel efficient), automakers are showing smaller vehicles in Detroit. As a small car fan myself, that's really exciting to see. Even bigass-is-badass GMC is trying to muscle in on the compact crossover market (which I call the Facebook Citybox market) with the GMC Granite concept, cousin of the 2011 Orlando. Sure, it stretches the definition of "beautiful", but the even-smaller 2011 Ford Focus, the Fiat 500 Abarth, and the new iteration of the Audi e-tron more than compensate.

2010 Detroit Auto Show

2010 Detroit Auto Show

4. Your car is now an iPhone with Corinthian leather seats

Nearly everything on the showroom floor in Detroit contains a set of gizmos to keep drivers and passengers connected to the larger world. In some cases, that just means a high-tech satnav, but sometimes it goes much further, as with Ford's updated Sync system. As Ford marketing VP Jim Farley said, "[W]hen you enter your car, it should be as cool as your iPhone."

As Farley elaborated, it became clear that Ford and presumably other companies may be changing their business model to build market share: "My point of view is that we create an open platform like iPhone and let the applications flow based on Sync. This seems odd, since you would think we want dollars, but we want the Sync community to grow and these applications are more creative than we can create." Whether or not Farley's dreams become reality, these high-tech devices -- which are still considered luxuries by some -- are rapidly becoming as standard as airbags and air conditioning.

That brings about a new set of concerns, of course -- namely, safety fears about added distractions. However, as I said last week, the cat is already out of the bag on in-car internet; it's now up to manufacturers and watchdog groups to use that technology to make driving safer, not more dangerous.

All three U.S. carmakers have several irons in the fire, but the President wants a clear plan before further help is offered

All three U.S. carmakers have several irons in the fire, but the President wants a clear plan before further help is offered

5. The auto bailout has not caused earthquakes or the apocalypse or the return of *N SYNC

At the risk of opening up a divisive can of worms,  I'm going to go out on a limb and argue that the 2010 Detroit Auto Show is proof that the federal government's bailout of the auto industry -- specifically, its loans to Chrysler and General Motors -- have not been the catastrophe many feared. Have they been the be-all, end-all salvation many others wanted? Probably not. But GM in particular seems to have taken the opportunity to move forward with new developments, new models, and of course, new staff.

Of course, many questions remain unanswered:

•  What would Chrysler and GM have done without the bailout money?

•  Would they have declared bankruptcy?

•  Would they have emerged from the bankruptcy/restructuring process as quickly?

•  Would dealers be in better or worse shape?

•  Although both companies seem to be rebounding, is that due to the loans or to the wider economic recovery?

The list of "what ifs" goes on and on, but most people I know have left the bailout behind. True, there were a couple dozen teabaggers protesting in the cold yesterday --  and significantly more auto workers who came out to protest the teabaggers -- but in all, America seems to have moved on: what's done is done, politicians stink, now what's for dinner?

No, seriously: what's for dinner? I'm starving.

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