2015 Ford F-150
The show, in which automakers often manage to synergize and synchronize their messages through production-bound vehicles and prototypes, as well as some farther-off concept-car ideas and carefully curated messaging for press conferences, is all that.
Yet the F-150, with its extensive aluminum construction, 700-pound weight loss, and downsized, turbocharged engines (and its decision not to offer the big-displacement 6.2-liter V-8 right away), is a brave, brave move—one that we’ll probably look back on as forever market-changing. And it sets the tenor of the show not necessarily by what it is, but what every other new vehicle isn't.
2015 Chrysler 200 - 2014 Detroit Auto Show
Did Detroit pull the plug on electrics?
Conspicuously missing from the show—outside of the Tesla Motors stand, and a few other exceptions—was much mention of plug-in and all-electric vehicles, as well as fuel efficiency. Whether the industry is suffering from green fatigue, or whether it's a matter of product cadence, a number of automakers pushed high-performance niche vehicles out to the forefront, and sidelined any green announcements.
Infiniti's press conference, for instance, made no note of the light-and-lean focus it had been aiming for in recent years—instead Johan de Nysschen spent much of his speech speculating about how large and powerful of a gasoline engine the brand could install in its F1-inspired, Q50-on-steroids Eau Rouge sport sedan—and there was no mention of the [reportedly quietly shelved] all-electric model that had been teased and suggested in the past. Likewise, Lexus pushed out a flamboyant, V-8-powered RC F Coupe that appeals to serious driving enthusiasts and aims to bring more of them to the brand, while Toyota's FT-1 Concept hints at a future production sports car. Subaru officially added a new generation of its aggressive WRX STI, making 305 hp, while Kia teased its first true sports car in a concept, the GT4 Stinger. And BMW's new M3 sedan and M4 coupe, as well as the new 2-Series—all performance-oriented models—grabbed a lot of attention. And Volkswagen introduced its 296-hp Golf R, an all-wheel-drive high-performance hatch that new Volkswagen of America chief Michael Horn called “a real sports car.”
Outside of muscle and horsepower, a grab bag of ideas
VW was also on the green tack a bit more than their German counterparts. In addition to the Golf R, the brand showed both the Dune concept—a Beetle given an Allroad/Outback treatment that might be welcomed in the U.S.—as well as a special Passat BlueMotion Concept that demonstrates how the automaker might squeeze 42 mpg highway out of a non-hybrid gasoline mid-size sedan.
2015 Acura TLX (prototype) - 2014 Detroit Auto Show live photos
2015 GMC Canyon live photos, 2014 Detroit Auto Show preview
In-dash tech a continuing thread
Of course if the undeniable market force of the F-150 is the prevailing wind, and the swells of a sea change, the technological transformation within cars remains the undercurrent that echoes through out industry, from some of the most affordable models up to prestige luxury cars. The revised interface in the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is one example of that, as are GM's announcements (through Cadillac and Chevy, initially) to get embedded LTE data services in its vehicles.
2015 Hyundai Genesis - 2014 Detroit Auto Show live photos
While performance cars were the headline and tech was the sidebar, neither of these themes are major market inflection points the way that the F-150's redesign might be. The Ford trucks pretty much cast a shadow over everything and made some of the other brands look arguably unduly focused on extravagance and higher hp.
Slip-sliding back to a 2004 attitude?
Is there a market for so many high-performance cars? Are we witnessing the industry turning away from its fixation on green messaging and marketing? At its worst, it's complacency, and the business overextending itself...rubbing its own backs.
And that leads to an important final word. As the auto industry surges ahead, seemingly in some ways like 2009 and 2010 never happened—and we're simultaneously heading into what some are calling a worrisome auto-lending bubble—the run-up to higher auto sales could use an attitude adjustment. And possibly, a few more market-changing products like the F-150 that look to play the long game.