By John Lamm
Detroit’s Cobo Hall has two main exhibition floors and at the 2018 Detroit Auto show they featured two different worlds.
Upstairs were the traditional vehicle displays. You would hear words like truck, SUV, horsepower and off-roading. Downstairs were the mobility exhibitions. Now the words floating about were ambient light value, algorithm, Lidar and Michigan State University.
About the only word common to both levels was electric as more and more automakers – Volvo, PSA, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, etc. – move their fleet electrification goals into the early 2020s.
BMW showed an updated hybrid i8 Roadster at the Los Angeles Show and at Detroit applied those changes to the Coupe. Some minor exterior changes, an updated battery and a power lift from 357 horsepower to 374 for its all-wheel drive.
We’ll start upstairs among the traditional show displays, some with setup costs in the millions. While all of the major American manufacturers had a big presence, you won’t find the likes of Mazda, Maserati, Porsche, Land Rover or Jaguar, all of which have begged off the show in recent years. To see any truly exotic cars such as Ferraris, Bentleys and Aston Martins, you have to go a side display put on mostly by local dealers, not the manufacturers.
While mainstream trucks and cars occupied the main floor at Cobo Hall, the exotic cars – Ferrari, Porsche, Rolls-Royce, etc. – were only represented in the side Gallery.
In past years you’d find hordes of journalists traipsing from one press conference to the next. Not so much anymore. Alfa Romeo, Audi and Chrysler had no press conference. Other automakers avoided the hall and press days for their presentations. General Motors’ lone conference was off-site, unveiling Chevrolet’s Silverado pickup truck. Ford covered its corporate lineup the night before the show opened. Ditto with Volkswagen, while a Mercedes-Benz extravaganza debuted its G-Class SUV in the Michigan Theatre, an ornate movie theater turned parking garage that was Henry Ford’s first factory.
Mercedes-Benz new G-Class, a boxy high-dollar retro machine, has been re-detailed but looks much as it has for the last 40 years. Mercedes-Benz spared no expense for the unveiling, which included an appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Another change is that the automaker’s message is no longer just about single products. Ford’s executive vice president and president of Global Markets, Jim Farley, points out, “Today we have mobility products, automated vehicle technology and electrification coming and an auto show focused on vehicles is not a venue anymore to tell the whole story of the company.”
Bill Ford, president and executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, takes questions after the company’s press conference.
From a media standpoint, huge costs and changing priorities could make auto shows vulnerable to other venues for corporate messaging, from the Consumer Electronics Show to Instagram. The Paris Motor Show, which has seen declining attendance, held a press meeting in Detroit to explain how it is revamping its format, with displays centered around four themes: cars, motorbikes, mobility and technology.
Then there’s the other half of the main hall auto show story: consumers. Farley points out, “The consumer side is still super important.” Shows are a chance for the new car buyer to check out products away from pushy sales people. Or they might be looking for that next vehicle on the Internet and need a neutral shopping environment to get close to the sheetmetal. Some estimates have auto show consumers spending an average of 3.5 hours at the show, much of that shopping.
Where some automaker’s hybrid cars look like oddities, Honda’s new Insight is simply handsome. The Insight’s hybrid powertrain is made up of a 1.5-liter engine, two electric motors and a lithium-ion battery under the back seats. Honda calls this a prototype, but expect the production version to be identical.
Honda/Acura spokesman Sage Marie explains their approach to auto show and sales. “It’s fishing where the fish are. We know that 60-75 percent of auto show attendees are in-market within the next 12 months. We know they are using auto shows to add or delete brands from their purchase considerations. You need to be there to be on their shopping list.”
Where to be can depend on the automaker. Honda and Acura sell cars through the U.S., so between the companies and their dealers they are at shows large and small. By contrast, Porsche may not have been in Detroit, but has a huge display at the Los Angeles Show, which is in one of its largest markets.
At the Detroit show an automaker can expect its vehicles to be exposed to more than 800,000 visitors. The New York and Chicago Shows claim attendance of more than 1 million. It helps that three of the major consumer shows–Detroit, New York and Chicago–are in the winter when buyers have more time on their hands.
In Cobo Hall’s basement was the Mobility display, its largest vehicle being the Swedish Einride T-Pod. This is planned to be an electric autonomous truck and you’ll note there is no cab for a driver. Only 23 feet long, the small semi has a range of 124 miles and is meant to make shorter but more frequent shipments. You can see more at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWo-3JrmzL0.
Now, downstairs to the much more dimly lit mobility show with its dozens of small meeting stands. If upstairs is a circus, this is a library. Quiet with many people huddled over computers. Autonomy demos. A solar race car. Michigan State University’s mobility car festooned with Lidars. An all-electric small semi so autonomous there is no driver’s cab. Wayne State University’s Formula SAE Warrior Racing car.
Quiet for certain, but one gets to wondering how soon all of this brain power, youth and foresight will be found upstairs in the circus.
A show star, Chevrolet’s 2019 Silverado has shed 450 pounds thanks to, among other things, aluminum doors, hood and tailgate. And it fits the classic 4×8-foot sheet of plywood in the bed.
Another combatant in the truck wars, FCA’s upgraded Ram 1500 drops 225 pounds. Engines range from a 3.6-liter V-6 to a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with the option of a mild hybrid system.
It’s been seven years since Ford bailed out of the mid-size truck market thanks to soft sales and ambitions for its bigger F150. That left the segment to Chevrolet and Toyota and what have been ever-expanding sales as consumers abandon sedans. Ford will be back in early 2019 with the all-new Ranger, which is actually adapted from Ford mid-size pickups in other markets. Here it will have one engine, a 2.3-liter turbo EcoBoost four backed by a 10-speed automatic transmission.
GAC is China’s Guangzhou Automobile Group. It plans to have vehicles on sale in the U.S. by the end of 2019, though their ambition might meet resistance from regulators in Washington D.C. GAC displayed a number of vehicles at Detroit, none that would capture your imagination except the Enverge concept of an electric car. It is said to have a range of 370 miles per charge and can be recharged for 240 miles in just 10 minutes. GAC faces many hurdles before it can sell here; however, is allied in China with FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) though whether that relationship will flourish here remains to be seen.
Arguably the best-looking automobile in Cobo Hall was Infiniti’s Inspiration concept. The automaker is trying to counter the conservative nature of many large luxury sedan designs. And yet Infiniti doesn’t have an entry in the segment, so this might be the next Q45. Under the Inspiration’s hood is the company’s ground-breaking variable compression ratio engine.
Wait, don’t say X-Motion, this concept is called the “cross motion” according to Nissan. Said to, “Fuse Japanese culture and traditional craftsmanship with American-style utility,” the Xmotion certainly has a strong presence with broad shoulders and a high waistline, wheels pushed out to the four corners. Expect to see those U-shaped headlights on future Nissans. XMotion rides on 21-inch aluminum wheels that have their tire tread physically laminated over them.
Remember Frank Bullitt’s green Mustang 390 GT fastback from 1968? Ford has brought it back again for 2019 with a 475-horspower, 420 lb-ft of torque V-8 with Brembo front brakes for those hard stops down San Francisco hills. Looks great in Highland Green with minimal badging. Ford showed the new Bullitt with one of the Mustangs used in Steve McQueen’s movie.
Presenting the original 1968 Mustang used in Bullitt were Steve McQueen’s granddaughter, Molly McQueen, and the car’s owner Sean Kieman.
Ford Bullitt Mustangs from 1968 and 2019 were the lead display at the entrance to Ford’s massive show stand.
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John Lamm started his automotive journalism career in 1965 as a racing photographer for Autoweek magazine. After a tour in Vietnam, he joined Motor Trend in 1969, then Road & Track in 1975, where he worked for 37 years. He has also written for Car and Driver and Automobile magazines. Credits include 10 books and Lamm has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor awards for writing. Lamm’s photo archives include hundreds of thousands of images ranging from an 1893 Benz Victoria to many of the latest automobiles. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades. Lamm lives in San Clemente, California with his wife, Scheri.