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Detroit auto show 2009: NAIAS preview and review A-Z

Tue, 13 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0800

By Tim Pollard

Motor Shows

13 January 2009 17:00

Day Two is below. Scroll to the bottom for coverage from Day One

4.10pm: The End
There's a real sense of humility, of stifled exhibition at the NAIAS 2009. Detroit's show is usually a byword for showmanship and razzmatazz. Not this year. We're seeing the industrial map redrawn – painfully, when you see UAW workers outside face to face mid protest – and there is a real sense of concern among most suits. Many of the German execs I've spoken to seem less perturbed, but there's little doubt the current crisis of confidence will leave this industry in a very different position to that of even 12 months ago. The big American giants are on borrowed time and we haven't heard enough at NAIAS to convince us that they'll persuade Congress to continue with their state support. It'll take a lot, lot more than a few EV concepts (some of them hastily contrived, you worry) to fix the rot. The time for sticking plaster first aid is over. Only major surgery will guarantee survival now.

3.21pm: The Blue Oval again
The new 2010 Ford Taurus takes pride of place on the Ford stand and it’s a slick-looking take on the Blue Oval’s exec. Thing is, all the tech (adaptive cruise, multimedia galore, blindspot detectors, AWD) probably adds more weight than the new EcoBoost engines can possibly counter. Ford is rolling out its downsized EcoBoost tech to 90% of its US fleet by 2013 – and the Taurus sports V8 power from its direct-injection turbocharged V6 with small-capacity economy, claims Ford. If the Taurus is where Ford is at, the Shelby GT500 Mustang is the company’s indulgent reminder of where it’s been. But to be honest, I’m more interested in where Ford is going and the Lincoln Concept C is a glimpse of the future. It’s a fascinating small show car – the luxury brand’s first compact model said to use Focus underpinnings and it reminds me of the Renault Megane’s bustleback. America is waking up to the downsizing revolution and it’ll be cars like the C that will make them fashionable here. Alan Mulally drove onto stage yesterday in a Fiesta, which is Ford’s first global small car. It looked good on stage, but on the road it’ll be dwarfed by the full-sized cars and trucks that prevail on the American streetscape. A mindset change is underway and switched-on car makers stand to benefit.

2.59pm: Back to GM
They’re dismantling the GM stand after yesterday’s whizz-bang presentation. It’s the first time I’ve seen the production Chevy Volt in the metal and I love it. Sales start next year and for me this range-extending plug-in hybrid is a groundbreaking technology. We’ve heard so many suits stand up and say that 80% of US journeys are less than 40 miles, meaning the Volt can theoretically be used without engaging the petrol motor ever. It’s smaller than I remember and its styling is refreshingly modern. I just hope it isn’t too little, too late for GM. By contrast, the Cadillac ConverJ in the other corner looks way-out-there unrealistic… The turntable spinning it around is creaking loudly and I don’t warm to the edgy concept looks of this ‘coupaloon’.

2.44pm: Chrysler revisited
The crowds are no longer swarming around the new Chrsyler 200C EV concept car and I go back for a closer look. It looks very like an American Insignia – and you could say the same about the Dodge Circuit next door. Even a layman can tell it’s a Lotus Elise/Europa in electric car drag. I like the look of it, but it’s hardly the most convincing electric show car. You can just imagine the phonecall. ‘Is that Hethel? It’s Bob Nardelli here – we’re in a bit of a pickle here and need you to knock up an electric Lotus badged as a Dodge. You know, like the Tesla you’ve done for those boys down in California…’ Thing is, the Tesla with similar powertrain costs £92,000 – which puts the relevance of this concept in perspective.

2.22pm: Not quite the Green Hell
You’ve got to seek out the weird stuff at motor shows. So I leave the main hall behind and descend into the bowels of the Cobo Hall. The basement has been turned into the Michigan Development Corporation’s EcoXperience and it’s a weird place. They’ve planted trees and bushes and waterfalls around a hybrid test drive area. Battery-powered Fusions and Escalades whirr silently around to the bemusement of onlookers. It’s a reminder that in America they take hybrids very seriously. Diesel just doesn’t feature over here, much to the chagrin of European car makers. Audi and VW, in particular, have been banging the derv drum at the NAIAS 2009, but they’ve got their work cut out when diesel costs a dollar more at the pumps.

2.12pm: Global Insight
I skirt over to the Honda stand to see the world debut of the Insight hybrid car. It’s incredibly similar to the wind-tunnel honed shape of the Prius – and I mean seriously, spookily similar. Right down to the wrapover glass tailgate. There are some echoes, too, of the original Insight inside, which is suitably futuristic with shades of Civic and green leaves flashing up to reflect your eco driving style. The new world’s cheapest hybrid is cramped in the back, though.

1.57pm: Mopping up time
About to do a sweep of the Cobo hall to catch up on those brands we haven't fully dealt with yet. Need to swing by The Big Three to have a proper look at the product close up after yesterday's press conference action. The VW BlueSport is my car of the show, I decide. Right car, right time. It's compact, beautifully simple and aimed slap bang at the MX-5. Being based on Golf componentry, it'll be cheap and I understand production is very likely indeed. I'd put money on it, in fact. It weighs just 1200kg and sports the 2.0-litre TDI engine tweaked up a bit, but my engineering sources say it'll get the rightsized 1.4 TSI in Europe.

1.27pm: Making a Fisker of it
Californian start-up Fisker are here in force with a prime stand and some exciting news to talk about. They've just unveiled the Karma S open-top concept at the NAIAS – a foldling hard-top version of the Karma we already know. Fisker claims 50 miles on electric power, and fleet performance thank to two electric motors generating up to 403bhp. I remain sceptical about Fisker's business model, but they say they have 1000 orders for the production version of the Karma, also shown today. Remove some of the concept polish of the concept and the real thing remains an exciting proposition. But I still struggle to see how they can make money when the fanciful plug-in hybrid costs 'just' $87,900...

12.53pm: Soul brother
A hidden gem: the new Kia Soul is a belter. Loads of space front and back, a neat head-turning design and real quality inside. I think this could be a hit for Kia and can't wait to drive it this year. It's way better than the risible Soulster pick-up truckette concept. Off now to see the Fisker, it's about to be unveiled. Oh, and thank you to everyone for your questions in the comments – I'm updating this from a PDA and don't have easy access to my documents, so will answer some of the posts a bit later today. I'd like to point out to JohnnyBimmer that I'm not in Detroit in shorts and t-shirts!

12.45pm: Prius disappoints
The new Toyota Prius is a bit of a letdown – there's one solitary navy blue car on the stand and it's swamped by Toyota staff receiving training so we're not allowed to get near it. Strange on press day. They've stuck with the aero shape (a slippery 0.25 drag factor), but to many visitors it's too close to today's car. No denying the clever tech, though... The new one has solar panels built into the roof to top up the charge while parked.

12.20pm: Trip to Chinatown
Last year everyone was talking about the Chinese auto makers' attendance at the NAIAS. This year, the stands have moved in from the foyer and are growing in stature. Brilliance Auto's boss is in mid flow of his presentation - in Chinese. The translation is stiff and formal, but there's no doubting the pace of change. It reminds me of 1989's Japanese revolution, but there's no doubt in my mind the Chinese have much further to go. Over at the BYD stand next door the cars are accessible and the F3 I'm sitting in feels right out of the 1980s. But who'd bet against the pace of change increasing at an alarming rate. More cause for concern for Detroit.

11.42am: Mazda stand
Nothing new at Mazda - pride of place 3 sedan and hatch have been seen before. But it's my first view and I've spotted a detail that really works in the metal: the design crease that nearly but not quite intersects the front wheelarch and door character line. An intriguing trompe l'oeuil that adds interest to an otherwise conventional C-segment car.

11.27am: Coffee with Bentley
Just had a coffee with Bentley engineering chief Ulrich Eichorn. We mull over the luxury car maker's challenges in an eco age. A formal announcement (a concept even) is due at the March Geneva show and we talk about the difficulty of satisfying every market: some could handle EVs, some E85, others diesel. But Bentley ain't big enough to offer multiple options and I sense a single solution is more likely. Should they downsize, trading V12s for bent eights? 'We'd need quad turbos and there isn't space,' smiles Eichorn. Guess the Bentley V12 is here to stay...

10.07am
As some of our bloggers noted on our original story, the Bentley Conti GTC looks great in the gunmetal grey of the new Speed version on the stand. Replete with anthracite alloys and cherry red hide interior, it looks a far tastier prospect than I remember. But all attention is cast forward to the Geneva show, where Bentley will flesh out its green strategy: diesels or hybrids or biofuels? We'll know in March.

Monday 12 January 2009, 10.00am
After some housekeeping on the website, it's back into Cobo to mop up what I missed yesterday. I'm a one-man band at this show, so there's plenty to report on on day two...

Day One below, Day Two above


5.50pm: Volvo wrap things up
Steve Mattin, Volvo's design chief, introduces us to the S60 concept car. They're really evolving the Swedish look and I, for what it matters, like it. I do worry, however, that this is one concept that could be neutered for production... We shall see. Fourteen hours after we started, it's time to wrap up today's blog. The stands are emptying and security dudes look like they might soon wield their naughty-boy sticks. Enough for the CAR Live Blog today. More to follow tomorrow. Hope you've enjoyed it. Feel free to ask questions overnight and I'll try and answer the best tomorrow. I'm off to have dinner with more industry suits. My notepad is bulging!

5.45pm: Gloomy news
Swap notes with other journos and realise that it's not just the auto industry that's suffering cutbacks; many newspapers and magazines are making staff redundant too. A gloomy mood pervades this Detroit, but we each clutch at signs of recovery. I just don't think it'll come any time soon...

5.15pm: Hotfooting to Jag
I've missed the Subaru press conference because of my Audi interview. But don't fear – we'll plug all the gaps in the next 24 hours. The crowds are swelling at Jaguar to see the new supercharged XFR and 2010 model year XKR. Mike O'Driscoll, Jag MD whom I interviewed earlier, takes to the stage and sounds confident and vocal. He had to cut short our interview earlier as a bad throat threatened his presentation at 5.15pm. In stark contrast to most manufacturers, the Jag message is fun and sporty – with a crashing Oasis soundtrack and a trio of cool white Jags, the new supercharged V8 models make their debut. And a surprise is in store; they've run a modified XFR on the Bonneville salt flats and set a new Jag speed record of 225mph, obliterating the XJ220's previous eponymous record.

5.12pm: I should contact my doctor
Bit worried about the risk of Repetitive Strain Injury from this mobile blogging idea. My fingers are nearly conked out!

5.05pm: Leaving Audi's office
Impressed by the library quiet tranquility of Rupert Stadler's office. Couldn't hear any of the motor show hubbub outside. It's my first encounter with Rupert Stadler, Audi's chairman, and he's told me plenty about Audi's future. The full interview will have to wait for another day, but suffice to say he's spelled out plenty about the new products waiting in the wings – including six new models this year.

4.25pm: Audi interview
About to interview Rupert Stadler, big cheese at Audi. I could be some time...

4.10pm: Lambo glitz
Uber-slick Lambo boss Stephan Winkelmann presides over a mini fashion show, then delivers a short, punchy speech. Definitely the prize for most economical use of time! New matte blue paint job on the Gallardo – and launched on Lambo's latest personalisation scheme – is achingly cool.

3.25pm: Buzzword bingo
Most commonplace phrase at this year's NAIAS press conferences? 'Electric', 'environment' and 'miles per gallon'. Thing is, the American makers are treating 30-40mpg as a miracle. It all depends on your starting point, I guess.

3.18pm: Kids' zone
There comes a point in every motor show press day when the security guards' guard drops - and all the schoolkids sneak in. I think there time has passed. That or there are some clever-clogs sub-teenage bloggers out there! Just seen Jag design boss Ian Callum checking out the Audi Sportback concept (which appears to be as much A5 Sportback indicator as A7 pointer).

2.55pm: Audi's A7 at last
Rush from Jag to Audi to catch the new A7 concept. Talk is of the company's forthcoming centenary (if you cheat the numbers a bit by going back to the brand's forerunners) and there's an expectation as hacks jostle for position to see the new Sportback concept. Oh, and the delectable 5.2 FSI V10 R8.

2.48pm: Jaguar's bosses
Out of long interview with Jag MD Mike O'Driscoll. He spells out the marque's future as a 'boutique' purveyor of fast, beautiful, tech-bound luxury cars. Talk is of Jaguar being the British Porsche, in volume terms at least. Full interview to follow. We'll be back for the XFR unveiling at 5.15pm.

1.04pm: Motor show cutbacks
Remarkably little in the way of refreshments at this year's NAIAS. Normally press days at motor shows feature stands handing out coffees, ice creams, meals and all manner of weird stuff. Just realised it's lunchtime and I've not even swigged a glass of water since half seven. Not expecting sympathy, just an observation... At least Chrysler's turned the lights on this time; at LA, its stand was bathed in darkness!

12.58pm: En route to VW
From BMW to VW, where word has it VW will show off the Golf-based speedster delayed from LA. Think Elise style for VW cash - and they're likely to press the production button.

12.52pm: BMW Z4 chops its top
My encounter with Bell means I'm late to BMW. They're talking up their sales performance in a tough market and point out the Spartanburg US plant is the country's biggest exporter. The Z4 looks better in the metal - the folding hard top makes it look neater and more compact some how.

12.48: a chance encounter with Derek Bell
Friend of CAR Derek Bell is here and happily chats for 10 mins. He's surprised how upbeat everyone is and says his car of the show is the SLR Stirling Moss. 'It's barmy - evokes the spirit of Stirling's original car. I love it.' But he let's on that Moss, a good friend, hasn't apparently even seen the car yet! If true, an interesting reflection on modern marketing. Bell raves about his day with CAR for our Porsche 60th anniversary special last year.

12.35pm: Press-friendly at Chrysler
President Jim Press is remarkably candid and gives us journos what we want: a frank assessment of the Big Three's problems. He says that 2008 was an annus horibilis - after a strong first half, Chrysler's fortunes nosedived. But Press openly reveals what his company has done: stripped out $2.4bn of fixed costs, cut 1.2 million production by stripping out unprofitable fleet sales and - this one's met by a groan from some in the audience - axed jobs. It's refreshing to hear a car exec confront his demons so openly. 'We have learned from it,' Press vows. Such humility makes his electric vehicle claims more plausible; Chrysler is already the US's biggest makers of EVs, he says, and the new 200C EV is the surprise of the conference. Looks very neat and he calls it 'what a Chrysler sedan should be.' Expect something similar in the coming years.

12.08pm: Honesty from Chrysler
Jim Press, president of Chrysler LLC, is being remarkably candid about their woes. He's the first Big Three exec to really tackle the current crisis. More soon.

12.01pm: Lambo's ladies
Italians pull off usual totty trick. Better photos to follow! Now to Chrysler to hear about their year ahead. I can see Jim Press standing on stage. Wonder if he wishes he'd stayed at Toyota...

11.55am: Late to Chrysler
Total logjam as hacks flood out of Ford conference. Gonna be late to Chrysler. Damn.

11.27am: Ford press conference
Several thousand journalists listen rapt to chief exec Alan Mulally's every word. But he's not going into detail of turnaround package; like Wagoner, he prefers to let the product do the talking. He arrives on stage in a Fiesta and talks about the supermini's launch Stateside in 2010. But he's upstaged by chairman Bill Ford, who comes on stage to announce a new global electrification strategy. Ford's done a deal with Magna to build a new pure EV in 2011 and struck a partnership with Chongqfeng in China to develop the tech further. If nothing else, the current crisis is forcing wholesale change at the very root of what the Big Three do. Ford's product on stage reflects the problem, though: the Mustang GT500 which poweslides around sits unhappily with the smaller Fiesta and new 2010 Taurus. Mark Fields, the Blue Oval's American president, says the Stang does 2mpg better than before - but it sounds like a suit blindly repeating the eco mantra just because of the zeitgeist... Electrification strategy is major news though. Will find out more.

11.20am: Feelin' Blue
A short hop from Cobo's ballroom to the Arena, where Ford traditionally host their debuts. It's packed and I'm sitting high in the gods as if about to watch a baseball game. Bet Mulally's bricking it/making last-minute rehearsals/in make-up!

11.10am: Lexus celebrates its 20th with a hybrid
As widely expected, Lexus marks the 20th anniversary of its launch - back at Detroit in 1989 with that first LS400 - with a new standalone hybrid. The HS250h is a small saloon shorter than, but as wide as, an IS. It uses a new 2.4-litre petrol engine running Atkinson principle valvetrain and, although no figures are available yet, they promise it's more economical than a Smart Fortwo in town. I'm not wild about the looks, but it's yet another reminder how far advanced the Japanese are. This anniversary part explains why America's domestic industry is in such a pickle.

10.50am: Sore feet already!
Enjoy soft carpet of Hyundai stand en route to Lexus to see the new HS hybrid...

10.38am: GM's brand confusion
As I leave the GM stand, I skirt past its various subsidiaries. And you know what? I'm not surprised they're in trouble when I see the blurred brand boundaries and out-of-kilter product of GMC, Buick, Saturn, Hummer, Cadillac and Chevrolet. Time to rationalise.

10.27am: Cadillac's surprise
Maximum Bob Lutz uncovers the Caddy ConverJ. It's a concept using the Volt's plug-in hybrid system, now dubbed Voltec. It can go 40 miles on lithium-ion electric power or up to 700 with back-up petrol engine. Lutz hints that it is likely to enter production in some form. And then the show's over. It's disappointing not to hear more from Wagoner on GM's plight but I'm left feeling they want the product - the small Spark and the large ConverJ - to do the talking.

10.22: Chevy Beat goes on
GM's just announced the Beat concept will be called the Spark. On sale in Europe 2010, rest of world - yes, including US - 2011. It replaces Matiz here.

10.11am: The crisis by Rick Wagoner
GM's embattled CEO is in full flow. I wonder how he keeps going... I first met him six years ago and he was backed into a corner then, grappling with change and crippling health costs. What keeps these titans of industry going in tough times? Today he spells out that 2009 is year zero; talk is of rapid restructuring, of new greener cars such as the Volt which lands in late 2010. Strange that the GM stand is backlit with a very Ford electric blue...

09.53am: Crowds at GM
Had been wondering why it was so quiet at Cobo: everyone - and I mean everyone - is jostling for position by GM's stand. How appropriate that the Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot is playing. GM's organised a strange publicity stunt with 500 workers waving placards saying 'Here to stay' and shouting 'We are GM'. Much wooping ensues.

09.42am: heading to The General
Wandering over to GM stand for first press conference at 10.00am. What on earth will chief exec Rick Wagoner have to say to allay the world's fears?

09.31am: Mercedes stand
Merc had a big shindig last night where we saw the new E-class, the Blue Zero concept and the barmiest McMerc yet, the Stirling Moss. They have no press conference today and I sail past their stand (which is lacking the new E... Where's the logic in that?!). The Blue Zero is a fascinating concept and I hear it's based on genuine next-gen B-class running gear. Dr Zetsche says low-volume electric Mercs enter production in 2010 - and we can expect 0-62mph in less than 11sec and a 120-mile range on electric power. I think we'll be hearing similar messages across the Cobo arena today...

09.10am: Arrival at Cobo Hall
We're here. Downtown Detroit is as rundown as ever. I'm still shocked by the contrast between affluent business hotel and the downright poverty many Michiganders suffer. It's a city of extremes, Detroit - and its decaying social fabric is an apposite metaphor for the turbulent conditions of its domestic auto industry. Let's find out what the mood's like inside. Another surprise. I walk from street to inside Cobo Hall in two minutes flat. I already have my accreditation and the final security test is done in a jiffy. My blood pressure drops several notches. Chocks away!

8.30am: Time to go!
I feel a bit nervous as I leave my hotel room. Detroit is a very civilised affair. A European show would have been in full swing by now – but the NAIAS doesn't kick off until 10.00am EST. Although my body clock is clearly all over the shop...

8.10am: Interview research
I'm having one-to-one interviews with Rupert Stadler, Audi boss, and Mike O'Driscoll, MD of Jaguar today. I flick through my notes and check out some cuttings online. The interviews are still a few hours away – ping me some questions to ask in the comments below and I'll try and get answers for you.

7.30am: Breakfast
Waitress doesn't understand when I ask about porridge. My American is very poor. Oatmeal duly arrives. Feel very full.

7.03am: Update website
Check the headlines overnight. The Audi Sportback concept embargo has broken (which doesn't, these days?) and I can see we're going to have a busy day. Motor shows are the ultimate adrenaline rush for a news hack – but they're also a l-o-n-g hard slog. Time for some breakfast to keep me going: there will be no time for eating at the Cobo Hall.

Sunday 11 January 2009, 5.57am: Wake up
Still a bit jetlagged, to be honest. There are several inches of snow outside and my bed seems more appealing. But it's time to crank up the laptop. It's going to be a long day.   

 

 


By Tim Pollard