The Wrong Auto Shows
They tell us more than the big Detroit exhibition.
Once again "Gearbox" has fallen behind. Excuse: There was that presidential election to cover. I know, I should have stuck to cars.
In a previous installment, I promised to write about "auto show winners and losers." That was--yikes!--almost a year ago. We're now in the middle of another auto show season, with big events in Los Angeles and, currently, Detroit. But, hey, why limit ourselves to whatever the manufacturers are hyping this year? Do you care about the Ford Explorer Sport-Trac Concept? Neither do I. The New York Times recently profiled Peter Horbury, who until recently was busy designing Aalto-esque Volvos. Now his "priority," is "to revive Lincoln, Ford's lagging luxury brand." But wait a minute--only five years ago a long-haired Brit named Gerry McGovern was chosen to revive Ford's lagging luxury brand. McGovern's auto show designs were elegant. What was so wrong with them that they now must be trashcanned? Were they too elegant for Lincoln, which now plans to become an "almost luxury" brand? Sometimes you learn more by ignoring today's news.
So come with us now to the thrilling auto shows of yesteryear, handily cataloged by Automobile magazine on this page. By far the best was the wacky Tokyo show of 2003. But they almost all have something to offer--and the rare exotic prototypes from two years ago seem even rarer and more exotic because they're now forgotten. Then we can turn to the current non-excitement in Detroit:
Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione: So what if it's less attractive than Giorgio Giugiaro's 1964 Alfa Canguro. It's sexy, it's red, and it has rear-drive. You can't have too many variations of the '60s coke bottle for me. (Frankfurt show, 2003) ... Better yet, why don't they just put the Canguro into production?
Honda Kiwami: Longer, lower, wider! Haven't heard that in a while. This is the handsomest fuel cell zoomer so far, beating out the Toyota Fine-N and the insane theme-park-ride-like Suzuki Mobile Terrace. (Tokyo, 2003)
Peugeot 407 Elixir--a new design that probably seemed old in about an hour. But very pretty. (Frankfurt, 2003)
Mitsubishi SeRo Concept: You have to love this weird-but-inspired dirigiblish thing. It looks like the Brain-bug from Starship Troopers! (Tokyo, 2003)
Nissan Fuga: I haven't figured out why the production version of the attractive Fuga concept car--the new Infiniti M45--looks so drearily like a Maxima. I think it's that they shortened the nose (or enlarged the cabin). (Tokyo, 2003)
Mitsuoka Orochi: Kids draw cars like this. And I mean that as a compliment. (Tokyo, 2003)
Toyota FJ Cruiser: If only for its beautiful retro-blue color, it's far preferable to the current, pompous, Lexusized Land Cruiser. (Detroit, 2003)
Hyundai OLV: Some cars are so ugly that they're not (sort of like Harvey Weinstein!).
BMW 1-Series: Anyone want a four-door that sags? (Paris, 2004)
Renault BeBop: Trying way too hard to be happy. (Frankfurt, 2003)
Audi LeMans Quattro: All the unfortunate disposable-razor styling themes that are now destroying Audi's global design reputation were previewed in this vehicle. (Frankfurt, 2003)
Toyota PM Concept: When you watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers, were you rooting for the pods? Then this is your car. (Tokyo, 2003)
Ford Visos: "It was cold and lacked sex appeal," says Automobile. They're right. Click if you want to know what an electric shaver with wheels looks like. (Frankfurt 2003)
Hyundai HC8 concept: Possibly even more of a hack styling exercise than Toyota's critically derided Scion TC. (Detroit, 2004)
Nissan Jikoo Concept: It's a Japanese heritage thing. I wouldn't understand. (Tokyo, 2003)
Mitsubishi Eclipse Concept E: Why is Mitsubishi currently in a sales death spiral? In part because of hideous creations like this. There's overcapacity in the auto industry, remember. Somebody has to go broke. It might as well be the company building the ugly cars. (Detroit, 2004) ... Update: The production version, unveiled this week, is more palatable. Also duller.
The Saturn Story--Alternate Take: Here are the plot points of the Saturn story thus far, as told by General Motors and swallowed hook, line, and sinker by much of the mainstream press:
1. Roger Smith has the idea for a stand-alone GM division to compete with the imports.
2. The Saturn line "never live[s] up to its glossy promotion"--but its popular no-hassle sales policy enables it to survive. "Somehow we believed that if you got a reputation for wonderful dealer service, then the product didn't matter," as GM vice chairman (and blogger) Bob Lutz puts it.
3. GM is now trying to save the brand by having it market Opel-designed cars.
Now here's the Saturn story as Gearbox sees it (using blunt Lutz-like language where applicable):
1. Roger Smith has the idea for a stand-alone GM division to compete with the imports.
2. Saturn attracts GM's best workers--those willing to move to Spring Hill, Tenn., and trade the protection of union work rules for the chance to build a good car.
3. They succeed in building the first small American automobile that's as reliable as a Honda. In 1994, Saturn is the nation's fifth-best-selling car.
4. The rest of GM--management and UAW--bitterly resents Saturn's success (which makes the non-Saturn divisions look bad). GM headquarters starves Saturn of new products. When Saturn finally gets a new midsized car, the UAW and GM insist it be built at a tired old-style factory in Wilmington, Del.
5. Predictably, the new Delaware Saturn isn't reliable. In anticipation of this development, GM starts pretending that "wonderful dealer service" and not "import-level reliability" is Saturn's unique asset.
6. Sales predictably suffer. Having succeeded in almost killing off Saturn, GM now proposes to cut costs and save the brand by having it market Opel-designed cars.
7. But the record of Opel-designed cars in the U.S. is abysmal. The midsize Saturn was crap. The Cadillac Catera was crap. The original Opel-based Saab 9-3 was no great shakes. The reliability of the updated 9-3 model is "much worse than average" in the latest Consumer Reports rating.
Credit: USA Today's story gets at some of this--I've noticed in going over the clips that USAT's coverage of Saturn since the mid-'90s has been consistently better than that of the New York Times, which tends to cover Detroit the way Bernard Weinraub covered Hollywood (i.e., as if filing from an exotic foreign country). 1/14/05
The Curse of the RFs: AutoSpies--a highly recommended site--features the five "most disappointing cars" of the year. The Ford 500 makes the list. It sure looks like my prediction--that the 500 would be a hit while the Chrysler 300 would be a flop---may have been precisely wrong. But the Ford's still chunkily classy while the Chrysler's tacky, I say, even if Ford executives are tripping all over themselves to apologize for its dullness. ("We may have taken our eye off the ball slightly on innovation") ... Update: Alas, I've now sat in a production Ford 500 at the L.A. show, and the interior that looks so appealing from a few yards away is distinctly unimpressive up close. The stock paint job is pathos-inspiring. You want to start contributing to the UAW layoff fund immediately. ... Maybe the 500 drives well (and if it's reliable all is forgiven), but the Ford Fusion--a restyled Mazda 6 that Ford presumably intends to charge less for--looks much better-built. Heck, I think I might like the aging Taurus better. The Taurus has a comfortable rear seat. The 500 doesn't. ...
The AutoSpies also ask, about Acura, "How can their flagship [the new RL ] not be the best looking car in their product line?" That one's easy! Flagship sedans are usually the blandest cars in a product line, for the simple reason that expensive cars are bought by mature, wealth-accumulating people with conservative design tastes--i.e., rich fogies. Meanwhile, merely semi-expensive cars are bought by young, often-single people who want a zippy bit of style. That's why the cheaper Audi A4 has always been better-looking than the stodgy $66,000-$117,000 Audi A8. The Rich Fogy Factor also partly explains how the top-of-the-line Lexus LS got to be a pathetic amalgam of styling cues borrowed from other luxury brands. The RL is standard RFF procedure. ... P.S.: Long-haired Lincoln designer Gerry McGovern once conceded, in a New York speech, that he was wrestling with the problem of rich Lincoln customers with bad design taste. He seemed to feel he could finesse it. He tried. But Lincoln seems to have finessed the problem in another way--by abandoning the top of the market. ... P.P.S.: The RFF also obviously underlies the tragic decision by German luxury carmakers to load up their cars with driver assisting electronics. ... 1/14/05
New Passat: Doesn't it look a little ... Banglish to you? 1/14/05
A Nose for Nose: A Greek, Andreas Zapatinas, took over design at Subaru and soon the company's concept cars were spouting little strange shaped "branding" snouts--this time with wing-shaped air intakes as whiskers. The truly bizarre thing is the snout works! The Subaru B9Sc concept roadster was about the best-looking vehicle at last year's big winter auto shows--not showoffy, just pretty. This year the company unveiled the b9X "Tribeca" semi-SUV, a car that will actually be built (and apparently do double duty as a Saab). It's pretty too! The trick is that Zapatinas--unlike, say, Chrysler's design team--keeps the details clean and '60s-esque even while he accepts current styling gimmicks--a "heritage" schnoz, fenders that look like add-ons, organic haunch bulges. He's looking like a brilliant hire. ... Update: They had a production b9 at the L.A. show, and it's not as nice as I expected. It's nicer! Extremely clean and solid-feeling--the star of the show, in my opinion. And not by a small margin neither. Subaru will want a lot of money for this thing, and they might get it. ... 1/14/04
Tweel of Fortune: The Segway, despite the hype, has not changed the face of urban life as we know it. But the Tweel might. ... 1/14/05
Autoextremist Skipper: I've now read all 75 single-spaced pages of Autoextremist.com editor Peter M. DeLorenzo's end-of-year rants so that you don't have to! DeLorenzo is one of those annoying "car guys" who divides the world into, well, "car guys" and the various idiots who don't understand "car guys." But he has smart, pithy things to say, and he says them again and again! His best points (in order of increasing estimated overall quality):
16. Ford designer J Mays blew it on the 500. "You can never look too much like an Audi, can you?" said Mays, which DeLorenzo calls the "Bonehead Quote of the Year."
15. Pontiac sold only 10,000 GTOs last year, despite a big rebate campaign.
14. Old clichéd car company buzzword: "Brand DNA." New clichéd buzzword: "Active Lifestyle."
13. Ousted DaimlerChrysler executive (now VW executive) Wolfgang Bernhard is a real "car guy"--indeed the "Ultimate Car Guy." DeLorenzo can't say enough good things about his man Bernhard and his "visionary excellence."
12. Mercedes "brand has slipped" because of its decision to build so many "down-market" cars and its "infatuation with electronic gizmos (which have failed at an alarming rate)."
11. "BMW has 'jumped the shark.' " CEO (and Microsoft board member!) Helmut Panke has degraded the brand by producing too many soulless models with technical glitches. He "allowed Chris Bangle to run amuck and destroy BMW's design presence literally overnight." (Hey, I thought Bangle-bashing was my brand DNA!)
10. Porsche has "turned its back on the company's ... brand" (sense a pattern here?) by spending so much money on the Cayenne SUV, which earned short-term profits but "is on the verge of being played out in the market."
9. The LiFan group, a major Chinese motorcycle manufacturer, plans to call its first car the "Doodoo" because--according to its chairman, the "name sounds round and fat, like Audi. ... Cars with names that sound thin and hard don't do as well."
8. VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech is a "car guy," but also an egomaniac whose attempt to move VW up-market with the $70,000 Phaeton was a colossal mistake.
7: Mercedes' $300,000 Maybach-a sales debacle!
6. Hondas have become dreary.
5. Lincoln has given up competing with Cadillac at the top of the market. Bad move. Who needs another "near luxury" car?
4. Hybrid cars may face big repair problems down the road when they need to have their batteries replaced.
3. Hydrogen cars will be no fun to drive. [Why?--ed. He doesn't say.]
2. The hip-hop "dub" trend has shark-jumped too, in part because Detroit tried too obviously to ride it, instead of just letting it happen.
1. NASCAR is wildly overrated as a marketing tool. If NASCAR racing actually made cars into sales winners, then why are the models featured in NASCAR races--the Ford Taurus and Dodge Intrepid--sold in bulk to rental car fleets?
P.S.: DeLorenzo's excellent coverage of the current Detroit auto show is undoubtedly more informative than actually being at the show. And after hearing his account, you'll be happy you weren't at the show. Go read it before he starts charging for it. Then come back to "Gearbox" in a few days to see if I've managed to catch up to the present.
P.P.S.: Your permanent get-the-latest-"Gearbox" link is here. 1/14/05
Photographs of: 2006 Subaru B9 Tribeca by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images; Saturn Aura by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images; Saturn Sky Roadster by John F. Martin/Getty Images.