No one cares, at least not among the automotive press, as to what happens at the (Phoenix) “Arizona International Auto Show” held every year over Thanksgiving weekend. There are no world or US product launches, no concept cars on display, and only a few attractive booth babes. Just a bunch of production (or almost ready to launch) vehicles for the masses to touch, feel and some even to drive (on the road) or experience (like Jeeps on an indoor obstacle course) sprinkled with a few exotics (roped off of course) to ogle over.
But TTAC cares. Why? Because the world of automotive retailing depends on the masses to buy cars, lots of them. The folks who go to smaller market car shows don’t go to see the whimsical fancies of vehicle designers (cause there aren’t any), they go to check out real cars that they might buy. Watching and listening to these attendees can tell those of us that care where the winds of favor will blow. What’s hot and what’s not.
Here’s my take. Toyota and Honda are mostly last decade’s news. The public blew past their booths, barely giving the new Camry a glance, and ignoring the already disparaged Civic. The Prius V – meh – just a larger Prius. And Scion’s new IQ? There’s no chance of this vehicle gaining sales traction except in dense urban environments where parking is a premium or for ZipCar users. It’s just too small, not “cute” enough for high school cheerleaders, and not macho enough for…meat eaters. Both of these Japanese brands have resorted to dumbing down their product so far that they’ve become messes of mediocrity. Functional perhaps but competitors are passing them by…and so are shoppers.
Nissan is a bit more interesting than its two Japanese rivals, but that’s not saying much. At least there were some folks looking at the Murano Cabriolet, admiring its soft palette color clearly reaching for the heart strings of the ladies. But it’s expensive, lacks any utility whatsoever, and seems almost as a desperate attempt to revive sales of its base platform. The other mainstream cars – Versa, Sentra, and the aging Altima – had few showgoers touching or feeling them. Maybe the public is getting bored with Japanese cars? I am.
On the domestic front, things look better but the skies are still cloudy. Jeep brought their indoor adventure ride to prove the ruggedness of the Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler. It’s impressive to watch these machines, loaded with attendees, tackle obstacles that would destroy ordinary sedans. The public loves it and Jeep, Marchionne’s savior brand for Chrysler Group LLC, is bringing home the bacon. How much can the Wrangler really cost to build? And the development costs of the GC got wiped out in the bankruptcy. On the other hand, the Fiat 500 is now definitely considered as a “chick” car thanks to J Lo’s advertising. It might be cute but didn’t seem to be generating the buzz it needs among the crowd.
GM’s main sales driver is Chevrolet. People still get excited about the Corvette, the Camaro found a nerve with the politically incorrect, and its trucks pay for all of it. But the new Sonic – believe it or not – is truly competitive as a B-segment offering. It’s fairly substantial feeling – the doors close with a solid thunk, the interior is one of the best in the segment, and when the turbo 1.4l becomes available, it will become a darling of the community college crowd. Buick on the other hand is nice but….soft. The new Verano will be a sales flop. A tarted up Cruze that’s too small for most old folks…oh wait, that’s not Buick’s target market any more. How could I forget that the Regal is going after Acura buyers now…really? Was Acura even at the show?? Did anyone notice?
Ford. Someone needs to tell Ford to stop messing around with the consumer electronics interface and get back to some basics. I drove the Fusion Hybrid and it’s lacking (more on this later). I know a new Fusion is due next year and it can’t come too soon. The switchgear in this car is awful – plastic parts from years gone by. The driveline made funny noises – a couple weird clunks here and there and engine noise penetrated the cabin. I hated it. I then switched out and drove an Ecoboost 2.0L Edge. Surprisingly, it seemed to be adequately powered for a blown four, quiet on the inside, and fairly plush although the MyFordTouch is completely baffling. But then I saw something astounding. The driver’s door edge trim (where the door skin overlaps the door frame) was poorly finished. Creases were obvious and there was some pocketing that had started to rust – on a brand new car! I checked the other doors – same thing. And opening and closing the doors – light and tinny. The door handle mechanisms felt like they would break off in my hand. Alan – if you’re listening – you’ve got some work to do on the basics.
The star of the show – wait – it’s Kia. Yes, Kia. In particular, the new Optima. Get inside one. Check out the interior, the switchgear, the roominess, and finally the price tag. Amazing. And that’s not the only car in the lineup that’s impressive – the public flocked to the display checking out the merchandise. I can see why. I experienced the Optima Hybrid at the test drive center before entering the show. I was a back seat passenger – but couldn’t tell it was a hybrid. Smooth and quiet unlike the Ford Fusion Hybrid I drove later that day. I also drove a loaded Optima Turbo. Heated and cooled seats in a $31,000 ride! The car was powerful, smooth, and better than any Japanese car now offered in this segment. No wonder Kia can’t make them fast enough.
So there it is…the future is being led by the Koreans. The domestics are in second. And the Japanese are trailing by a mile. The world is changing fast. Who would have guessed?