By on November 27, 2011

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?

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26 Comments on “Who Cares About The Phoenix Auto Show?...”


  • avatar
    wallstreet

    I cordially invite you all to check out Houston Auto Show which falls in the same category as Phoenix Auto Show.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    “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.”

    Changing very fast indeed. Did the Germans decide to stop making cars?

  • avatar
    lilpoindexter

    Sounds like a good place for a buy here pay here place to set up a booth, and show off the latest models from 2001 for only $19 a week.

  • avatar
    SV

    I don’t know if any broad conclusions can be drawn from an auto show visit. The Japanese are boring, yes – but what else is new? They may not draw crowds at an auto show, but their reputation for reliability and ease of ownership draw big crowds to dealerships. As an aside, my personal opinion is that Honda is the only Japanese carmaker going through a “malaise” right now; Nissan’s about the same as ever, Toyota’s avoiding bloat and putting some content back in (going by the new Camry), and Mazda’s on a roll with Skyactiv and a new styling theme that isn’t ridiculous.

    As for Ford, their quality issues of late have been well-documented, and I think they’re being taken care of. I agree that the Fusion’s interior is looking old; the soft-touch parts are nice but the stuff lower down looks quite flimsy, and yeah, the controls are a bit clunky (though, functionally, they’re arguably better than the new setup they’ve got going in the Fiesta and Focus, which is sure to migrate to the 2013 Fusion). As for driveline smoothness, I can’t comment personally since my experience with the Fusion is limited to the 4-cylinder, but reviews have generally been quite favorable; Consumer Reports in particular loves it. The Sonata/Optima Hybrid on the other hand has been slammed for poor drivetrain refinement by several publications, which I believe is a result of the type of hybrid system it employs. I’m more inclined to go with those reviews over a back-seat ride-along, no offense.

    I think the Edge is one of Ford’s weakest products anyway, but rust is alarming. There may be something exceptional about that particular car, but it’s not a good sign in any case.

    • 0 avatar
      Ken Elias

      Keep in mind this is based on my “experience” at the show. The Fusion Hybrid would have been crossed off “my” list no matter what the other reviews might profess. Likewise, the Optima Hybrid would be considered although negative reviews (if researched post test-ride) might be taken into account when it comes time to purchase.

      The point is that this regional “auto show” is a touch point for consumers that come to see cars they can buy, not a fantasy of the future. Consideration is the starting point of most vehicle sales – and inclusion or exclusion for consideration is an important part of the buying process.

      The fact that the Toyota/Honda displays had little traffic is a good leading indicator of consumer interest. It’s worth noting that Toyota and Honda have lost market share of late, while Hyundai/Kia are gaining.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        This is great!
        This is why TTAC is where it is at!

        Cars are bought by million of real people, not a bunch of know it alls. So, it is important to catch the opinions of real people at real auto shows.

        Yeah-yeah-yeah about experienced and dedicated experts, we have room at TTAC for wise, intelligent opinions too.

        I found this posting to be an honest and excellent review.

        I believe that eventually, as has had in the past, completely decent makes reach an expiration date within the market. Everyone in the business knows it too. You wonder why Toyota spent a fortune launching Scion? They know it. Eventually, folks want something different. The market shifts.

        Millions of auto buyers don’t want to drive their father’s or mother’s cars. Each generation wants to be different from their parents. Seniors are driving Toyotas and Hondas, so their kids are going to want something besides a Toyota or a Honda. They may want to drive a legacy brand, or something completely new, like a Korean car. So, we should see some new brands on the market succeeding, and some retro brands finding new lives on the market as well.

        Status quo is a killer in a dynamic market. My advice to the Japanese is to keep doing what they do best and just hunker down for a generation and stay profitable. Don’t do what Detroit did and chase after a generation that has closed their minds over what a brand represents. By chasing after fickle Boomers who saw American products as inferior to their needs, Detroit stopped doing what made Detroit products different from Japanese products and lost their identity and brand value. So even after making cars that surpassed expectations in every way, closed minded Boomers still flocked like lemmings to anything that wasn’t American. Japanese became the new status quo for that generation.

        A diverse market is best. The more competition, the better. Hopefully, the worst days for Detroit have ended as a new generation takes an unbiased look at the Market. Hopefully, the best is yet to come for new brands too.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      The Sonata/Optima hybrid have been criticized for their grabby brakes, but most reviewers have liked how they drove more like a regular sedan since they don’t utilize a CVT.

      There’s no doubt that Hyundai/Kia needs to refine/tweak their hybrid system, but it’s not like the outgoing Camry hybrid wasn’t w/o similar complaints (which the new hybrid Camry pretty much fixed).

  • avatar
    areader

    “MyFordTouch is completely baffling.”

    To anyone who has done software development pre and post Microsoft, this is no surprise. The only surprise is that Ford would get in bed with them in the first place. The MS people will not rest until they have piled ‘feature’ on ‘feature’ until the mess is next to unusable to those not willing to dedicate their lives to understanding the stuff. And Ballmer claims Android is geeky.

    • 0 avatar
      modemjunki

      I’m thinking that (for once) pointing the finger at Microsoft is not on the mark. Microsoft provides the underlying operating system “Sync” with a developer kit – and nothing more.

      The MyFordTouch interface, along with it’s limping Lincoln and mortified Mercury counterparts, is 100% Motorcraft engineered. It would make no difference if the OS was based on Linux (android), iOS, WinCE, etc. – it would still be obtuse.

      My opinion is that they tried too hard to put all the functions onscreen. Why not leave the controls for temperature, seat heating, etc. as dedicated hard buttons? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, right?

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Thanks for covering a hinterland show Ken. This pretty much describes the show here in Edmonton, Alberta, even down to the roped-off exotics. Speaking of, they actually had a ‘concierge’ dude attending a podium who’s only job seemed to be to snap at people they had to make an appointment to touch a car. The funny thing about that was, this being oil country, there’s lot’s of guys at the show wearing work boots and Arctic Cat jackets that have a hundred-grand tied up in “toys” and could easily buy a Gallardo. I’m betting the whole attitude thing cost them a dozen sales.
    Here, Ford was the star, they had a full-on presentation, lots of staff in uniform and games and simulators. Ford even had a Boss 302 not roped-off for those same guys in the work boots and snow-machine jackets to get their hands on. KIA got lots of attention, but Hyndai was very popular. The Canadian market is different than the US and the Alberta market is a CDN-US mix with both small cars and super duty trucks selling well.
    Honda was practically invisible, even a metallic orange Civic SI couldn’t get attention from the tuner boys. Volkswagon’s new, cheaper Jetta and Passat had some buzz. My thought is if VW wants to big market share gains they should bring Skoda to Canada. I saw many Skodas when I was in Turkey last year and they are a sharp car. Wagons used to do quite well in our market and the Skoda Superb wagon looks well…superb.
    Here the Lexus IS has overtaken the BMW 3 as the default car for the young, educated and employed. As the driver of a 2000 GS400, I find Lexus confusing. They seem to be giving up on the whole quality thing. The interior of my 10-year-old car has vastly better quality of materials than the new ones.
    Scion is finally here and was getting way more attention than FIAT. We have one dealer here that’s built a FIAT showroom. They can’t be selling very many as you’re more likely to see a Ferrari than a FIAT around here.

  • avatar
    carbiz

    I dunno, color me jaded, but the automotive press is getting too high on itself. Everything has to be ‘international this’ and ‘international that’ to have any street cred. Why is that?
    I used to take the subway and 3 buses to trek out to Malton (near Pearson Airport) to see the Toronto Auto Show, back in the day when folks were happy just to see the latest model offerings and a few chicks in platform shoes. I never had an interest in ‘funny cars,’ concept vehicles were rarely flaunted, but the biggest kick I remember was sitting in an ’75 Eldorado convertible.
    Besides, what’s the big deal about seeing a concept vehicle when you know the odds are great it will never be built, or if it does it will be so watered down that nobody will care. At the 2008 Toronto Auto Show, Lincoln sported a faux 2 door, 4 seater, glass roofed fuschia concept that if ever put in production would have probably saved the brand. Three years and still waiting….

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      “Besides, what’s the big deal about seeing a concept vehicle when you know the odds are great it will never be built, or if it does it will be so watered down that nobody will care.”

      Dead-on. I recall the Camaro and Challenger concept vehicles. The versions offered for sale weren’t watered-down too much, but I did read in the various auto press about this was perhaps the return of the pillarless hardtop (not me, this time!) because the concepts lacked the B pillar. How wrong they were. Still, they sell rather well, especially the Chevy.

  • avatar
    johnsonc

    It seems to vary by city but here in Austin Hyundai, Kia and VW were no-shows for the 2010 and for 2011 they were no-shows again along with Nissan. That’s a pretty big hole in the lineup. If you wanted to see pickups in the $50K to $85K(!) range though, everyone was there.

  • avatar
    redav

    The basic premise of the article is not entirely correct. People go to a show to see what they haven’t seen before. Everyone has seen those Japanese cars, so why should they waste time at a show looking at them? Many of those who passed by the Honda & Toyota booths may end up buying them anyway.

    Also, I heartily agree about Ford & their electronics. They’ve been concentrating on gadgets for a couple years now, and if it’s distracted them from the car itself, that’s sad news. (BTW, I don’t find MFT to be baffling or hard to use–it’s just inferior to traditional stereo/climate systems in just about every way.) Maybe if enough people slam Ford for trying to make an iCar instead of a real car, they’ll get the message.

  • avatar
    NN

    As the “car guy” amongst my group of friends, I was asked the other day a very broad question–what is the best car out right now? I thought for a moment, and answered “Kia Optima”. That got quite a reaction from the group.

    “Best” can be measured in many ways, of course…although I’ve never been the one to answer that question with a product that is unattainable to most people. What Kia is doing today is putting more effort into their cars than anyone else at the same price point–this is something Honda and Toyota built their reputations on many years ago. Plus, by hiring Peter Schreyer (formerly of Audi) for their design they’ve got a cohesive, clean, and to my eye extremely attractive design going–better than the Hyundai’s. I think my answer jives with what people are going to see at the majority of car shows across the country in 2nd tier markets.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I’m in a similar position among my co-workers, and I have said similar things about Hyundais & Kias, too. There’s virtually nothing I disagree with in your last paragraph. They’re on a roll right now, and there seems to be little to derail them.

  • avatar

    Maybe it’s my having a nasty sinus infection for the last week and a half. Maybe it’s my just not giving a shit about auto shows since I started following so many auto “journos” on Twitter, with their constantly hyping opinions of the latest mass market, consumer grade mediocrity, that I just forgot all about this.

    My guess it was downtown or over in Glendale or something. I had not idea A) it was an annual occurrence, B) going on. Last year at this time, I was feeling disgusted at the way the automotive press took all the fun out of the international autoshow after finding 2010 LAAS had none of the excitement of Frankfurt ’91.

    Seems to me the only interesting story left to report on any autoshow is how it compares to the rest of the circuit, how the manufacturers support it, and how the local community perceives it. At least stories like that have a semblance of connection to the human condition. Everything else is just sugar-coated marketing swill and, hey, get it anyway you can, guys.

    EDIT: Am I really in the moderation queue for the S-word? Shame the mouth-breathers ruined the more colorful language for the rest of us. Troglodytes. Apologies if this is the case. (Might be worth a detailed comments policy being added to the FAQ section.) Cheers.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    The San Francisco Auto Show is similar, though we do get a few roped-off concept cars. These shows are great because you get to sit in the cars and see which ones are a good physical fit, what the materials feel like, etc. Of course Hyundai and Kia are going to do well – you can’t tell that they drive like Toyotas if you’re just sitting in them.

    I think the biggest problem Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have right now is that their new cars are looking like mild refreshes of the previous generation. I can only assume that’s a temporary state of affairs.

  • avatar
    LennyZ

    I drove an IQ and I would buy one except for that POS CVT transmission. I live in Philadelphia and parking is at a premium in its small streets. I’ve been looking for a small, economical car and the IQ fits the bill, but CVT no thanks.

  • avatar

    Our St. Louis auto show is similar: nothing big-new happening here, nor has there been for any number of years. It’s strictly a “shop for a new car, see many of ‘em under one roof” sorta deal. We still enjoy going, with that ease of seeing what’s new each year (and happens to be at the show).

    It’s quite downsized from 5-10 years ago. No Germans besides VW; no expensive Brits, nor MINI, for that matter. One whole end that used to hold these brands is now the “Eco Drive” center for electric and hybrid demos, along with Harley and trike vendors. Oh, and the “Million Dollar Mile” with high end cars roped off (and tented, they charge a few bucks extra to walk through. Pass.)

    Thankfully: we’re just a short-day drive to the Chicago show, a couple weeks later, where nearly everyone brings their “A” game.

    I had that same reaction to Toyota / Lexus last year: geez, when will these guys get some new product? Yawn.

  • avatar

    I think there’s a good case for the Verano, although that only means so much.

  • avatar
    Southerner

    What is a switchgear?


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