The 2014 edition of the North American International Auto Show was supposed to be one for the record books. With the industry roaring back to life amid record sales, profitable home team brands and free from the yoke of government ownership, great things were expected from this year’s show. Instead, many felt it fell flat. Aside from the 2015 Ford F-150, possibly the most significant introduction of the decade, the product introduced at the show was interesting, but hardly memorable.
I fear that we’re entering the second Malaise era, but CAFE and safety regulations, rather than oil prices, are driving cars towards an inexorable homogenity. The new Chrysler 200, Chevrolet Impala and Hyundai Genesis all manage to share the same rear end treatment, despite being in different size classes and using different drivetrain configurations. Nearly every car on the market has some kind of “two point oh tee” engine. Perhaps more interesting than the NAIAS world debuts were cars like the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Mustang and Subaru WRX, which debuted elsewhere, but got their first showing to the world at NAIAS.
Miss – Acura TLX: The 2015 TLX will mark the first time since 1998 that a TL has been available with less than six cylinders. The 2.5 TL, aka Vigor by another name, rocked Acura’s oddball 5-cylinder engine and lasted for pricesly one generation. Because the ILX has failed in its mission as a TSX replacement, the TLX will get a 2.4L 4-cylinder engine mated to Honda’s all-new DCT 8-speed gearbox. A 3.5L V6 gets their new 9-speed transmission and all-wheel drive. Like most Acura products, the TLX looks like a nice car when viewed on its own. But the rest of the market keeps on advancing.
Hit – BMW 2-Series: As much as I loathe the F30 3-Series, I am optimistic for the 2-Series, which is sized like an E46, looks less gawky than the outgoing 1-Series, and unlike the budget entrants from M-B and Audi, is faithful to the brand’s DNA. The M235i is getting all the attention, but my heart is with the 228i. At 240 horsepower and roughly 3300 lbs, it has roughly the same power to weight ratio as an E46 330ci. A BMW rep quoted a 5.1 second 0-60 time, and fuel economy with the N20 4-cylinder should be solid. Make mine a 6MT, no sport package. I’ll supply my own tires.
Ball Four – BMW M3/M4: I’m still not wowed by these cars, but introducing them in Phoenix Yellow and Laguna Seca Blue, the E46 M3 launch colors, was a nice touch.
Miss – Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon: Any notion of these being “small” or “midsize” trucks is laughable. The Colorado and Canyon are more like full-size trucks from two generations ago in terms of size. The Canyons were all on walled-off displays, while the Colorados were locked up halfway through Day 1, but I managed to sneak in to a crew cab model. For such big trucks on the outside, they are small on the inside. Sitting in the back of a crew cab felt like being in the back of an older extended cab truck. I can’t imagine how GM dealers will move these things when the inevitable big incentives on Silverados and Sierras come online(especially as the full-size truck war heats up), and GM can forget about conquesting sales from Tacoma owners, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a domestic truck.
Grand Slam Home Run- Cadillac Elmiraj: TAKE MY MONEY NOW
Winner – Chevrolet SS: Some complain that “It looks like a Malibu”. I say “That’s the point”. Make mine in taupe or pea soup green or some awful shade fit for the Hertz lot.
Winner – Chevrolet /GMC full-size SUVs: I am lukewarm on the new GM pickups, but the new SUVs, from the base model Tahoe up to the Denali XL, are uniformly gorgeous. The ramrod straight D-pillar and macho fascia add a severity that seems to have been lost in the transition to the more organic GMT900 versions. This is good old fashioned American luxury at its finest, and I hope they have long, fruitful lives as everything from child transportation to rural police patrol vehicle to Uber black car.
Foul Ball- Chrysler 200: Too early to call for this one. On the one hand, this is a design where photos don’t do justice to the way the car looks in real life. The 200C and 200S are striking in person, looking like a VW CC crossed with a Chevrolet Impala – but even a casual observer can spot the Dart resemblance. The newly redesigned interior is tastefully done with modern details like a floating center console and a rotary shift dial. But two things leave me concerned about its viability in such a competitive segment. 1) initial reports were correct: the back seat suffers from the same lack of space as the 2012 Malibu. At 5’10 and 175 lbs, the rear compartment was on the wrong side of tight for me, and Chrysler cannot expect to go after Camry and Accord buyers with such a small back seat. 2) Fuel economy, estimated at 35 mpg, still trails Fusion and Altima. It’s actually on par with the 2014 Dart 2.4L. I’m not ready to write this car off, but I am not sure it will gain ground on the segment leaders in the sales race. Instead, it will give the Malibu a good fight for mid-pack.
Winner – Ford F-150: Just like the 200, the F-150 has a number of big question marks surrounding it. Nobody knows what kind of power the 2.7L Ecoboost puts out. MPG is completely up in the air. They may not even beat the Ram EcoDiesel for mpg bragging rights. The aluminum alloy that Ford is using for the body panels is said to be MilSpec, but how will Ford dealers and third-party body shops handle aluminum repairs? So why is the F-150 a winner when the 200 is treated with trepidation? Because the 200 has a long way to go, while the F-150 is unlikely to give up its crown as America’s best-selling vehicle. It builds on the current F-150’s strengths, makes the GM pickups look a generation old andhas all kinds of toys and features you can gloat about to your neighbor. In typical Ford fashion, improvements like a 10-speed automatic and a 3.0L diesel V6 will debut within a couple years of launch. Ford bet big on this one, but I think it will pay off.
Hit – Ford Mustang: It had some corny faux-carbon fiber dash trim that looked like diamond plate. The rest of it was gorgeous.
Hit- Honda Fit: A triumph of packaging that is wasted on Americans, who avoid small hatchbacks in the same way that French Presidents avoid monogamy. Honda seems allergic to building anything interesting these days, but at least they do functional well.
Hit-Lexus RC-F: Just as the competition moves to downsized, forced induction 6-cylinder engines, Lexus hits them with a big middle finger in the form of a 460-horsepower V8. Well played.
Hit By Pitch- Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG: In Leviticus, God calls the GLA45 “unclean” and “an abomination”, forbidding the priestly class from driving it. My brain recognizes that this is barely a crossover, rather it’s just a station wagon version of the CLA – but I despise that car with every fiber of my soul as well, though my inner cynic is happy to see M-B fleecing the terminally insecure with this Hungarian-built fugazi Mercedes.
Miss- MINI: Should be called the “Maxi”, because it’s bloody enormous.
Miss – Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge: Apparently it will share some kind of forced induction engine with another partner, so we can assume it will be a blown Mercedes V6 or V8. Something better happen quickly, because right now, the Hybrid is the most exciting Q50, and that should never, ever be allowed to happen.
Ground Rule Double- Kia K900: I think this car is really cool, in a geeky sort of way. It has as more reverse snob appeal than any car since the Volkswagen Phaeton, the interior on the show model was white leather with white wood trim that looked like Carrera marble, and the rear seat has an arm rest that folds down into the most elaborate control stack this side of an Audi A8. The major downsides to this: 1) white leather hasn’t been seen since the BMW 8-Series, and for good reason 2) that elaborate control stack means this is a car made to chauffer Korean chaebol bigwigs around, not one you drive yourself in 3) how does this fit with Kia’s brand in any way shape or form. It will do as well as the Equus if it’s lucky.
Hit- Subaru WRX: I’m picking the WRX over the STI (shown above, because it’s a debut) because prior instrumented tests have shown that there’s very little daylight between the WRX and the STI in terms of quantitative performance data, and because I’m a grown man that has no desire to drive a car with a giant wing on the back. The new WRX is boring to some, but it reminds me of the UK-spec Impreza Turbo which had all of the go-fast goodies of the JDM WRX without any of the gaudy visual accouterments to tip off John Law or car thevies. The STI, shown above, looks like an Evo, devoid of the Diamond Star badge.
Miss- Toyota FT1 Concept: When faced with an outlandish claim or a promise unlikely to be kept, my grandfather would utter a Yiddish expression that loosely translates into “I’ll believe it when it’s in the palm of my hand”. And since this Toyota concept is both, I’ll be more inclined to buy into the “Akio Toyoda wants Toyota cars to be exciting” narrative when they actually get around to executing on this promise.
Error – VW Passat BlueMotion: Where’s the crossover VW so badly needs?
CAR OF THE SHOW – Porsche 911 Targa: Certain corners of the internet profess that this is too gaudy, too BRIC-oriented and in poor taste overall. I suspect they are the same people who insist that they like women to look “natural, without makeup”, and fret about the cost of fixing or replacing the roof mechanism. If this happens to be you, I suggest you look at a Honda Del Sol. The open targa roof means I’ll be able to feel the breeze blowing right where my hair used to be. Porsche Design mirror and razor blade are dealer installed accessories.