The Detroit Auto Show: And the Band Plays On

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
the detroit auto show and the band plays on

I don't want to be the one to throw cold water on Detroit's billion dollar beauty pageant, but someone's got to do it. The workers' demonstration outside Cobo Center turned out to be a damp squib (probably because the workers in question enjoy a union contract that guarantees them job security, a comfortable salary and comprehensive health care). The mainstream automotive press isn't about to bite the hand that RSS feeds. So I'll step into the breach with a simple statement: the last thing Detroit needs right now is a bunch of new cars.

Once upon a time, the Detroit auto show was The Detroit Auto Show, not some gussied-up international flying circus. Carmakers showed off wild, inherently stupid concept cars that would never, EVER be built and the latest update to their showroom models. And then everyone headed off to open bars and hooker-laden hospitality suites to do what comes natural to middle-aged white men. Now the suits are serious and the web is alive with the sound of clickery, as even industry addicts struggle to keep up with dozens of new models headed for the showrooms. While it's easy to get caught up in the buzz, I'm here to say that all this product overkill will, as the Brits say, end in tears.

Of course, niche marketing mania already has a lot of shareholders crying– should anyone be bothered to notice. GM and Ford have wiped off tens of billions from shareholder value in the last year alone, and yet everyone is happy to believe that spending hundreds of millions of dollars building and showing off a fantastic over-abundance of new products is a sign of corporate health and hope. Even Daimler-Chrysler-Mercedes-Dodge-not-so-SMART, a company that missed a date with the executioner by the skin of the [Hail Mary] 300C, is happy to move with the gluttony-as-God groove. Detroit's submersion under a red ink tsunami ought to tell folks in no uncertain terms that this "car of the minute" shotgun approach is an abject failure, even if Detroit's titanic deck party says otherwise.

While GM unveils the latest Buick van (a vehicle that should have been called "Last Days in the Bunker" instead of "Enclave") and declares a corner turned for a dead brand waiting, Toyota reveals a refreshed sixth gen Camry with a hybrid engine option, and keeps grinding the competition into the dust. The makers of America's best-selling sedan (for the last four year's running) "get it": you sweat blood and spend billions to get customers into a new vehicle, and then you sweat blood and spend billions to bloody well keep them there. Lexus' updated eight-speed LS technobarge will keep their customers away from Mercedes dealers. Infiniti's non-radical G35 concept car and tweaked FX and M models will do the same.

The Big Three are neglecting their core models in favor of entirely new models that look like nothing else in their portfolio (e.g. the Lincoln MKX). While the Japanese are not adverse to growing and selling a bit of strange fruit from time to time, they refine and refine and refine their existing best-sellers, minting money and growing market share. Screw GM's new crossovers, how's the new Impala and big Caddy? Forget about the Ford Edge, how's the new Lincoln LS– I'm sorry, Five Hundred? Crap, really. Nothing but a big soft target for rival automakers coveting their audience. The fact that Ford and GM's "new" SUV's won't offer a world-class hybrid powerplant for another year is nothing less than a disgrace.

A while back, the "ten day car" was the talk of Cobo Township. The idea: build a customized version of a mainstream model and deliver it to the buyer in ten days. At an auto show conference, consultant Michael Robinet declared the concept dead. At the same time, The Vice President of CSM Worldwide acknowledged that dealer profits are increasingly dependent on aftermarket conversions. Hel-lo? As the increasing number and sophistication of Camry options indicates, the ten day car concept is far from dead. And money, like energy, is never lost; it just changes form. The dealer profits are a clear indication that mass customization IS the future– not the explosion of new models. In fact, its realization could help save Detroit's automakers from oblivion, maintaining what little customer loyalty remains.

Think about it. Check the history of the sales charts, where the same models appear again and again. That's because the vast majority customers don't want a NEW car. They want a BETTER car. As you can plainly see at The North American International Clusteryouknowwhat, Detroit seems resolutely determined not to give it to them. So party on guys. A reckoning is on its way.

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  • MaintenanceCosts Despite my hostile comments above I really can't wait to see a video of one of these at the strip. A production car running mid-eights is just bats. I just hope that at least one owner lets it happen, rather than offloading the car from the trailer straight into a helium-filled bag that goes into a dark secured warehouse until Barrett-Jackson 2056.
  • Schurkey Decades later, I'm still peeved that Honda failed to recall and repair the seat belts in my '80 Civic. Well-known issue with the retractors failing to retract.Honda cut a deal with the NHTSA at that time, to put a "lifetime warranty" on FUTURE seat belts, in return for not having to deal with the existing problems.Dirtbags all around. Customers screwed, corporation and Government moves on.
  • Bullnuke An acquaintance of mine 50+ years ago who was attending MIT (until General Hershey's folks sent him his "Greetings" letter) converted an Austin Mini from its staid 4 cylinder to an electric motored fuel cell vehicle. It was done as a project during his progression toward a Master Degree in Electrical Engineering. He told me it worked pretty well but wasn't something to use as a daily driver given the technology and availability of suitable components of the time. Fueling LH2 and LOX was somewhat problematic. Upon completion he removed his fuel cell and equipment and, for another project, reinstalled the 4 banger but reassembled it without mechanical fasteners using an experimental epoxy adhesive instead which, he said, worked much better and was a daily driver...for awhile. He went on to be an enlisted Reactor Operator on a submarine for a few years.
  • Ajla $100k is walking around money but this is almost certainly the last Dodge V8 vehicle and it's likely to be the most powerful factory-installed and warrantied pushrod engine ever. So there is some historical applicability to things even if you have an otherwise low opinion of the Challenger.And, like I said up thread, if you still hate it will be gone soon anyway.
  • Carlson Fan GM completely blew the marketing of the Volt. The commercials were terrible. You'd swear they told the advertising company to come up with an ad that would make sure no one went out and shopped a Volt after seeing it!...........LOL My buddy asked why I bought a car that only goes 40 miles on a charge? That pretty much sums up how confusing and uninformative the advertising was.