By on January 17, 2019

One of the repeating refrains I heard in Detroit this year went something like, “It’s the last winter show, and yet it’s not even that cold!”

Cold, of course, can be relative – Southern Californians tend to define it differently than Midwesterners. Still, Sunday and Monday were tolerable for life-long Northerners like myself, but Tuesday did offer a chill that reminded us that it was still January.

The weather is always a major topic of discussion at Detroit – whether there’s piles of snow downtown or mild temps in the 50s (I’ve experienced both). The Sun Belt folks whine while the Rust Belt residents whine about the whining and so it goes. I don’t know exactly how much the weather plays into the decision to move the show to the summer, starting next year. Only the Detroit Auto Dealers Association employees are privy to those discussions. Obviously it’s a factor, but how much of one compared to other factors is unclear.

Maybe a summer show will bring back the missing import brands, maybe not (I think lackluster sales of those brands in the Detroit area are a bigger problem, based on conversations I’ve had with PR types). Maybe it will boost public-day attendance, which hasn’t really been an issue – it remains robust. Or maybe summer dates will pose problems for the public – remember, the rationale for holding the show in January was to boost dealership traffic during the industry’s slowest sales month.

Thing is, there’s a causation vs. correlation thing going on here. There seems to be some thinking that the media days will get a boost when they move to June, but will that be because the weather is nicer? Or will it be due to other factors that have zilch to do with zero-degree temps? Such as product cycles, perhaps?

It wasn’t all that long ago that the North American International Auto Show required three or four days of one’s time, and those news-heavy shows were held at the same time of year.

Certainly, the show has seen some of its importance fizzle in recent years. Some of that relates to the ups and downs of the industry over the past decade, though Detroit also felt some pressure from CES, even if competition from that show seems to have lessened in the past year or two, despite the increasing hype surrounding autonomous vehicles.

This year, the Detroit Auto Show’s press days were really limited to a half-day of actual major news. I was home a day earlier than in previous years, and I wasn’t the only one.

That lead to no shortage of talk about how it’s sad the last NAIAS to be held in winter will bow out in such an undignified manner, followed by hopes that the summer move will make the show regain its strength as a major auto show for media — regardless of whether the better weather will draw more, fewer, or the same amount of public attendees.

Yeah, it’s possible that warmer weather may lure back the luxury brands that have begun snubbing NAIAS, but again, if their rationale for staying away is about sales instead of ambient temps, will it matter? That remains to be seen.

Since hindsight is much clearer than foresight, I can say for certain that this year did have a funereal feel. Automotive News’ Nick Bunkley summed it up nicely, although he didn’t really take a deep dive into the “whys” when he ripped into the show on Monday.

Subaru STI S209 front quarter

Even the stars of the show garnered subdued attention. The Supra seemed to piss off the entire car-loving Internet. Some had already written the model off after endless teasers, while others bemoaned “only” 335 horsepower. Its styling has plenty of detractors, and the words “BMW Z4” could be heard spoken in a derisive manner on multiple occasions. The fact that Supra actually does use BMW components is not helping matters, at least not with the purists.

Then there was the Shelby Mustang. While there have been some predictable howls from the media (I am guilty of this myself) about the lack of a true manual transmission, the car did get a better reception than the Supra. That said, the ‘Stang didn’t seem to get the star treatment enjoyed by the Corvette just a few years ago. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the overall mood around the show, or Ford’s own corporate announcement of a joint venture with Volkswagen, or the fact that the Mustang, as cool as it is, means much less to the Blue Oval bottom line than the line of Explorers it introduced.

Ram’s HD truck also slipped a little under the radar, or at least my radar, because as cool as honkin’ big trucks are, most of us will never have use for one.

2020 Toyota Supra

While the press days may have been truncated, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t important product on display. Kia’s Telluride represents a major investment for the brand, and it’s not likely to be Borrego, part deux. And while I was very disappointed in Cadillac’s half-hearted effort with the XT6, that vehicle will be playing in an important segment.

Still, many efforts simply generated shrugs. A mild update to the Passat? Meh. A hot-looking special edition of the WRX STI? OK, cool, but it doesn’t move the needle much when only a few buyers will ever possess one. Hyundai showing off another N-trimmed sporty hatch? Good news for enthusiasts, sure, but not as newsworthy as the Palisade the brand unveiled in LA. Lexus throwing a track-focused RC F our way alongside a LC Cabrio concept? Cool stuff that yet again plays along the margins. Nissan unveiled its longer-ranged Leaf at CES, meaning it’s already gotten lost in the news cycle – and the EV concept it showed at Detroit didn’t get as much play as it probably should have.

It was probably apropos that Cobo Hall was within the zone of a water main break that lead to a boil order for downtown Detroit. Or that Infiniti’s QX Inspiration concept didn’t start and missed its own press conference. It was that kind of year – the mood was a glum as I’ve seen it since the height of economic downturn, and things kept breaking.

Not to mention the already atrocious parking situation was even worse. I seem to recall credit cards being an acceptable form of payment in the past, and I also seem to recall reasonable pricing if you were willing to walk a few blocks. Not anymore – prices rivaled that of a sporting event or concert, and cash was the only currency accepted. Too many garages were still only open to monthly parkers.

All of this doesn’t mean the Detroit Auto Show is doomed to media irrelevancy. It will continue to matter, no matter how much New York and L.A. continue to gain in influence. Even if the Chicago Auto Show’s media days return to the glory of yore (the show’s public attendance remains strong) by virtue of now being the first show in the calendar year, that doesn’t mean Detroit is going to be relegated to the second tier (disclosure time: I did some work for the Chicago Auto Show previous to TTAC, and I will be contributing an unpaid article to the public show’s paper guide, as I have in past years.).

Detroit’s move to June may indeed prove fruitful from both a press and public perspective, but the end of its January run was likely not the send-off organizers had in mind.

Perhaps the news cycle will be just as sunny as the weather in 2020. This year, though, the mood was as gray as any winter day. The NAIAS’s goodbye to January was mostly bitter, with very little sweet.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey and Chris Tonn/TTAC]

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14 Comments on “2019 Detroit Auto Show in the Rearview – A True Winter of Discontent...”

  • avatar

    Went to that show once and it was to see the Challenger and Camaro concepts in 2006. Weather wasn’t an issue, it was something fun to do in the middle of winter. End of an era I guess!

  • avatar

    The good news for the circuit is that with every manufacturer promising roughly 20 new EVs by 2021, there should be *tons* of introductions in the near future.

  • avatar

    Not a dang thing was revealed that I actually wanted to see.

    Last time I went to NAIAS was back when the 1st Gen Aurora was brand new on the floor. So glad I wasn’t there this year, I can’t really see a point to going.

    Wake me when the new Bronco is officially revealed.

  • avatar

    We old buggers remember the late 60s-early 70s when the show was in November because that was new model into time for the big three. I also remember being able to get to Cobo early on a Saturday afternoon in those days and the Cobo roof lot was half empty. Plenty of parking.

    The concepts I have seen put forward for the summer show look more like a carnival of hucksters than a serious industry event.

    I’m still debating about going when they let the mob in next week. I would like to check out a Regal, though I wouldn’t buy one. I always liked to check out the Audis and Bimmers, but they aren’t there this year. Ford and Chevy have killed the models that interested me. I’d like to check out the Renegade and Compass, but the Jeep stand has always been such a mob scene I didn’t feel like fighting the crowd. I would want to check out the latest Mazda3, but Mazda isn’t there anymore. I can look at VWs when I have my VW at the dealer for an oil change. Not much left at the show to look at.

    • 0 avatar

      When did they move the show to January? I thought it was always at that time. (And I grew up in the Detroit area — moved to Toledo in 1984, age 14.)

      • 0 avatar

        >>When did they move the show to January?<<

        It must have been in the 70s. It was in November when I was local, through 73. I lived on the other side of the state after that. Drove over for the show in 80, and that show was in January.

        The irony is, now that the show has shrunk so much and so many brands have abandoned it, that there is plenty of room on the floor for vendors and food stands, 15-20 years ago, show organizers were threatening to move the show due to lack of space at Cobo.

  • avatar

    Brutal show environs.
    Nasty cops. (worst in the country)
    No cars.
    Hot inside the show. (good luck checking you coat)
    275$ hamburgers.
    PR BS on 11


    • 0 avatar

      “Brutal show environs.”

      Cobo Hall was recently renovated. I don’t see it lacking in amenities compared to McCormick Place or the Javits Center.


      I parked on Second, about two blocks from Cobo’s entrance, for free. Yes, it’s annoying because you never know if the rooftop parking will be open and the two parking structures across Congress are usually full, but there is underground parking just down Jefferson and you can always park in Greektown and take the People Mover for 75 cents.

      “Nasty cops. (worst in the country)”

      I don’t like cops in general but the cops who work the show have always been polite and professional as far as I can tell.

      “No cars.”

      Depends on the year. It was a relatively fallow year this time around.

      “Hot inside the show. (good luck checking you coat)”

      I wore my insulated varsity jacket the entire first day and didn’t feel uncomfortable. As for checking your coat, the Knights of Columbus will gladly check your coat for $4, right near the Congress street side of the building, unless you agree with Senator Harris that the KofC is somehow nefarious.

      “275$ hamburgers.”

      I wouldn’t know. I keep a kosher diet.

      “PR BS on 11”

      It’s a trade show, of course there is PR BS. No worse than at the CES or NAMM. You think guitar companies don’t hype stuff at NAMM?

  • avatar

    L.A. Auto show in 2018. Parking $25 plus.
    For me, I took the Metrorail, $1.75 each way, stopped 1 block from the show, not 4 blocks like the cheaper car parks.
    Is this an archetype of future Car Shows??? More mass transport and fewer solo autos???????

  • avatar

    “or the fact that the Mustang, as cool as it is, means much less to the Blue Oval bottom line than the line of Explorers it introduced.”

    So, we shouldn’t be excited for a Mustang with big power, we should just be sad that it doesn’t sell as well as a family vehicle.

    “Ram’s HD truck also slipped a little under the radar, or at least my radar, because as cool as honkin’ big trucks are, most of us will never have use for one.”

    Most of us will never have use for a 700+ hp sports car, an AWD rally car for the street, a low-slung sports coupe for $50k, or any of the other exciting and interesting vehicles shown. Should we only show up to look at minivans and Corollas? I mean, they’re the most useful.

    Sounds like you wanted to be bummed out, and you found a way to make it happen. Fast cars, big trucks, a hilarious situation for Infiniti, BUT, nothing worth looking at. Yawn.

    • 0 avatar

      “So, we shouldn’t be excited for a Mustang with big power, we should just be sad that it doesn’t sell as well as a family vehicle.”

      The best selling sports car in the world means a LOT to the Blue Oval.

  • avatar

    Its over? So no midengine Corvette again?

  • avatar
    Michael S6

    The Detroit auto show has been seriously wounded by the exodus of luxury and foreign cars. Additionally even the big 3 and the asian contingency have few notable new vehicle introduction this year. Can’t get excited about the 6,7.8 hundred horsepower mustang versions and the mid engine Corvette is delayed. No reason to trudge to Cobo this year.

  • avatar

    A car made of Poppin’ Fresh Dough is debuted and the masses aren’t excited?!

    Imagine the QX’s impact absorption!

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