2019 Detroit Auto Show in the Rearview - A True Winter of Discontent

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

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.

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.

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]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Michael S6 Michael S6 on Jan 17, 2019

    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.

  • Jatz Jatz on Jan 20, 2019

    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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