2010 Portland Auto Show
Hey, it’s time once again for my annual rant about the state of the automobile industry. If you don’t care about such things, check out some of my other posts. My take on the car biz follows the jump…
PORTLAND—A new location, a new home, a new outlook. That was the upheaval that’s been my life over the last 12 months. But that’s nothing compared to what the domestic automobile industry’s been through.
Lessee… GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy after being sorta nationalized. Sales of new cars generally fell off a cliff, deep double-digit decreases becoming almost normal. Even Toyota lost a bunch of money—and credibility. Pontiac, gone. Saturn, gone. Saab, almost gone, but sold to Dutch supercar maker Spyker (?! More on that later…). Ford sold Land Rover and Jaguar to India’s Tata Motors, and is in the process of selling Volvo to the Chinese. Who, incidentally, buy more Buicks than Americans do. In fact, the Chinese now buy more cars, period. Fiat got Chrysler for free, and the product plan calls for just about everything they sell now to be replaced by something Fiat-based by 2015. But the way cool new 500 will be sold in the U.S. (and most likely built here) by 2011. That’s next year. I want one of those.
GM and Chrysler cut a bunch of dealers loose. Many industry analysts have been saying for years that the two companies had too many dealers. Still, it’s a bit hard to imagine one of the ones to get terminated was Portland’s Timberline Dodge. I mean, the name should’ve counted for something, right? (it’s named after Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood, a world-famous resort) At least the shuttered dealers in Portland won’t stand out so much in a city that’s full of buildings that used to house car dealerships. Powell’s Books on Burnside is in one of those.
It may well be a sign of the Apocalypse: What’s happened to Toyota over the last 12 months (heck, over the last 12 days) may ultimately make the others’ troubles seem minor. The company famous for squeezing blood from a yen lost a bunch of money last year. This year, it’s that old bugaboo, unintended acceleration. Just this week, they suspended sales of, well, just about everything on the show floor. Toyota has even gone so far as to stop building the affected vehicles, pretty much all their best sellers.
More significantly, they’ve been dealing with all this by waffling. It was the floormats, they first said. Now they’re saying its the gas pedals, or anyway the throttle-by-wire setup that replaces a linkage with electrons zooming between sending units. Commercial airliners have rolled this way for years, though they have hydraulic backup systems. Toyota’s saying it will have a brake override “sometime in the near future.” Huh? As Microsoft inexorably turns into IBM, it would seem Toyota is becoming General Motors. The pre-bankruptcy, pre-layoff one, that is.
Over the last several years, carmakers worldwide have adopted icon nameplates (think Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, et al) and thematic grilles (Nissan, Audi, Mitsubishi). Kia has jumped on this bandwagon, applying new grilles to every car that isn’t otherwise new. Said grille features small central wide spots in the top and bottom bars. Kia says it was influenced by tigers’ teeth. I dunno, when I first saw this, it screamed “squirrel.” But Kia’s been running commercials featuring hamsters driving around in Souls and Forte Koups. So, let’s just say the new grille treatment evokes small rodents, okay?
Oh, don’t sneer so much at the names… we could’ve gotten the cee’d (yes, that’s how you’re supposed to write it), which lends itself to all kinds of awful puns like Pro_cee’d and Ex_cee’d (Yes, actual model names, with the underscores). You think I’m making this up, don’t you? I’m NOT!.
The name Sorento is not cringe-inducing, and neither is the refreshed version. It’s actually quite nice, but Kia has abandoned the body-on-frame architecture of the previous version for a unibody. Doesn’t that make the new Sorento a crossover? Whatever you want to call it, test drives were available at the show.
The name Forte is likewise not cringe-inducing. Neither is the car. Kia had a base model on the floor to show just how well-equipped the thing is. More kit, for about three grand less than a Corolla. Which you, uh, can’t buy right now. Because of the throttle issue.
Chevrolet hit one out of the park with the Malibu in 2007. It’s too bad it took them 30 years to realize they could build something just as desirable as a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, but that was what it was. It looks like they’ve got another home run in the Cruze, the replacement for the Cobalt (There was no Cruze at the show. But there was a Cobalt). This car has already been introduced in Europe and Asia (it was designed by GM’s Asian group, which was formerly known as Daewoo). Once you get over the idea that Budget and Avis are the only ones who’d want a car this size, it’s easy to make it better than it has to be.
You can get the 2-tone interior treatment like in the Malibu, you can get a 1.4-liter turbo engine that yields 40 mpg on the highway. And you might even be able to get a Cruze SS in a year or two. But the name. “Cruze” is what I would’ve applied to the HHR. Wait, maybe that sounds too much like “PT Cruiser.” Did you know the same guy designed both? Hmmmm. General Motors has done such a thorough job of dragging every name they own through the mud, naming a new vehicle becomes a serious challenge. Okay, Cruze it is.
Buick has finally—finally!—realized it needs to attract buyers under age 70. Enter the 2010 Lacrosse. It was sketched in China. It could actually be said to resemble a Lexus without appending “LMAO.” It’s even going to be called Lacrosse in Canada, Quebecois slang be damned. Buick is running ads featuring guys who look like Brad Pitt and girls who look like Jennifer Garner that don’t make you roll your eyes and go, “yeah, right.” And most shocking for yours truly, they’re going to sell a car I’d actually want.
That would be the 2011 Regal (no, there wasn’t one on the show floor). This is a very, very lightly massaged version of the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia, a car that makes the Euro auto media seriously weak-kneed. I’m really glad GM decided to hang on to Opel, because there’s no telling what the Regal might have become otherwise. The initial 182-hp 4-cylinder will be joined by a 220something-hp turbo four later this year. The Regal GS “concept” shown in Detroit is how it will be packaged. Personally, I’d be quite happy with 182 horsepower. The interior looks as rich and fashion-forward as an Insignia’s, the suspension is almost as taut, according to reports in other media. And I think an Opel grille will bolt right in. After all, I don’t want people to think I might drive it through the front door of a strip mall retail establishment.
Cadillac has been the oasis of calm in the GM storm. There’s some nice stuff here. The CTS wagon, for instance. Which could be construed in some markets as a 5-door hatchback. Hey, BMW is doing one. (BTW, where was BMW, anyway?) Yes, a Cadillac station wagon might present a bit of cognitive dissonance, but this one looks really good. And there’s a -V version.
I must be getting old. Not only is there a Buick I covet, but I look at the new-for-’10 SRX and go yeah! If a CTS station wagon is out of character for Cadillac, a compact crossover is out of character times 10. But it works, somehow. It has the full compliment of electronic gizmos and rich materials, but it’s not oversized, overbearing or overwrought. And it looks like a Cadillac.
Big news at Ford is the return of the Fiesta to North America. Of course, this one is four generations removed from the tinny but charming little late ’70s econobox that didn’t even offer an automatic transmission. Nope, the latest Fiesta has all the goodies, and Ford is even throwing in Sync® and a killer stereo for free if you reserve one online before April. Luckily, someone realized the blue states understand the concept of a hatchback, so we in the USofA get a 5-door hatch in addition to the lard-butt 4-door sedan, which I have a hard time believing will sell in significant numbers to anyone but owners of rental fleets. Maybe you saw the Fiesta Nation’s agents at some large public gathering last year. If you got to drive one, you’ll find the 1.6-liter engine of the U.S. model even torquier. I’d still like a Fiesta with the letters “TDCi” on the boot lid, but Ford doesn’t believe Murkins (or enough of them, anyway) would fork over $25K for a diesel. Even if it does get 60 mpg, which a Prius, uh, doesn’t. Oh, well.
The Fiesta’s intro has greater significance for the U.S. auto market as a whole—there’s now an honest-to-God B-segment that also includes Chevy’s Aveo (which will shortly see a 2nd-gen version built in the U.S., like the Fiesta), Toyota’s Yaris, the Honda Fit, the Mazda2 (Fiesta’s kissing cousin), a new Mitsubishi Colt and even, if the stories are to be believed, the introduction of the Volkswagen Polo to North America (and no, it won’t be bigger than the international version to accommodate fat Americans). And maybe a Chrysler-badged Fiat Punto Evo while we’re at it.
Bigger news at Ford is the intro of the 2012 Focus at the Detroit show a couple weeks ago. It’s stunning, being called the most important new car introduced this year. And I suppose it is. The Focus is not only going to be Ford’s bread and butter worldwide, but this time really will be a world car. They mean it—Ford is going to build 10 other vehicles off the new Focus architecture. Most significantly, Ford CEO Alan Mulally says the new Focus will be profitable. You know, like the trucks. But no TDCi here, either. A 1.4-liter turbocharged EcoBoost is a possibility, however.
Along with Hyundai, Subaru swam against the tide in ’09, making a big leap in sales over ’08. How? Well, my guess is they sell a lot more cars to rental fleets, thanks to the introduction of the seriously bland Impreza sedan. In fact, quirky is out at Subaru. The Legacy looks like a mashup of Accord, Camry and Altima, while the latest iteration of Outback has grown larger and more truck-like (technically, it is a truck… for regulatory purposes, anyway). Ditto the Forester, which these days looks like a Saturn Vue with a previous Impreza nose grafted on. I dunno, I liked quirky. But I admit, I like the Forester.
Speaking of Hyundai, the 2011 Sonata is an absolute knockout. And it’s going to have only 4-cylinder engines. Why not? When ~200 hp from four cylinders is commonplace, what the hell do you need a V6 for? Hyundai were kind enough to bring one to the show and not rope it off. Take away the badges and you’d swear the thing is a Lexus. It certainly shows how far Hyundai has come from the 1986 Excel.
There’s also a new Tucson, which no longer looks weird. Maybe not the stunner the Sonata is, but overall a much, much nicer vehicle than the one it replaces. Again, one was on show floor, not roped off. No info on pricing or trim levels just yet. Hyundai will continue to let you return your car if you lose your job within a year of purchase. This is a big reason why Hyundai’s sales increased when everyone else’s tanked.
I looked for Nissan, but couldn’t find them. A drag, really. They make some nice stuff at the moment, and they plan to be a player in the B-segment with, not one, but two vehicles built off their new V platform, both of which will be smaller than the Versa. If you’ve seen pix of the new Euro-market Micra, you get the gist. While Portland teems with Titan pickups, the big Nissan has been mostly ignored. There was a deal to replace it with a Nissan-badged Dodge, but the Chrysler bankruptcy and subsequent merger with Fiat put the kibosh on that. A replacement is not due until 2014. In the meantime, if you own a Titan and haven’t been approached about trading it for a new one, you will be.
Couldn’t find Mitsubishi, either. There’s talk of PSA Peugeot Citroën buying a controlling interest in Mitsubishi Motors. The French company already sells a badge-engineered Outlander in Europe under both brand names. PSA would theoretically get Mitsu’s U.S. dealer network, but in Seattle Mitsubishi dealers tended to last about six months. I’m not even sure who the Mitsubishi dealer in Portland is. In fact, I can’t recall seeing a new Mitsubishi since I’ve been in Portland.
In its continuing quest to become the world’s largest carmaker, Volkswagen acquired 20% of Suzuki Motors. It’s not going to be Volkswagen’s 12th brand, sez Suzuki’s CEO Osamu Suzuki. Yeah, right. Not yet, anyway. He’s 80. How this will play out remains to be seen—Suzuki shares products with Fiat, Nissan and General Motors, which used to own 20% of the company. The one it shares with Fiat, the SX4 Crossover, is a personal fave. The Fiat version is called the Sedici. Which is Italian for 16. Which is the product of 4×4. Get it? Word is the highly-regarded Swift hatchback will make its way to these shores from Europe sometime this year or next. This one ain’t the Geo Metro, folks. Another Suzuki surprise is the Kizashi, which the company holds up to the Audi A4 and Acura TSX. They’ll give you $100 if you bought one of those after test-driving the Kizashi. Would love to have seen one is person, but Suzuki was MIA on the show floor as well.
VW aims to sell half a million vehicles in the U.S. annually, which would be about double its present volume. They’ve built a new factory in Chattanooga, Tenn. Something called the New Midsize Sedan will be built there. It will be larger than a Passat. There’s also going to be a New Small Sedan, which will replace the Jetta (and will probably keep the name). A hint at the latter was made in Detroit with the hybrid 2-door coupe concept. It sounds like VW is going to build a Toyota Camry with a VW badge, and a Toyota Corolla with a VW badge. So Volkswagen becomes just another car company. Except they won’t be selling a pickup truck, even though VW builds one in Argentina. What’s going to happen to the Chrysler minivan with a VW badge is yet to be seen.
Hmm. What about Honda? What about Honda. The production CR-Z rolled out in Detroit, but when you’ll be able to buy one is a question so far not answered. I had a 1984 CRX; the CR-Z’s styling is evocative of the original gas-sipping 2-seater. This time it’s a hybrid; last time it had a 1.3-liter (67 horsepower) engine and really tall gearing. I had the sporty 1.5-liter variant, which did many, many Seattle-Portland round trips. Gas mileage was in the really high 40s, the only reason I never cracked the 50-mpg barrier probably being my inability to drive it at the 55-mph speed limit in effect at the time. Hey, once you’ve done it a few times, the Seattle-Portland slog is something you just want to get over with.
Their display was dominated by the Insight and Accord Crosstour. The Insight has perfomed, uh, below expectations, sales-wise. Well, a Prius gets better gas mileage, while the Fit looks better and is generally cooler, even in base trim. If you have an acute need for a hybrid vehicle—say, you’re running for elective office—you could probably score a screamin’ deal on an Insight right now. Honda has given marching orders to its engineers to design a hybrid car that outdoes the Prius, so the Insight may not be long for this world in any case.
The Accord Crosstour is a bit of an enigma. Don’t Americans hate hatchbacks? Don’t people interested in utility want something a bit more, I dunno, box-like? Do they really want something like this to sit so high on its suspension? The commercials are clever, I’ll give them that.
The major luxury brands were grouped in the Oregon Convention Center’s grand ballroom. Most noteworthy is Inifiniti, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. (In)famous at its introduction for the commercials in which cars were conspicuously absent, these days only the commercials from Beaverton Infiniti are noteworthy, because they’re kinda creepy.
Originally created just for North America, Infiniti has become a global brand, as has Lexus. Acura, alas, has not. You know Acura, the folks who used to sell sporty cars. Now they crow about a full-line 5-star crash rating on their SUVs and sedans, which have faces that look like Kabuki robots. They were down on the main floor near the Honda display. How far the mighty have fallen…
The industry looks at Chrysler/Fiat and mostly shakes its head. In Detroit the company displayed a Chrysler-badged Lancia Delta, a car that makes the Euro auto media shake its head. A jacked-up, Jeep-badged Fiat Panda is likely to fill the small crossover slot in the Chrysler product plan, while the next Chrysler 300 is also going to be sold as an Alfa-Romeo. Or at least provide the basis for one. It’s all about numbers, Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchione saying a car company that’s not Honda or BMW needs annual sales of about six million units worldwide to be viable in the 21st century.
Units. Yes. Saab was purchased earlier this week by Spyker Cars of the Netherlands, a company that builds gazillion-dollar supercars by the dozens per year. And hasn’t turned a single profit in its 11-year history. Better these guys than the Russians, people are saying. Okay. GM will retain a significant share of the Swedish company, and will continue to supply engines and transmissions along with the 9-4X crossover. A whole bunch of Swedes get to keep their jobs, and Garry Small gets to keep his dealership on 82nd Avenue. For now, anyway.
The problem with Saab is GM never made money on it. For that matter, neither did Saab-Scania AB, the big trucks and jet fighters propping up the passenger car business. It has been said Saab needs to move about 150,000 units per year to have a chance at profitability, but a good year for them has been 100,000. And there’s the question of how a boutique car company like Spyker is going to make a volume car company profitable when it can’t accomplish that feat selling handfuls of cars that cost more than houses in most major metro areas. Fearless prediciton: Saab will be back on the block within five years, and will end up being bought by BAIC, the Chinese company that picked up the tooling and intellectual property rights to the 9-3 and previous 9-5. And they’ll get Saab for way less than Spyker paid. The Chinese are way smarter than most Americans give them credit for. They own us, remember?
They did this in Seattle, and they’re doing it in Portland. “It” being a section of the show floor devoted to motorcycles and scooters. In Portland, there are two sections, Ducati occupying a bit of the Oregon Ballroom.
There were even a few scooters.
UPDATE, January 30, 2010: I wasn’t the only one to notice a few brands went missing…