2011 Seattle Auto Show
Hey, it’s November, which means it’s time for my annual rant about the global auto industry. If you have no interest in such things, I invite you to peruse five years’ worth of scooter-related rants, musings and adventures in the archives to your right.
If you are interested, the story follows the jump…
Austerity is the new prosperity these days. In this case, it’s an economy of words: It’s now just “Seattle Auto Show.” Well, the automobile industry of the second decade of the 21st century is global anyway, so in a way the old name (which included the word “International”) is like “ATM machine;” the M stands for “machine.” Oh, and the motorcycles were gone, not able to spend the money to be part of the show, I was told. Hey, the motorcycle show’s NEXT month.
We’re in for a sea change in America’s vehicle fleet, as Congress passed and the President signed a bill mandating Corporate Average Fuel Economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. Ford’s mid-1990s plan of making up for full-size pickup sales by selling Escorts at half off ain’t gonna work this time. Lots more hybrids, lots more electrics (can you say Mile Per Gallon Equivalent, boys and girls?), and some fairly radical internal-combustion engines are on the way. Well, unless Mitt Romney gets elected president and he and the Tea Party repeal it.
Ford and Toyota are putting their heads together to develop hybrid powertrains for their full-size pickup trucks. Ford has a particular interest in this; their F-series is the best-selling 4-wheeled motor vehicle on Earth, not to mention the company’s most profitable. This collaboration could even result in greater usability for such vehicles—back when Chrysler’s pickup trucks were called Dodges, the catalog contained a reference to a Ram hybrid that could power your house, if need be.
Of course, there are all kinds of ways to squeeze more miles from a gallon already available. Ford recently revealed most buyers of its F-Series pickups are opting for V6s instead of V8s. And why not? If big V6s can make 300+ hp and enough torque to pull several tons of trailer without breaking a sweat, why do you need a V8?
Here’s another suggestion: make full-size pickup trucks smaller. They simply don’t need to be as big as they are; all that excess bulk that makes them difficult to maneuver and park. Not to mention making them heavier. Shrink the full-sizers to “midsize” and the mid-sizers to “compact.” You know, like in the 1990s.
The Japanese brands are back to full production speed after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March. Toyota lost its spot at the top rank of automakers worldwide, though it should regain that spot sooner or later.
Toyota offers up a refreshed Camry, Yaris and Tacoma pickup for 2012. Full advantage of he ability to create even sharper corners in head and taillights has been taken, but for all the teasing of the new Camry, you’ll notice it’s not a whole lot different from the 2011 model.
I must say, the new look is an improvement. The previous Camry seemed to have a lot of creases and swoops that were there for their own sake. It now, almost, kind of, looks… sporty. The 2012 Camry will pace the 2012 Daytona 500 in February, which of course has all the Tea Party sympathizers up in arms. How dare NASCAR have a FURRIN car pacing the Great American Race? Wait,Toyota’s only been building Camrys in Kentucky for, what, 25 years, right? And those Camrys have more domestic content than a Fusion (hecho en Mexico, señor) or an Impala, right? And Chrysler, now owned by an Italian company, used to be owned by a German one, right? Right.
As for the Tacoma, well, North America’s Ugliest Pickup Truck™ had nowhere to go but up, but all it got was a new grille that makes me think “scar tissue.” Interestingly, a truck that a generation ago was sold at giveaway prices now boasts serious truck chops: limited-slip differential, 3500-lb towing capacity and the famous bed tie-down system are standard on the base model, which comes in under $20K. A fine hauler, for sure. Scooter or otherwise. Wish it weren’t so damn ugly.
Prominent on the Toyota stand was the new Prius v, the hybrid people-mover that among other things made necessary a decision about what exactly the plural of “Prius” is (“Prii” is the correct Latin plural, and the winner of the contest). Prii have become the default ride of aging urban progressives, and the Prius v seems to be the bee’s knees for this demographic. There’s scads of space for birding gear and the flats of heritage tomato sprouts to be picked up on the way to the quilting circle. There’s ample accommodation for backyard goats and chickens as well.
OTOH, Buick continues to introduce products that will surely push the brand’s buyers’ median age down a decade or more. Last year’s intro of the seriously cool Regal finds a new version that carries an iconic name: GS. You’ll find a 270-hp turbo engine mated to a 6-speed manual transmission; it rides on 19-inch wheels (the size found on BTCC race cars) and low, low-profile tires. And there’s a small rear spoiler. On a Buick. Yes!
But wait, there’s more! While it was roped off, a Verano was present and accounted for. This is Buick’s version of the Chevy Cruze, but unlike similar previous offerings, this is way more than a Buick grille and taillights. It will even run on E85, if you must.
Honda has been in the news because Consumer Reports decided it can no longer “Recommend” the Civic. This is the culmination of the company’s realization about 20 years ago that American car buyers don’t give a rat’s fuzzy behind about engineering. Double-wishbone suspension? What’s that? MacPherson struts are just fine with most buyers, thanks, and way cheaper. Unfortunately, it looks like they dumbed the Civic down just a bit too much. Oh, well. I’m sure they could sell lots of them to Hertz and Avis, at least until the mid-cycle refresh (which has been moved way up) happens.
The hybrid version of said dumbed-down Civic has this green button on the dashboard, labeled “ECON”. What does it do, I asked. Well, it causes the car to do all kinds of things to save fuel in addition to the usual things hybrids do. Things like shutting the air conditioning off when going up hills. And “teaching you how to drive more economically.” Gawd. The Civic Hybrid is a scold. Well, it’s a hybrid, so like any good capital-L Liberal it knows what’s best for everyone. That’s okay. The only Honda I’d write a check for was the dark gray base Fit over in the corner. Cloth interior, plastic wheel covers, but otherwise well-equipped. And it won’t try to tell you how to drive it.
Nissan’s big move in 2010 was to introduce a commercial van. Oh, and they got the nod from New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to provide the Next New York Taxicab™, which will be based on another commercial van, Nissan’s NV200. The company once famous for 240Zs and Datsun 510 canyon racers is betting on commercial vehicles. Which may actually be a pretty smart bet. These days, how many people have the money for a GT-R? Or even a Maxima?
They also introduced a new Versa, which is designed for people who don’t have lots of money to spend on a new car. It would be interesting to hear their reasons for making their new Versa sedan so unattractive (okay, it doesn’t make me want to claw my eyes out the way a Juke does), especially considering what a really good-looking car the Altima (now the 2nd-best selling passenger car in the U.S.) has become.
But as the late British auto scribe L.J.K. Setright famously noted, you can’t (or don’t have to) look at a car when you’re sitting inside driving it. While I didn’t get a drive, I did sit inside, and was pleasantly surprised by the comfort of the driver’s seat and the thoroughly decent quality of the interior materials. Not plush, but I’ll hazard a guess in 15 years the cabin will look a hell of a lot better than that of any German entry-luxomobile. I can imagine far worse things waiting in a rental company’s staging area. The sedan’s out now, a 5-door hatch comes along in the spring.
Nisan’s “100% electric, no-gas” LEAF (they tell me all caps, please) is a nice car, too. And there seem to be plenty of people who agree—I’ve seen 17 on the road, so far. Seven of those had the gigantic “Zero Emission” graphic on each side. Ah, greenwash. How else are you going to justify spending $32,000 for a car you realistically only use to drive to work and back?
Never thought this would happen: there’s a B segment in the American auto market. (We’re talking hatchbacks here; the 4-door sedans are mostly for rental fleets and the few Americans who still don’t grasp the hatchback concept.) It’s a really hot B segment: the sensational Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta are joined by the new (Made in Murika) Chevy Sonic, the seriously upgraded Yaris (The instrument cluster is back behind the steering wheel where it belongs!), and the radically improved Hyundai Accent (FIVE doors, yo!) and Kia Rio, which has bubbled to the top of my shortlist, edging out the Mazda2.
So where’s Volkswagen?
VW’s B-segment Polo is a big seller worldwide, it being closer in size and spirit to the Rabbit/Golf of yore. There were some mumblings about it coming to America a couple years ago, but VW seems to have changed their mind. Whenever I ask about it, VW’s reply has always been, “oh, GOD NO, we’re NEVER going to sell the Polo in America! WTH are you talking about?”
Because you guys keep saying you want to be the biggest car company in the world, sales-wise, and the B segment is now hot in the world’s second-largest(China’s first, has been for a couple years now) auto market. And selling a car normal people might actually want is better in the long run than flogging dumbed-down Jettas and Passats to fleets, that’s why.
I’ve seen exactly one Chattanooga-built Passat on the street. I think. And it wasn’t the one Brenda Priddy was driving. The Passat somehow manages to be even more nondescript than a Toyota Camry, and that’s saying something.
A rather more distinctive offering than the Passat is the new New Beetle. Or, as the ad campaign calls it, the 21st Century Beetle. Actually, it’s just “Beetle” now. Ray Bradbury would approve. Most noteworthy about VW’s rebooted halo car is a profile that more closely follows that of the original. There are nice details (like the taillights), and the silly dashboard flower vase has been 86ed. In fact, the new dashboard only hints at the original with color-coordinated panels topped off by a very modern instrument cluster. All this and more, at a slightly higher price than before, at least for the base model. Hey, people continue to pay through the nose for MINIs, and the Fiat 500 isn’t exactly a bargain-basement item, either. The traffic will bear quite a lot in this market segment.
Suzuki now offers an SX4 hatchback without the AWD. Which really isn’t necessary. It’s the tires that determine how well you get through snow, not the number of driven wheels. Said SX4 can be had with a Continuously-Variable Transmission (CVT), as with a modern scooter. But said CVT includes steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters. Huh? CVTs don’t shift, unless they’re electronically programmed to behave like a geared transmission. Which I think is really stupid. Oh, well, they didn’t ask me.
You may recall VW acquired 20% of Suzuki Auto a couple years ago. As Autoblog.com put it, their ardor has cooled considerably—Suzuki wants to see other people. Which if you’re a car company means you, say, get diesel engines from Fiat instead of VW. In fact, there are reports that things have reached the yelling-and-throwing-things stage. Relationship counseling is called for.
Speaking of relationships, Mazda’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E from Ford became final earlier this year. They were once so close, sharing platforms and even factories. Heck, my 1995 Ford Escort is mostly Mazda Protege, which was a very good thing. But the lovers drifted apart, and when Ford CEO Alan Mulally decided the company needed to focus (sorry) on its core brands, that was it.
The big question was not “what about the kids?’ but “What about the Mazda6?” The midsize sedan, which still shares a platform with the Ford Fusion, is built in Flat Rock, Mich. alongside the Ford Mustang. That arrangement can’t continue; it seems likely Mazda6 production will move to a new plant in Mexico, though it sells in small enough numbers to make importing it from Japan a possibility. Ironically, the end of Mazda6 production in Flat Rock could clear the way for the Ford Fusion to be built there. Because, remember, the Fusion shares its platform with the Mazda6.
In the meantime, the company once known for sporty cars like the (discontinued) RX-8 sells mostly people-haulers these days. Which, oddly enough, seem to be what Mazda buyers want—sales increases over 2010 have hit double digits, making Mazda a sales star on the order of Chrysler Group and Hyundai-Kia. Yet the kid still whispers “zoom-zoom” in the commercials. Isn’t he about to graduate from college?
Strange but true, the Washington State Ferry system has created a possible incentive to own a smart fortwo: when they jacked up the fare for car and driver last month, they introduced a 10% discount (increasing to 30% in a couple years) for vehicles shorter than 14 feet. (The smart is less than 10 feet long.) But the fact remains, a decently-equipped B segment hatchback—which would also come in under the limit—can be had for about the same price. And would get as good, if not better, gas mileage.
The big problem faced by smart is unique in the industry—all indications are everyone in the world who wanted a smart fortwo now has one. There’s talk of expanding the model range, but so far the only step in that direction has been to introduce an electric version. And an electric bicycle. Roger Penske pulled the plug on his dealer group’s U.S. distribution deal, so Daimler is now handling smarts directly. Daimler is also handling Sprinter vans directly, so it will be interesting to see how well dealers who can barely comprehend $50K luxury cars do with vehicles that are anything but.
The subject of high school reunions has been on my radar a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve got one coming up in a couple years. Or maybe it’s because there’s a new Porsche 911 for 2012. Looking at this new 911 brings thoughts of high school, and especially the really hot girl every guy wanted to date. Except now she’s gained 100+ lbs, and the facelifts just aren’t working anymore.
When it was introduced in 1963, the 911 was a light, simple, elegant device. And most importantly, it was reasonably priced. When I was in high school a good job, a few roommates and a taste for Top Ramen meant a new 911 was within reach. And at the time it was one hell of a chick magnet. Yes, it had some quirks (don’t lift in the middle of a corner being the most important one), and yes, the interior was kinda cheap, but so what?
Now? The Porsche 911 is like that formerly hot girl: bloated, dumpy and trapped in the straitjacket of a design language that seems dictated by an acute lack of courage, not to mention the screams of car-forum knuckle-draggers and Porsche fetishists who know nothing of the company’s history (Hey folks, the vintage ones sound like VOLKSWAGENS because the SAME GUY designed them!!!). Porsche seems able to sell enough 911s (and Panameras and Cayennes to go with them), but like Buick, Porsche’s customer base now skews much older than in the chick magnet days.
Chevrolet, that quintessential American car nameplate, celebrated its 100th birthday the week of the show. Fittingly, one of its most significant new-model introductions was a new Colorado midsize pickup truck. Which was designed in Brazil. And introduced in Thailand, which is the world’s largest market for midsize pickups. The U.S., not so much, though a version will indeed be sold here.
Chevrolet enters its second century a brand with global reach. In fact, GM just retired the Daewoo name in Korea (GM acquired Daewoo several years ago), rebranding its cars sold there as Chevrolets. Sales went up 50%.
The 2013 Malibu, front and center at the Chevy stand, takes a page from *gasp* Ford—it will be a truly global automobile, the ones sold in Shanghai just like the ones people in Miami and Munich and Montreal and Melbourne and maybe even Mumbai will be able to buy. It’s a bit shorter and a bit wider than the well-received introduced-in-2007 model it replaces, and it does not disappoint.
In the speech announcing his proposed “jobs” bill (or as most call it, another tax cut for the wealthy), President Obama famously wondered aloud why Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, but Koreans can’t buy Fords and Chevys and Chryslers. Mr. President, please see the note about Daewoo, above. I wonder if anyone told him most of those Kias and Hyundais Americans are snapping up are built in the U.S.?
Let us look closely at the 2012 Hyundai Accent: you’ll find as good a paint job as on a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. You’ll find a sophisticated, direct-injected DOHC 1.6-liter engine that produces 138 horsepower and yields 40 highway mpg. You will find an interior made of materials of nearly comparable quality to those in the Benz (okay, no wood, but why would there be wood in a 21st-century automobile?). You will find traction control, vehicle stability control and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and automatic brake assist. All of this can be yours for as little as $14,195. It’s a nice car. Really nice luxury cars didn’t have these features or offer the Accent’s level of performance 25 years ago.
And this is from the company that got started in the U.S. by offering a new car for $4,995. A car that was decent, if Spartan and honestly, more than a bit cheap-feeling. That Hyundai has risen to the upper echelon of the automotive world, with products like the Accent, Elantra and Sonata (made in the U.S., no less), is nothing short of remarkable. Not to mention the company single-handedly raising the standard of living in Alabama (okay, that wouldn’t require a whole lot of effort) by offering some of that state’s best-paying private sector jobs in its manufacturing plants there, is something no one could have imagined.
One of the most eagerly-awaited cars at the show this year was the Scion iQ, which has been on sale in Europe and Asia for a few years, under the Toyota brand. The name is a bit of jab at Daimler: iQ, or more correctly, I.Q. is a measure of intelligence, a high one making you, uh, smart.
The iQ may actually succeed in the U.S. where the smart has not, even though it’s more expensive than the Daimler city car.
For starters, the iQ has a back seat. Americans are unique in the world for their inability to comprehend the idea of a 2-seat automobile (at least one that’s not, say, a Corvette). Never mind that the only way an adult will fit in the second row is to push the front passenger seat all the way forward (which is a long way, thanks to clever packaging of things like internal wiring and HVAC ducting), the iQ is called a 4-passenger vehicle.
It also comes with wheels and tires that don’t appear to have been borrowed from a big-wheel scooter. Instead, what the iQ does borrow from scooters is its CVT, vs. the smart’s complicated, gawd-awful automated manual transmission.
Finally, it’s a Scion, which means there are literally a million different ways to personalize it. If you follow the SEMA show in Las Vegas (which happens at about the same time as the Seattle show), you saw the more extreme possibilities for the iQ. Daimler seems only now to be realizing this, though personalization of your smart fortwo mostly still means swapping the swappable body panels.
I’m waiting for BMW’s sh*t to get jacked up regarding their new “BMW i” line of electric and hybrid vehicles. Doesn’t Apple own the copyright on the lower-case letter i? The maker of the Ultimate Driving Machines (except they aren’t) now becomes the seller of the Ultimate Greenwash. The cars don’t hit the market until 2013, and pricing has not been announced. It seems likely you’ll need to have your picture in People Magazine regularly and often to be able to afford one. And it will still be less useful than a Vespa scooter, which a lot of Hollywood types get around on. Except Tom Hanks—he rides a Genuine Buddy.
Oh, BMW rolled out a new 3-Series this year. I guess it was time. The 3-Series, BMW’s bestseller in the U.S., is kinda like the Porsche 911 in that over the years it’s gotten larger, heavier, and more expensive. And loaded to the nines with gizmos. Well, BMW still offers free scheduled maintenance for the duration of the warranty, and you can lease a 3-Series for about the same monthly payment you’d make for a Camry or an Accord. And they are nice. And worldwide, BMW sells enough vehicles and makes enough money for the Quandt family to negate the possibility of the company being bought by Toyota. Or Volkswagen. Or the Chinese. Or, God forbid, the Russians.
You’ll recall an attempt to buy Saab that involved Russian money was turned aside. One wonders if the company might be on better footing had that not happened. Against all odds, Saab has managed to remain in business despite selling fewer cars in all of the U.S. each month than one medium-size metro area dealer for any major brand. Spyker, a company that used to make gazillion-dollar supercars somehow got the daffy idea it could run a volume (well, Saab was, once) car company, even though it never did make money on the supercars.
First the suppliers didn’t get paid. Then the assembly-line workers didn’t get paid. Then the managers and engineers didn’t get paid. And while people weren’t getting paid, the assembly line stood still. The gazillion-dollar supercar operation got sold, and the parent company’s name got changed to Swedish Automotive. And the Saab 9-4X, a Saab-grilled Cadillac SRX, was rolled out. Whether any actually get sold remains to be seen.
A serious twist in this soap opera has resulted in proposed partnerships with a minor Chinese car company and a sort-of major Chinese auto dealer group ($342 mill for a 54% stake) morphing into a complete buyout for $142 million, nowhere near what Spyker paid. And yet, Americans continue to think the Chinese are stupid. This clearly shows they’re the smartest guys in the room.
Even though Saab hasn’t built cars since spring, and is currently besieged by suppliers and employees demanding to be paid, for Saab’s new owners it’s all good. They get brand equity (FWIW), they get intellectual property rights, they get a factory and supply-chain relationships. And most importantly, a clean slate. The near-luxury segment is so crowded, nobody would notice (much less care) if Saab staked out different market territory. Ten-thousand dollar Chinese compact crossover, anyone? I’d be very interested in something like that, actually.
Oh, it seems to be time for a new Audi A4, too. The head and taillights are different shapes, and I’m pretty sure there are more exterior LEDs than on the previous version. A thoroughly nice car, the A4, but in this neck of the woods so ubiquitous they just kinda blend into the woodwork. There was an A8L on the floor too, resplendent in Oligarch Black (no heavily-tinted windows, however). I really don’t understand why anyone who doesn’t employ a chauffeur and doesn’t require armor-plating and bullet-proof glass (which the A8L kinda has) would buy a car like the this, but Audi seems to sell quite a few of them, to people who drive themselves. And don’t have a price on their heads.
Chrysler’s recovery from financial oblivion proceeds apace. Who would have guessed that Fiat would be the one to set the perennial third of America’s Big 3 car companies on the path to, if not righteousness, then profitability based on selling cars and trucks people WANT? That’s right, in September Chrysler’s sales were up 27% companywide from 2010. Chrysler Division recorded a 36% increase over the same period.
More remarkably, the company’s product plan takes into account CEO Sergio Marchione’s trenchant observation that “the customer is not stupid.” Which means, when almost all of your dealers sell all of your brands under one roof, having Dodges and Chryslers that differ only by their grilles and nameplates is, well, stupid. So, goodbye Dodge Grand Caravan—a replacement for the Journey crossover will cover that segment, leaving the Chrysler Town & Country as the sole minivan offering. Goodbye Avenger—the Chrysler 200’s replacement will be it. A new Dodge compact sedan will compete in the C-segment, but there will be no Chrysler-badged sibling. And so on. Also, plans for a subcompact car to be sold as a Dodge have been scrapped. Dang. I was hoping for a Fiat Punto Evo (called a Dodge Dart?), but that’s not gonna happen. In the U.S., anyway. Canada and Mexico, maybe.
The plan is for Fiats to be the subcompacts in Chrysler’s portfolio. The 500 has garnered lotsa buzz, but sales have come in below expectations. Well, in the current economy, a $15.5K+ automotive bauble is probably not the thing most buyers are looking for right now (unless it’s an Abarth, which will roll out in L.A. shortly). The current 3-door 500 will soon be joined by a stretched 5-door, a wagon along the lines of the MINI Clubman, and a people mover that I sincerely hope will be called the Multipla.
Chrysler also plans to reenter the large van market with a Ram-branded Fiat Ducato. By this time next year, Ford will replace its two-decade-old E-Series with the Transit, Ford’s iconic international commercial van, built in Kansas City, Mo. no less. It would appear GM will be left behind, as there has been no word on a replacement for the Express/Savana, which are not quite as old as the E-Series, but aren’t exactly new, either.
As an example of how far the mighty have fallen, look no further than Mitsubishi. There was supposed to be an i, formerly i-MiEV. But it was MIA from a tiny but nevertheless empty space between Coda and the high-end garage-cabinet company. They still make ICE passenger cars, but people seem to have stopped buying them, at least in the U.S.
Speaking of the Coda, I rather like how it resembles a Suzuki Forenza, inside and out. The claimed 150-mile range, thanks to keeping the batteries at an optimal temperature, makes it interesting. But it costs more than a Chevy Volt. Even with all the tax credits (which require a high enough income to offset the taxes), it’s still pretty damned expensive. Especially since it looks like a Suzuki Forenza with a blanked-out grille. I’ll be riding a scooter for quite a while yet.
Once again, there was no bargain-basement Chinese car at the show. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say there probably won’t ever be. Why? I recently read an article that said a mature Chinese new-vehicle market would see annual sales of about 28 million units. In a good year, the U.S. did about 15 million. China is where the action will be. There is simply no reason for them to invest boatloads of money and a couple of decades establishing themselves in the U.S., a la Hyundai & Japan, Inc when the real growth will be at home, and the real profits will come from their investments in upmarket carmakers like Volvo (and whatever others they might pick up at bargain prices… like, f’rinstance, Saab).
I’m going to guess the next ultra-cheap new car will come from India, which currently produces scooters and motorcycles sold in the U.S. However, the ultra-cheap car in question ain’t gonna be a Tata Nano. After much fanfare on its introduction, sales of the $2,500 people’s car have fallen off a cliff. Nanos’ nasty habit of catching fire for no reason anyone would talk about had a lot to do with that, but the opinion has been expressed that too many corners were cut—while it looks like a hatchback, there’s no rear gate or boot lid, and its wheezy 2-cylinder engine gives up considerable power to India’s bestseller, the 3-cylinder $5,500 Suzuki Maruti Alto. Oh, and nobody’s talking about a 2nd-generation model for world markets anymore. So promising, once, the Tata Nano is now being called a failure.
Probably the most significant recent development in the U.S. auto biz is Chevrolet’s announcement that its A-segment Spark will go on sale here in 2012. Yes, it will help considerably in raising GM’s CAFE numbers. And it’s a pretty cool little car, with a lot of nice features and a quality look and feel. It is significant because the way things are going, it might be the only new car most Americans will be able to afford. Unless the Chinese change their minds and finally bring a $6,000 hatchback to the U.S.