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2012 Seattle Auto Show

November 15, 2012
The show floor

Orin O’Neill photos

Has it been a year already? Well, November is Seattle Auto Show time, so I will once again offer a perspective on the show, and the U.S. auto industry. If you have no interest in such things, I invite you to explore the archives. And if this is your first visit to this here blog, welcome! Follow the jump for my Auto Show story.

SEATTLE—The car biz has come roaring back in 2012. Where once sales were falling off a cliff, nearly every car company reported sales gains in 2012. Some enormous (Fiat—uh, FIAT. Sorry—is moving more product now that all the Studios are up and running), most merely good. The biggest gainers are the Japanese brands, the effects of the devastating earthquake and tsunami finally behind them.

Given the extremely anemic rate of job-creation, it appears the reason for the upturn is lots of people either realizing if they were going to get laid off, that probably would have happened by now, or they’re just saying, oh, what the hell, might as well enjoy ourselves until it’s time to move to a homeless encampment.

One of the biggest gainers was smart, at times posting triple-digit monthly sales increases over 2011. This could probably be attributed to Daimler’s discovery that dealers’ having cars in stock for immediate delivery (vs making people leave a $99 deposit online and wait), amazingly, helps you sell more of them! Who knew?

Race simulator

There were several race simulators on the show floor. This one belonged to State Farm Insurance.

A sure sign that the days of Japan, Inc are long gone is the president of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, saying, OMG, we have GOT to stop building cars for the U.S. market in Japan. These days the yen trades at less than 80 to the dollar—back in the day it was ~100—unprecedented strength in light of Japan’s continued economic stagnation.

Of course, the Kentucky-built Camry has been much more American, content-wise, than most “American” cars for decades now. Toyota announced a while ago that it would be going so far as shifting U.S.-market Yaris production to… wait for it… FRANCE! That’s where Euro-market Yari are built (and where smart fortwos are built, too). The euro has taken a serious hit, trading at about a buck thirty Murkin, much better financially for exports.

Mazda2

Mazda2 will have a Toyota-badged cousin in 2013 which will NOT be named Yaris. (Mazda USA)

A more recent announcement will have Mazda (yes, Mazda) building a Toyota-badged version of its Mazda2 in a new plant that’s under construction in Mexico. There will still be a Yaris, sez Toyota, and the Mazda ain’t it.

Since the Ford-Mazda divorce, Mazda has been on the ropes financially in spite of healthy U.S. sales because they lost the Flat Rock, Mich. joint venture with Ford. Mazdas are all built in Japan at the moment; the new Mexican factory will build the Mazda2 and Mazda3 when it comes onstream early in 2013.

Last year, Toyota got the attention of crunchy urban progressives with the Prius v (which stands for “versatility,” even though most people seem to think it’s a Roman numeral five), the logical follow-on to the ancient Volvo station wagons that are rusting into oblivion.

This year, Ford joins the drum circle with its C-Max crossover. To Toyota, Ford says, we’ll see your hybrid and raise you a plug-in hybrid, the C-Max Energi.

Ford C-Max

Ford C-Max (Ford Motor Company)

Ford was one of the many companies offering short test drives, so I took a C-Max Hybrid for a spin. It rode decently on Pioneer Square’s heaved pavement, has a roof that feels almost as high as any cathedral’s and offers lotsa room for flats of heritage tomato sprouts and birding gear.

Ford has a new Escape for 2013. Toyota has a new RAV4 in the pipeline. A new Honda CR-V debuted earlier this year, as did Mazda’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-SKYACTIV® CX-5. All are representative of the tectonic shift in the crossover (formerly compact SUV) segment, namely the admission by everyone that nobody ever drives these things off-road. I rather liked the Tonka-toy look of my long-departed 2005 Escape; the lousy gas mileage, not so much.

No V6 in the new Ex-scape, just a choice of three 4-cylinders that make so much horsepower and/or torque you won’t miss the other two cylinders.

Had a chance to drive a ’13 Escape recently, which convinced me even more that the ’05’s days would’ve been numbered, if not for the persistent ruinous state of my finances. I’m guessing this one had the 2.0-liter EcoBoost (forgot to look, sorry), which not only felt much more powerful than the V6 of old, it gave no indication whatsoever of turbocharging or number of cylinders. The new Escape was also nippier and rode more comfortably than my old one. There’s more interior room than the outgoing model, too.

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG

Mercedes-Benz’ SLS AMG only costs $135,000. I expected $250K, at least.

Now that the pressure to traverse the Rubicon is gone, 4WD becomes completely unnecessary in the crossover segment, which will significantly reduce weight, which will significantly reduce fuel consumption. Tick the right boxes and you get an Escape that gives an EPA-estimated 33 mpg highway. About as well as the (discontinued for 2013) Escape Hybrid did, but far less complicated.

Along that same line, you’ll notice the Jeep Grand Cherokee is no longer “Trail Rated.” Same deal, hardly any of those ever got driven any further off road than a gravel driveway. I guess the rappers, athletes, gangsters and oligarchs who tend to buy them don’t really mind that they can’t negotiate 21% grades, in spite of more favorable approach/departure angles made possible by the new GC’s wheels being out at the corners. It’s all about the Benjamins, after all. And the armor-plating.

All-new Nissans

Nissan is refreshing its most important products, but the Altima was the only one on the show floor.

Another epiphany has been had by Nissan, its new Pathfinder the second of five totally redesigned vehicles to debut in the next year or so (the new Altima was the first). Yes, the Pathfinder is now technically a crossover, having ditched body-on-frame architecture for a unibody. More importantly, Nissan has finally embraced the Pathfinder’s 4-door-ness by NOT HIDING THE REAR DOOR HANDLES! They’re right where you expect them, and they’re even CHROME!!

You know why they used to be hidden, right? Shortly after the Pathfinder debuted as a 2-door, someone realized having two doors made it a “cargo” vehicle, making it subject to the “chicken tax” on imported light trucks. A 4-door version was quickly rolled out, but Nissan was so scared people wouldn’t buy a 4-door Pathfinder they did everything they could stylistically to hide that fact. Hence door handles near the rear-quarter window, painted black to match the trim. That trick persists today on the Chevy Spark and many other cars.

Nissan will not employ that trick as it introduces a new Sentra, U.S.-built Rogue, Versa hatchback (looks like a Note) and eventually, Titan big pickup. While the Sentra has had its debut (think 5:6-scale Altima), none were present at the show. In fact, several models were missing from Nissan’s smaller space.

Subaru XV Crosstrek

Subaru XV Crosstrek

The Subaru XV Crosstrek recently knocked the VW Golf out of its #1 sales spot. In Switzerland. I’ve yet to see one in Subaru Outback-ville (i.e., Bellingham), tho the Impreza hatch is a fairly common sight. Truth is, the XV Crosstrek is the quintessential Bellingham vehicle, looking positively naked without a kayak and/or a pair of mountain bikes strapped to its roof. The extra ground clearance is perfect for negotiating the double-track driveways found along Chuckanut Drive. Outbacks and Elements will be showing up on dealers’ used car lots any time now.

Volvo area

There was lots of white space in Volvo’s area…

The 1% level (aka the Mezzanine) was stuffed cheek-by-jowl with Land Rovers, Benzes and such. Well, except for the Volvo space. Not sure why this was the case, especially since Volvos are much more affordable.

Still no Chinese cars on sale in the U.S. And I still think that isn’t going to happen for a long time, if ever. Yes, the Chinese domestic market has slowed, but the New York Times reported sales are booming in emerging markets like South America.

Which makes perfect sense when you consider the acute lack of used cars in places like Brazil and Argentina. People who have only about five grand to spend on a car aren’t real picky about things like the number of cupholders. Or airbags, which are often missing from said Chinese cars, because they often aren’t required in emerging markets.

Of course, this is making the major players like GM, Volkswagen and Fiat Auto really nervous because they too are counting on those emerging markets for future sales growth. They don’t know how to profitably sell new cars for five grand.

Accord display

It must be time for a new Accord. This one is version 9.0

There’s a new Honda Accord this year, version 9.0 to be exact. I guess it was time. OTOH, it was certainly NOT supposed to be time for a refreshed Civic, but we’re getting one anyway. Honda, if you’ll pardon the expression, really screwed the pooch with the 2012 Civic. Hey, when you offend Consumer Reports, you’ve really accomplished something. Something not good, that is.

In fact, Autoblog.com recently ran a story about dealers being told to get rid of their stocks of 2012 Civics ASAP. Even Honda admits nobody’s gonna want a ’12 Civic when they see the ’13, which will go on sale just in time for the L.A. Auto Show later in November. Before Prii and LEAFs came along, Seattle used to be Honda Civic-ville. I’ve owned a few myself. The new one is expected to make a major dent in the outgoing Civic’s pizazz deficit vis-à-vis the Elantra, Focus, Forte and even the new Dart.

Hyundai Elantra GT

The Elantra GT perfectly illustrates how far Hyundai has come since the 1986 Excel.

One of the very few car companies—and the only volume brand—losing U.S. sales in 2012 is Mitsubishi, which didn’t even bother to place an i in the middle of a passageway. For 2013, Mitsu’s big news is the production of Outlander Sports moving to Normal, Ill. from Japan. See Toyota, above. But will it make any difference?

Let’s see, there’s no marketing, few dealers and more importantly, a product line that differs hardly at all from what everybody else is selling (and really, the Outlander Sport is a sad little lump that kinda looks like the previous Hyundai Tuscon). I will speak the truth no one else dares: if Mitsubishi doesn’t do something, at least interesting if not game-changing, SOON (the i ain’t it, folks), they will join Mercury, Pontiac, Saturn and Plymouth in that Great Auto Mall in the Sky. And no one will notice. Or care.

That’s already happened to American Suzuki Motor Corp. which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection just days ago. The company says it will discontinue its automotive products and concentrate on motorcycles and ATVs. Except they don’t sell many of those, either.

2013 Dodge Dart

2013 Dodge Dart, in light-absorbing dark red

Suzuki’s abrupt demise left Chrysler/Fiat with lots of white space, since they were neighbors on the show floor plan. There were several FIAT Abarths, just sitting out on the off-white carpet. For reasons I cannot fathom, every Dodge was painted the same light-absorbing dark red you can see in the pic. And the only Dart was a Rallye (did anyone ever REALLY spell it like that?). I’d like one in a brighter color, please.

Audi A7

Audi A/S7 is among the many new odd-numbered models in Ingolstadt’s lineup.

Both Audi and BMW (which had a really small space) have been working dilligently to fill the numeric gaps in their respective model lineups. BMW will shortly roll out a 4-Series coupe concept, which will supplant the 3-Series coupe. There’s also supposed to be a 2-Series in the pipeline (same deal as the 3/4). OTOH, Audi is filling the spaces between its even-numbered U.S. lineup with things like the sleek, sexy, hella expensive A7 and S7. Where once luxury brands relied on the exclusivity of their products being a rare sight on the highways and byways, for Audi and BMW the idea now seems to be to have something that’s different (enough) from the majority of your products, especially the ones that can be leased for the same monthly payment as an Accord or Camry.

Amanda's iPad

iPads with specialized product reference apps were everywhere.

Audi product specialist Amanda shows the reference app she can use to answer customers’ questions about specific models. While she was unusually knowledgeable about Audi’s current (and previous) models without the iPad, widespread adoption of such technology should bring to an end the scenario of previous years, where asking a question that deviated from the script the product specialist had memorized caused them to be flustered and flummoxed (of course, the car companies could’ve just hired people who actually know something about cars, but hey…).

Volkswagen’s Jetta/Passat strategy of of “make ’em bigger, dumb ’em down and sell ’em (relatively) cheap” seems to be working fabulously for them. Monthly sales have gone up by double-digit percentages for over a year now. I’ve even seen Jettas and Passats with rental-fleet barcodes. Whatever. VW is very fortunate to have a U.S. customer core that will buy pretty much anything with a VW emblem in the grille. Their goal of 800,000 annual U.S. sales seem well within reach.

VW Jetta Hybrid

Volkswagen wants to make sure you know there’s now a Jetta Hybrid.

VW also has a fair amount of excess capacity in that spiffy new factory in Chattanooga, so there’s lots of whispering about what else might get built there. A pickup truck? Nope. Audi A4s? No, even though building Audi’s Murkin best-seller in the States makes a whole lot of sense, it seems likely a new factory will be built for that purpose. Something crossover-like is what the smart money is betting on, but maybe not the Tiguan. It remains to be seen.

Europe will be getting the Mk VII Golf any time now, and by all indications it’s sensational. We in North America are going to have to wait, however. Until mid-2014, in fact. Okay, if it’s a 2015 model it will arrive on the 40th anniversary of the intro of the original Golf, which was sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit. This new one is a far cry from the small, simple device that was supposed to sell for $2,999 until the U.S. dollar fell off a cliff in the wake of the original Oil Crisis. But the world has changed a lot in four decades. I look forward to driving a Mk VII Golf.

Lincoln MKZ

Lincoln had the most lavish display at the show, and the new MKZ occupied center stage.

Once upon a time, Lincoln was a brand of equal standing with Cadillac. With Mercury gone, Ford is now trying to return Lincoln to a state of credibility as a luxury car brand. Which among other things means you probably won’t be able to rent one from Alamo.

The influence of Lincoln’s new design chief Max Wolfe is fully realized with the 2013 Lincoln MKZ. Yes, it’s a really, really nice Ford Fusion, but it must be remembered that 20 years ago, the entry-level Lexus was a tarted-up Toyota Camry. You have to start somewhere. And now that Ford Motor Company has shed the distractions of Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston-Martin (which is apparently for sale again) it can focus all of its efforts on making credible luxury cars.

Cadillac ATS

Cadillac ATS: ‘Standard of the World’ may actually mean something again.

Cadillac, meanwhile, continues its quest for the summit of luxury-car Mount Olympus. Yes, tremendous strides have been made in recent years, but now Cadillac has a car that can take the fight straight to BMW’s 3-Series: The ATS. It’s about the same size and weight, it serves up similar performance, and it’s priced competitively. It features a more fluid take on Cadillac’s Art&Science design language, which is well-known worldwide. GM has always had the talent to produce a car like the ATS; it’s nice to see the company finally allowing that talent to flourish.

I’m told FIAT is to be written in all caps. Like MINI. FIAT Studios, now that all are up and running, are now turning their attention to customization. Like Scion, which calls it “personalization.”

MINI and Scion are who FIAT is competing with, so why not do what has been shown to work? Since Fiat Auto has two very well-established (and well-regarded) volume brands in Dodge and Chrysler, we aren’t going to be seeing Fiat Auto’s bread ‘n butter models under the FIAT brand in the U.S. of A. Badged as Dodges or Chryslers, maybe. It depends.

Scion xB

There’s talk the Scion xB will be dropped. What will cabbies in Portland do?

Speaking of Scion, there have been reports the xB and xD are about to be dropped. Never mind the xB is probably the car most people (at least, those who know how to pronounce “Scion”) associate with Toyota’s “youth” brand.

Except Toyota has been saying Scion never was a “youth” brand; it’s Toyota’s “experimental” brand. Okay.

I was at the Scion launch at the 2003 L.A. Auto Show, and the word “youth” was uttered more times than anyone could count. There was techno music blaring from gigantic speakers while Scion people waxed enthusiastic about how the instrument lighting could be changed to any of 12 colors, a feature demanded by the youth market Scion was aiming at, according to their product-planning people.

This change of heart might have been brought about by all the seniors who buy xBs because they’re very easy to get in and out of. Whatever. As George Orwell wrote, we are at war with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eurasia.

At least the product specialists were willing to admit Scion has indeed abandoned the stacked display that always made me think of a Hot Wheels Special Edition collection. Oh, and the 160-beat-per-minute techno grooves have been replaced by Auto-Tune Adult Contemporary tunes. I don’t really mind. I must be getting old.

Buick Encore

Buick Encore is also sold as the Chevy Trax outside North America

I keep saying that when I see new Buicks, because I uh, like them. Highlighting the Buick display was the Encore, a compact crossover. Outside the U.S., this vehicle is called the Chevrolet Trax. The Trax rocks plastic, vinyl and cloth instead of the Encore’s leather, wood and more leather. The interior of the one on display was done in a very attractive caramel and chocolate color scheme, with restrained use of very real-looking wood..? Of course, what sells to Buick and other similarly-aged crossover buyers is the Encore’s butt-height seat. I’d still rather have it as a Chevy, though.

2013 Chevy Malibu

Chevy Malibu is all new for 2013

Speaking of Chevrolet, they had their usual several Camaros, a couple Malibus, a couple Sonics (one being the turbocharged RS). They had a couple Sparks, too. And one was a 1LS trim, which is the base model. For $12,995 you get such niceties as alloy wheels, free OnStar for three months and a back seat that will accommodate two adults with minimal inconvenience to those up front. And it looks really good in the color Chevy calls “Denim,” which is a cool medium metallic blue. The last Chevrolet I owned was an orange 1976 Chevette, which was my college ride. There hasn’t been a bowtie car in my parking space since, but a Spark could very well end that streak.

Just when you thought the Tata Nano was about to drop off the radar screen for good, company president Ratan Tata announced a new one, designed with the U.S. market in mind and going on sale in three years. While the original was pitched as a dirt-cheap scooter alternative in India, this upcoming Nano is expected to be priced around $10 grand. Which makes a whole lotta sense, given how poverty is becoming the new prosperity.

Tata Megapixel concept

Tata Megapixel concept could preview the next Nano (Tata Motors)

Of course, the question of who’s going to sell this new Nano is a rather important one. And anyone who thinks for even a *cough* nano *cough* second that Tata’s Jaguar/Land Rover dealers are going to be involved knows even less about business than the average American. There’s Lexus because the customer for a $50K-plus luxury car is not the same one shopping Toyota Corollas.

If Mr. Tata were to ask me, I would suggest recruiting well-run, honest, customer-oriented used car dealers like the one that sold me the Fourth Estate. But he probably won’t ask. Oh, well. If this new Nano looks anything like the Megapixel concept shown earlier this year in Geneva, it won’t matter who sells it. The problem might be holding to the $10K price.

McLaren MP4-12C

McLaren MP4-12C, resplendent in McLaren orange

The stars of the Seattle Auto Show this year were the McLaren MP4-12C (two, in fact) and Bugatti Veyron supercars. That the ultimate wheeled wet dreams of geeks worldwide were center stage shows the organizers have finally started to realize that showing something, well, more interesting than the latest dull, gray hybrids will get people through the doors. Not everyone who lives in Seattle is a car-hating bicycle Nazi. Who knows what’s next? A North American debut perhaps? It will be worth the wait. Favicon

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