2014 Portland Auto Show
As you may recall, I was forced to miss the Seattle International Auto Show in October. Luckily, Portland’s show happens in February, which means at least a few Detroit debutantes make the scene. As always, if cages aren’t your thing you can hit the archives for seven years’ worth of Scootin’ Old Skool awesomeness. Read about the show after the jump.
PORTLAND—The 2014 Portland International Auto Show happened in spite of what was frequently described as a “snowpocalypse.” Parts of the Portland metro area saw as much as 16 inches of the white stuff, but in spite of barely passable roads a good crowd was on hand at the Oregon Convention Center.
Noteworthy locally was the recent passing of Ron Tonkin, aged 82. From (sort of) humble beginnings out 122nd way with a Chevrolet dealership, Tonkin Auto Group grew to include almost every brand except Ford. Tonkin’s Grand Prix Motors is America’s oldest Ferrari dealership, and the company owns Moto Corsa, Portland’s Ducati dealer. You know Ducati is owned by Volkswagen Group, right?
In what was arguably the automotive story of the year, Fiat and Chrysler consummated their marriage a short while ago by announcing a new name—Fiat Chrysler Automobiles—a new, excruciatingly bland logo, and a new corporate HQ in… wait for it… the Netherlands. Which is the EU’s favorite tax haven. Shares will be traded in New York and Milan.
Among other things, the merger turned a substantial Fiat loss into a Fiat profit. A beaming CEO Sergio Marchione announced the new company’s first order of business will be to grow the Jeep brand worldwide. He’s hoping to move a million Jeeps annually (current volume is 700,000-ish), very soon. A major factor in that strategy will be a new, Fiat 500L-based small crossover, reportedly to be called the Jeepster, which will debut in Geneva in March.
In the meantime, there’s the new Jeep Cherokee, which wears Jeep’s Trail Rated badge in spite of switching to unibody construction. It looks good, feels good inside and a friend who has one really likes it. It could probably tempt me away from the new Ford Escape, if I were actually in a position to purchase either.
I was quite pleased to see a Ram ProMaster van on the show floor. You’ll recall Chrysler’s brief marriage to Daimler resulted in Sprinters sold as Dodges. Well, now commercial van buyers can choose a Fiat with a Ram badge. The persistent (totally unwarranted) notion that such vehicles cannot have front-wheel drive should finally be laid to rest with the ProMaster, which has a cargo area that’s about the size of my apartment, thanks to having the engine and drivetrain in a neat little package up front. Europeans have known this for decades. Expect to see lots of these. And sometime in MY 2015, there will be a Transit Connect-sized van, the Ram ProMaster City. The title of Ultimate Scooter Hauler will be up for grabs, for sure.
The year 2014 will see the 50th anniversary of Ford’s introduction of the Mustang, one of the most successful new-car debuts of all time. The 2015 iteration (they can’t call it a 2014½) fully embodies Ford’s apparent realization that the baby boomer cohort is slowly approaching its gentle trip to that good night; in the manner of most of Ford’s other offerings, it now looks like an Aston Martin (Ford sold the iconic British carmaker in 2007, so this development has been a head-scratcher). I can’t decide if it’s more Vanquish or DB9. Unlike the original, which was mostly built from the Falcon parts bin, this new one boasts a bespoke platform and independent rear suspension. And right-hand drive in those markets requiring it. Ford has gone all-in on the idea of the Mustang as its halo car.
Also celebrating an anniversary is the Volkswagen Golf, debuting worldwide 40 years ago this fall, and initially known as the Rabbit in North America. VW’s giant leap into the automotive mainstream (designed by the maestro Giorgietto Guigiaro, in case you didn’t know) was quite popular in these parts, first as transportation, then as a grassroots race car. The Rabbit fit perfectly into the International Conference of Sports Car Club’s H Production class; they multiplied (sorry) so aggressively that one year they were the Saturday feature race at the annual Rose Cup at Portland International Raceway. Seventy of them took the green flag, as I recall.
Where the original was light, simple and rather Spartan (there was lots of visible painted metal in the interior), the MkVII is a substantial, sumptuous (and rather expensive) ride that now stands nearly alone in North America as a 5-door hatchback. And it will now be built in Puebla, Mexico alongside the Jetta and Beetle.
Ford stole the show at Detroit with the intro of its aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150, for good reason—this behemoth is still America’s (and the world’s) best-selling light vehicle, and it must be made to consume less fuel, by any means necessary. An aluminum body will accomplish that more easily and cost-effectively (especially for fleet operators, who buy the lion’s share of them) than a hybrid powertrain.
Whither Acura? The first Japanese-brand luxury channel in the U.S. has gone from sporty coupes and sedans to people movers with 5-star IIHS ratings. Along with nebulous 3-letter model names. New this year is the TLX, which replaces the TL and TSX. I think. I always get a headache trying to remember which three letters go with which Acuras. Names like Integra and Legend were easy to remember. They would make Acura stand out, which it seems is what they need to do.
Chevrolet and GMC rolled out redesigned full-sized pickups last year, and intro’d a new Colorado/Canyon shortly after the first of this year. The former mostly strengthen the impression that pressing a hidden button will cause them to turn into giant robots (Can you say Transformers, boys and girls? Where all those Chevys were product-placed?), while the new smaller trucks are, how shall we say, not so small anymore. I say again, pickup trucks are too damn big, and unnecessarily so. If you need a step in the bumper, or an effing tailgate ladder to reach the bed, something is very wrong.
There’s a new MINI for 2014, and one was on display at the show. Don’t feel bad if you can’t tell the new one from the previous one, or the one before that. MINI (they tell me all caps, please), like Porsche with the 911 and Toyota with the Prius, is locked into a rather narrow styling interpretation of the original Morris Mini-Minor/Austin 7. Yeah, the new one is a few inches longer and wider, and a bit heavier than the previous version. The biggest differences are under the skin—a new interior, which I find a whole lot easier to look at, and a new 1.5-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder base engine, which reportedly doesn’t sound like a 3-pot at all. I think that’s a bit of a shame, since one of the more entertaining aspects of the Geo Metro of yore was the distinctive thrum of its 1.0-liter three. MINI sales have taken a fairly serious hit, dropping almost 31% compared to January 2013.
Well, MINI’s sales hit is nothing like smart’s, which is based on monthly sales numbers in the hundreds. Dealers are gnashing their teeth and rending their garments at the news that they WILL NOT be getting a 4-seat version of the next-gen smart, which is due sometime this calendar year. Roger Penske is one smart guy, and his decision to turn the U.S. smart franchise over to Daimler after 18 months looks, uh, smarter (sorry) by the day. It’s pretty safe to say everyone in the world who wanted a smart fortwo (they tell me no caps, please) now has one. And nothing at the smart store to trade up to if, say, they need a car with a back seat.
Kia owners have no such problem. In fact, Kia has been on a product tear lately: 2014 sees a new Forte sedan and hatch, a new Soul (I just love the commercial), and two new luxury sedans: The $35,000 Cadenza and the range-topping $60,000 K900. Heads will surely explode at the idea of a $60K Kia. Well, there’s also a $61,000 Hyundai, the Equus. Good on them for climbing the learning curve so quickly, but the reason there’s Lexus is because the 60-large luxury customer is a different animal than the Corolla shopper, a fact Toyota embraced almost a quarter-century ago. I really cannot imagine the Car Pros Kia place in Tacoma flogging K900s in the manner of base-model Rios. We shall see.
Buyers with $60K or so to spend could cross-shop the Korean products with the new Maserati Ghibli, the Italian brand’s, uh, “value” offering. Well, the 1% have plenty of cash to spend on such things, so why not? Two Ghiblis can be had for the price of one Ferrari, after all.
Occupying the outer concourse was a group of police cars, starring the Portland Police Bureau’s new Chevy Caprice PPV. These are built in Australia… for now, anyway. Today, Toyota announced it will end car production in Australia in 2017. General Motors will also close for good at that time; Ford will throw in the towel in 2016. This means the end of the Australian domestic auto industry, since the companies that supplied the manufacturers now have no one to sell to. The companies cite a strong Australian dollar and the very high cost of local production in a very small new-vehicle market, a cost that had previously been subsidized by the Australian government. The three companies presently sell lots of vehicles made in such places as Thailand and South Korea in the Land Down Under, their locally-produced vehicles being notable exceptions.
Rumors to the contrary, Mitsubishi Motors plans to stick around the U.S. market, even though they skipped the Portland show. The U.S. unit made money in the previous quarter, and sales have been up lately (though there was nowhere else to go; the only volume brands selling fewer vehicles were the aforementioned smart and the since-departed Suzuki Auto). The company’s new U.S. CEO, Ryujiro Kobashi, will have his work cut out, given Mitsu’s dull-as-dishwater U.S. product lineup.
Freightliner was founded in Portland, but was long ago swallowed whole by Daimler. The company still has a factory in the NW Industrial Area, and was even present on the show floor. The Sprinter van, once sold as a Dodge, is still sort of thought of as local, though you can also buy one with a 3-pointed star in the grille. There were signs proclaiming the 2014 model as “redesigned” though it looks the same as the 2013 model to me.
Cadillac introduced a coupe version of its BMW 3 Series-fighting ATS at the Detroit show, but didn’t bring one to Portland. More significant is the ATS coupe’s status as the first Cadillac to rock the new Cadillac crest, which you can see on the sign. Extensive research showed the laurel wreath, a feature of Caddy logos from the beginning, was a total turnoff to the cohort of people Cadillac wants to buy ATSs. So now it’s gone. Automotive marketing is strange, yes, but car buyers are stranger still.
Cadillac did have an ELR at its display on the so-called Luxury Loft. The ELR is Cadillac’s new plug-in hybrid coupe, featuring the powertrain from the Chevy Volt. One can safely assume buyers of this $75K halo car will be able to take full advantage of the $7,500 Federal income tax credit, not to mention a similar break offered by the state of Oregon. Cadillac expects to sell about 5,000 ELRs a year, which will keep it exclusive. Unlike BMW, which has been introducting new models and new variants of those models at a feverish pace.
While Portland is often praised for its bicycle-friendliness, it’s still a place where people drive. I’ve always been glad the folks who put on the PIAS realize that.