2014 Seattle Auto Show
As you may recall, I had to give last year’s show a miss because I’d just gotten out of the hospital. I’ve recovered, and can (more or less) walk the show floor, so you get the full meal deal this year: show coverage, and auto industry rants in more or less equal proportions. As always, if you have no interest in such things, there’s a treasure trove of scooter-related awesomeness just waiting for you to explore. The story follows the jump.
Press conferences are rare at the Seattle Auto Show, but this year Ford held a small event to talk about the eagerly-awaited 2015 Mustang and the aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150. Nothing was said that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, but still.
I was quite happy to see others rapping on the F-150’s body panels, which don’t feel or sound any different than the previous version’s steel parts. The autobody repair biz is still looking on the new F-150 with trepidation, given the different repair requirements from steel panels.
You’ve surely heard by now, Fiat and Chrysler formally completed their merger a while ago. Prior to approval of the sale of remaining stock by Chrysler shareholders, the details were worked out, the product plans revealed by CEO Sergio Marchione (who recently said he’s outta there in 2018). On the bidness side, the company is now called Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, incorporated in Europe’s favorite tax haven, the Netherlands, and headquartered in Europe’s most hellishly expensive city, London (General Motors is incorporated in Delaware, America’s favorite tax haven, even tho it’s headquartered in Detroit. You knew that, right?)
Likewise, product plans became much more clear. The company’s 5-year plan is highlighted by an effort to significantly grow Jeep brand sales worldwide (the newly-introduced Renegade will have a major role to play here). More importantly, roles for the company’s other brands have been defined: Chrysler moves a bit downmarket to become the bread & butter passenger-car line, Dodge takes the performance mantle from the discontinued SRT brand, and Ram keeps on keepin’ on in light trucks. Fiats will still be sold in Studios in the U.S.
For now, the company will continue to have a manufacturing presence in Italy, building the Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X small crossovers in Melfi. A replacement for the Fiat (I’m sorry, I’m not writing it all caps anymore) 500, which is presently built in Mexico for this hemisphere and Poland for the rest of the world, will come exclusively from Poland in CY 2015. And if it looks anything like the drawings circulating around the Interwebs at the moment, it won’t be so cartoonish.
Almost as big a story was Toyota’s announced move of its U.S. corporate HQ to Plano, Texas. While those on the right crow about evil California’s high taxes and cost of doing business (when they’re not screaming BENGHAZI!!!) the move makes sense—Toyota will consolidate its sales and engineering staff in a place much closer to its manufacturing operations. Nearly all the vehicles Toyota sells in the U.S. are made in the U.S., in Kentucky, Texas and Mississippi (I hope you knew that). Being in California was necessary when Toyotas all came from Japan. Now, not so much.
Another brand on the move is Cadillac, relocating to the bright lights of New York City. Cadillac has become a semi-autonomous business unit within General Motors, which (they’re hoping) will aid its quest to regain the luxury-car credibility it had in the days when it was the Standard of the World®. New York was chosen because it’s full of filthy rotten stinking rich people who are really into designer labels. Which, as far as I can tell, is also the reason Vespa Americas is there.
Earlier in 2014 Honda and Mazda both opened brand spanking-new factories not far from each other in Mexico. Toyota also has one, and of course Volkswagen and Nissan have been cranking out cars (and trucks) there for 50 years. ¿Por qué?
You’ve heard of NAFTA, right? Stuff can move freely between the U.S., Canada and Mexico without any nasty ol’ import duties. Factor in Mexico’s low labor costs, and ay caramba!
Due to the strength of the yen, Honda and Mazda were taking a bath on cars built in Japan and sold here, namely the Fit, Mazda2 and Mazda3. They’re all popular, but the companies had to cap sales so as not to lose too much money. No more. Not only can they build all the market can eat, they can do things like Honda’s upcoming Fit-based HR-V crossover.
Chevrolet’s space was highlighted by the Seattle debuts of the new Colorado (now a midsize pickup), which everyone expected, and the Chevy Trax, which most people probably didn’t.
The Colorado has also been widely reported-on, and in person the size difference with the “full-size” Silverado is even less apparent. Like the class-leading Toyota Tacoma, it’s not much smaller, not much less expensive, and not much more fuel-efficient than the larger truck, so why would anyone bother?
Like the Traverse, the Trax was preceded in the U.S. by a Buick, in this case the Encore. It’s been on sale in most of the rest of the world for a while, and is built in Mexico for sale there and in Canada. I like it better than the Encore, simply because I’m totally okay with gray cloth upholstery and gray plastic interior pieces. Much easier to keep looking presentable, after all.
New-car sales lately have been strong, with almost every company posting solid increases. Almost.
Volkswagen has been a notable exception. The plan that was supposed to result in U.S. sales of over 800,000 units annually went well initially. People were snapping up Toyota Corollas with VW badges (Jetta) and Toyota Camrys with VW badges (U.S. Passat), enough to push VW’s 2013 volume to 400,000 vehicles. Trouble is, that was a decrease from the previous year.
Naturally, someone’s head needed to be on a platter; in this case it was former VWoA CEO Jonathan Browning, sacked last December. However, the muckity-mucks in Wolfsburg readily admit they really don’t understand the U.S. market, as the impending introduction of a new Chattanooga-built 7-seat SUV clearly shows.
I always tell people who are thinking about buying a new Volkswagen to go to any auto-related forum, find a Volkswagen thread, and count how many times the phrase “I will never buy another one” pops up. Poor Mr. Browning actually stood up in front of assembled media a while back and admitted “the quality of (VW’s) products has not met our customers’ expectations.”
Back in 1970, which was VW’s best U.S. sales year ever, the Volkswagen name stood for quality (the trouble-prone EFI in the Type 3 notwithstanding). A Beetle or Microbus would start every single time, and run forever. And they were affordable, even by high-school students with part-time jobs, several friends of mine included.
The 2015 Golf starts at around 20 grand. A nice car, to be sure. But why VW won’t bring the B-segment Polo (or better, the A-segment Up!) to America remains a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma. America needs a People’s Car, not more Rich Peoples’ Cars.
Driving the 2014 sales comeback is an unprecedented demand for crossovers, utility-type vehicles built on unibody car platforms. Nissan has three from which to choose. Unfortunately, they all kinda look alike. That didn’t used to be the case—the Murano was a distinctively-styled crossover, the Pathfinder a body-on-frame SUV, the Rogue kind of a C-segment hatchback (the trucky Xterra is gone, and the Juke… well…). Really, strip the nameplates and which one’s which? I am especially saddened at the genericization of the Murano, a vehicle I liked because it looked like it should have a nylon antenna coming out of its roof, and be sold in a box with a radio-control unit.
Among the biggest gainers is Subaru, which set a sixth consecutive sales record in 2013. As you know, everything Subaru has offered in North America since the mid-1990s has had all-wheel drive, a feature that made it stand out from other Japan-based brands. Acura, Honda’s rudderless and declining luxury brand, is reportedly thinking about going all-in on AWD.
Back in the day, Acura was the toast of the town, the first Japanese luxury channel in North America. Acuras were highly prized among younger buyers for their performance image and unique styling. And their names—Legend, Integra, even Vigor had overwhelmingly positive connotations. But apparently people didn’t associate those overwhelmingly positive names with Acura, so they went to the (now-ubiquitous in the entry luxury segment) 3-character model names. It didn’t help matters that this transition also accompanied a shift to Japanese-generic-looking people haulers with 5-star crash ratings. Wanna stand out, Acura? Bring back the names.
I was rather surprised Ford didn’t have a new Transit Connect on the show floor, in light of its #UnMinivan ad campaign on social media and all. Ram, OTOH, did have an example of its Transit Connect fighter, the ProMaster City. An example with folding and tumbling 2nd-row seats and lots of painted metal surfaces in the interior. Y’know, like the previous TC wagon! In fact, Fiat Chrysler is studiously following the previous TC playbook: all ProMaster Citys are built in Turkey as wagons, shipped to the Port of Baltimore, and upon clearing customs are shuffled into the very same brick building where Transit Connect XLT wagons got their 2nd-row seats yanked out and windows blanked. The new Transit Connect wagon has a much more finished interior (in Europe, it’s called the Tourneo Connect) than the cheerfully industrial cabin of the previous model. Oh, the ProMaster City on display had a 2-inch hitch receiver and 4-pin connector, so, trailer towing! The title of Ultimate Scooter Hauler is now officially up for grabs.
A curious phenomenon in the car biz is the tendency for any given given car to grow into the next-largest size category over a decade or so. The current Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are now about the same size as the 2005 versions of the Accord and Camry. This has happened at Audi, too, though it took longer. The new A3 and S3 are about the size of the late-1990s Audi A4. However, the same phenomenon doesn’t seem to apply to pricing. The little red number above stickered out a bit shy of $50,000. Yikes. Well, approximately 80% of luxury car sales are leases.
Back in 2010, Hyundai knocked everyone’s socks off with its totally off-the-charts Sonata. This year sees a new Sonata, noteworthy for its toned-down exteior styling.
Toyota refreshed the Camry (America’s best-selling passenger car, dontcha know) for 2015 as well. In this case, they took a rather bland, slab-sided design and added a few highlights.
No one would fault you for mistaking one for the other.
Still no Chinese-built cars. Just yet. Geely, which owns Volvo Cars, sez they’re coming in 2015. For the last few years, Geely and Volvo engineers have been collaborating on several new platforms that will be shared between both brands. That is why Geely bought Volvo Cars in the first place—they’ve known full well that the cars they presently build may be good enough for emerging markets, but not the U.S. (or Europe, or Japan). The Chinese are not stupid. I don’t understand why Americans think they are.
Of course there are more photos. Click here to see ’em!