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2018 Arizona International Auto Show: The view from Tucson *updated

November 25, 2018

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Is it November already? You know what that means… and if you don’t really care about the state of the car biz, head for the archives and enjoy over a decades’ worth of scooter goodness. The auto show story follows the jump.

PHOENIX—Yes, the one in Arizona. I moved, in June, remember? Tucson doesn’t have a new car show, just a big classic car show (and a whole bunch of smaller ones). So here I am in the Valley of the Sun.

Like the Seattle show, this one is produced by Motor Trend. Which among other things means you get a free 12-month subscription to the dead-tree monthly. At least it’s still a monthly… Automobile cut back to 10 issues per year at the same time it adopted a square print format.

Also like Seattle, Phoenix’s annual auto extravaganza happens in November. For that matter, so does the one in L.A., which is next weekend, and only about 450 miles from my place. L.A. steals this show’s thunder as well, the fifth-largest city in the U.S. apparently not a big enough place for major intros.

Jaguar i-Pace

Pre-production Jaguar i-Pace electric crossover.

One of the more obvious signs that I’m not in Western Washington anymore is the scarcity of electric cars. Tucson has few public charging stations, and houses tend to have carports instead of garages (which during the summer become ovens) so no way to keep others from helping themselves to your pricey juice. And apparently the availability of a special EV/ hybird/ alternative fuel license plate that’s sky blue with fluffy white clouds wasn’t an inducement, either. Still, it was nice to see Jaguar’s i-Pace PEV crossover.

My biggest takeaway from the times I got to go to the Detroit show was how insular and inbred the Detroit-based auto industry is. Since then, more and more offshore car companies’ U.S. corporate HQs have migrated to the Great Flyover, so I’m not surprised that the herd has gotten bigger. This seems especially true of their marketing departments.

Have you noticed how many new models are their makers’ “First-Ever”? I have reached a financial point where a new car might possibly be within reach, and I’m partial to compact crossovers. On my shortlist are the First-Ever Nissan Kicks, the First-Ever Hyundai Kona, and the First-Ever Ford EcoSport.

2019 Ford EcoSport

2019 Ford EcoSport

Trouble is, the EcoSport (built in India, dontcha know) isn’t the First-Ever. In fact, it’s not even particularly new, having been in production in places like Brazil, Romania and Russia since 2012. The actual First-Ever EcoSport went on sale in 2003. It appears to have been rather popular in Mexico, based on how many I’ve seen running around Tucson (Sonora license plates are almost as numerous here as British Columbia plates were in Bellingham).

2019 Hyundai Kona

2019 Hyundai Kona

Last year, the big story in the car biz was the simultaneous introduction of all-new versions of the quintessential midsize transportation appliances known as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. In 2019, it’s the simlutaneous intro of an all-new Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado, and the major freshening of the Ram pickup.

These are the top three sellers in the U.S. light vehicle market, and major generators of revenue for their manufacturers.

As a result, they have become gigantic, garish fetish objects. And sell for prices that are inching dangerously close to six figures.

How? Why?

Some businesses are able to depreciate the cost of such vehicles in one year, instead of the usual seven. But for those who don’t have businesses, how does one justify spending upwards of $50 grand for something to pick up three bags of garden mulch at Home Depot once or twice a year? Beats me.

2019 Ford Ranger

2019 Ford Ranger

However, the star of the Ford stand was not the F-150, but the newly-reintroduced Ranger. No longer compact, it’s now “midsize,” and like the Colorado/Canyon and Tacoma, is a loaded crew-cab. A “lifestyle vehicle” if you will. And a response to contingency anxiety: you never know when you might need to make a run to Home Depot for three bags of garden mulch, right?.

Speaking of the Focus, it’s going bye-bye. Along with the Fusion and Fiesta, at least in North America. Well, not only have sales of those models nosedived, Ford sez they are all money-losers. Following this announcement, the only cars in the Ford portfolio were to be the Mustang and the Focus Active, below (think Ford version of a Subaru Crosstrek).

Ford Focus Active

Ford Focus Active. Not for U.S. sale, I’m afraid. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

But that was before the Trump administration went tariff-happy. The Focus Active was slated to be imported from China, but the tweeter-in-chief decided to slap tariffs on just about everything China exports to the U.S., so notgonnahappen. Ford dealers have been screaming bloody murder about the demise of the Fusion, the possibility of a Subaru Outback-like Fusion wagon apparently not a sufficient make-good.

2019 Chevy Silverado

2019 Chevy Silverado, which guys with big beer guts passed by for the Camaro…

Earlier this year, Chevrolet had said the Impala and Sonic were not long for this world, though the Malibu and Cruze will remain. Since then, things have changed considerably. See the update below.

While every other car companies’ sedan sales have been eclipsed by their respective crossovers, Chevrolet (like Toyota and the other Japan 3 companies) aren’t going to bail just yet. The public is fickle, and getting back into the sedan game is much more difficult than sticking around and eating the losses.

2019 Toyota RAV4

2019 Toyota RAV4

As I walked by the Toyota stand, I wondered what a Jeep Cherokee was doing on the turntable. Then I remembered, the RAV4 has been rebooted for 2019. The previous version of America’s best-selling new vehicle that isn’t a full-size pickup truck was distinctively styled; the new one isn’t. Which is puzzling, because throughout the RAV4’s lifespan, unlike the Cherokee, it has never been presented as an off-road vehicle. Not that many Cherokees (even the Trailhawk versions) get driven any further off-road than a gravel driveway. But still…

You’ve probably heard by now, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne passed away in July, from complications resulting from shoulder surgery to remove a tumor. He saved Fiat, and he saved Chrysler, turning red ink at both to black.

2019 Jeep Compass

Jeep Compass was all-new for 2018, but I didn’t see one in the wild until the drive to Phoenix.

But that doesn’t change the fact that his tenure was basically a cable/sattelite TV series called Flip This Car Company. Almost from the day the Fiat/Chrysler merger was complete, he shopped the company around to the CEOs of other, larger companies, expressing a strong urge to merge.

Product plans became all Ram/Jeep, all the time. Let’s make the Baby-Boomer auto journos pee their pants by hyping the beejezus out of Alfa-Romeo (which, sorry folks, is still not the Italian BMW). Let’s get rid of midsize sedans, and maybe even Dodge. Or Chrysler. Or both. Or not. Whichever way the wind happened to be blowing.

The centerpiece of this grand plan was the ill-starred attempt to reintroduce the Fiat brand to the U.S. These days Fiat makes some really nice cars. They had to compete with the Japanese and the Koreans like everyone else, and have upped their game admirably.

Fiat TipoFiat Panda Cross

Fiat Tipo, left; Fiat Panda Cross, right (Fiat Chrysler photos)

The Tipo family hatch (which also comes as a wagon that could be easily Outback-ized) and Panda Cross are exactly the kind of products car buyers at this moment want (at least the ones who don’t want full-size pickups). Badge them as Fiats, Chryslers or Dodges. Like they do in Mexico.

But noooooo. Let’s go all-in on the overpriced subcompact cartoon-car business model that was already headed toward failure for MINI by the time the expensive separate Fiat stores FCA forced its dealers to build opened their doors. What could go wrong? (Both makes are preparing to allow their larger corporate siblings to combine the dealerships under one roof).

In the whole U.S.of A., the Fiat brand sells as many cars in a month as any individual medium-metro store for one of the top brands.

Everything FCA has been doing has been more about making it a good fit for a merger partner instead of a successful business on its own. Oooh, maybe Volkswagen Group would like to merge..?

Perhaps also wishing to go gently into that good night might be Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Alliance. As this is written, he remains detained in Japan, on charges of under-reporting his personal income… a bunch.

2019 Nissan Kicks

2019 Nissan Kicks is the one I would write a check for. In a heartbeat.

Aside from Mr. Ghosn’s difficulties, people are wondering just what might happen to said alliance. The companies involved own chunks of each other, though it’s not an actual merger. When the alliance was created, Nissan was on the ropes; since then, the company has made a spectacular comeback, actually contributing more to the alliance in sales and profits than Renault or Mitsubishi.

Thing is, the alliance is a raw deal for Nissan. Renault calls the shots, even though its share in Nissan is far less than Nissan’s Renault holdings. The situation is being seen by many interested parties as a way to achieve some equitable renegotiation.

The more pessimistic among them see a Brexit-like breakup as a distinct possibility. Yes, it could get ugly: Renault, Nissan and Mitsu share platforms, engines, supply chains and God only knows what else. Sorting all that out could draw blood. Not the thing a company in the midst of figuring out how to deal with serious disruption on the horizon wants.

While cars assembled in China have been in the U.S. for a while (Buick Endeavor, Volvo S90), it looks like a Chinese-brand car will finally go on sale here in 2019. Dealers are being recruited to sell the Zotye (ZO-tee) T600, a… wait for it… midsize crossover! If the photo makes you think it looks familiar (as in Volkswagen/Audi), you’re not alone. Pricing is expected to fall below $20 thou, in spite of the aforementioned tariffs, which the company is likely to eat in whole or in part, at least initially.

Zotye T600

Zotye T600

I’d buy one. Toward the end of Clarkson, Hammond, and May’s tenure on Top Gear, the lads went to Shanghai to sample some CDM compact sedans. All were gobsmacked by how nice they looked, how well-assembled they were, and how well they drove. Their only complaint was a lack of power vs. a Focus or Vauxhall Astra. Not really an issue given most major Chinese cities’ stupefying traffic congestion. And easily forgiven at the right price. Fewer and fewer Americans can manage to scrape together the $$$ for cars and trucks with price tags north of $30,000. Everyone once laughed at Toyota. Then they laughed at Hyundai. The Chinese will likely have the last laugh.

UPDATE, Nov. 26, 2018: Today General Motors announced the closure of its assembly plants in Lordstown, Ohio, Hamtramck, Mich. and Oshawa, Ontario, Canada in 2019. This will mean the end of production of the Chevrolet Cruze, Impala, Volt (!!!), Cadillac CT6, and Buick Lacrosse. In addition, component factories in Baltimore, Md. and Warren, Mich. will have no products assigned to them after 2019.

  1. November 26, 2018 12:12 am

    I know nothing about cars so your comments are always interesting. My supply of used Fusions will be drying up. Oh well.

  2. November 26, 2018 12:51 pm

    Conchscooter, I’d be willing to bet if you drove a Chevy Mailbu or a Toyota Camry, you wouldn’t notice any difference. Consumer Reports regularly asks this question, and more and more people say they notice no meaningful differences in the various brands of cars. Not surprising, since all new cars a mostly made of parts from 3rd-party suppliers, and most of those sell to all companies. As Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal said in a review of the Honda Civic hatchback, “Chevy Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra… just take the red one and move on.”

  3. Doug permalink
    November 27, 2018 2:49 pm

    Well, today I saw GM is axing the Shivalay cars (save the Camaro and Corvette), along with some Buick & Cads, so the US sedan lineup is almost nil, and most 4 wheel vehicles have become appliances anymore. The Gen Y’ers and even late millenials are going in less & less for them (or buying used)….sadly the same is true for scoots & bikes. Things are changin’, whether we like it or not.

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