2011 NAIAS — Business up front, party in the back.

by Carl Modesette. NAIAS Photography by Zerin Dube, Mark Fields photo courtesy of Ford

From 10,000 ft, the glow of Detroit after sunset could be that of just about any other Midwestern city. Altitude and darkness impose a serenity that belies the nocturnal unrest below. Even the vast expanses of unused industrial property and the inch-thick dusting of snow that come into focus right about the time the landing gear drops are anonymous this time of day. The nighttime approach is a stirring equalizer. With the departure of the sun goes any character, and it’s not until you cross over from the too-white lighting of the airport terminal into the dingy glow of sodium-vapor lamps that your senses really have a chance to recalibrate. By the end of your cab ride, reality has set in.

The auto industry has recently undergone a similar reboot. Self-imposed isolation from the economic and social realities of the last decade finally broke down, and the house of cards came dangerously close to giving way. Two and a half years later, the repercussions are still visible, and even the boldest of manufacturers were cautious in their delivery. Even Ford, a close second to only the Germans for sheer gusto (Volkswagen took the cake here, hosting a media “reveal” for the new Passat for which they opted not to actually bring a car to reveal), stuffed their rhetoric with confidence and bluster, and then filled Cobo Arena not with the glorious roar of V8s, but with blue paper butterflies. The introduction of a new ROW Ford Ranger was mentioned several times, yet they chose not to dwell at all on their Truck-of-the-Year winning Explorer. Make no mistake though, humility was not the name of their game. Even in the midst of a greenie spiel from Ed Begley, Jr., Ford took undisguised shots at the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. They had attitude to spare.

And if we weren’t privy to the realities of corporate communications strategies, we’d suspect that Toyota’s P.R. staff had simply sat in the back of the Arena, scribbling furious notes throughout Ford’s conference in hopes of finding some decent material. From an opening shot at Bob Lutz to scripted-in laughter pauses for poorly-written and dubiously-executed jokes, the Prius family introduction felt like a last-minute book report that was due five years ago. As for the Toyota, Scion and Lexus brands themselves? Well, I think Mr. Toyoda confirmed (if only in passing) that they do indeed exist.

The stories were pretty much the same everywhere you went. With a few exceptions, everybody was talking about downsizing. “Electrification” was this year’s buzzword. Even the manufacturers who had nothing new to show were quite enthusiastic about their electrification efforts, despite the fact that they were showing more or less the exact same electric cars they’ve been showing for years. Mini, I’m looking at you.

Hyundai and Porsche provided welcome reprieves from otherwise mundane reveals.

So if your only exposure to the show was in sound bites and recaps, you’d probably assume that it was a pretty dull affair. For the most part, you’d be right. It wasn’t a thrill ride by any means, and hearing line after line about Ford building the new Focus in the same plant where it once built trucks, well, yeah… it got old.

But hit the floor, and you got the feeling that the product communications staff were winking at you as they parroted the details of the hybrid this or electric that. It’s as if their eyes were darting over to the Boss 302 Mustang or the loaded-up Explorer. Maybe the bright-freakin’-yellow LFA sitting on the Scion side of the Lexus display. A little nod and a twinkle was all it took. Yep, we’re still building those. Step out of the bright lights around the podium and into the darker, seedier, yellow-hued side aisles. Stay here long enough and you almost expect to hear the boo-boop of an illicit slot machine or muffled laughter from an invitation-only poker game. Yes, there’s still fun to be had here, even if it’s out of the public eye.

In a way, NAIAS has become the most cynical of all the American auto shows–Motor City, home of the small-block V8 and Woodward Avenue, hosting the least performance-oriented show on the major U.S. circuit. To be fair to the domestic manufacturers in particular though, it’s here that they’re most under the spotlight. NAIAS draws more international media than any other in the States, and with everybody watching, nobody–especially not GM or Chrysler–wants to be caught with a hand up Mrs. Horsepower’s skirt at a hometown show. Ford, though lacking in interesting debuts, did at least put on a good show, and the Vertrek concept (rumored to be the next Ford Escape) was promising, boasting sleek exterior styling and a throaty exhaust note from what was claimed to be a 1.6L EcoBoost engine. Though I suppose with the hood closed they could claim it’s powered by a 2-cylinder diesel and we’d be forced to take them at their word.

1.6L EcoBoost? Sounded more like a 6.1L V8, but we'll take it anyway.

Chrysler didn’t show us anything we hadn’t already seen to some degree. The 300 was revealed in pictures ahead of the show, and the several years late refresh delivered as expected. There’s really not much left to learn about this car until we have the opportunity to drive one, and we look forward to reporting on that in the coming weeks.

And then there was Chevy. Phew. What is there to say? They trotted out a crowd of local, overdone hipsters who played a song “live” using instrument apps on their iThings (As if we’re to believe that any network service in Cobo is actually reliable enough that they could pull this off), showed us the new Sonic for all of five minutes, and then tried to convince the gaggle to stick around by offering free booze. Did I mention that they were the last show of a nearly-13-hour schedule of conferences? I’m not sure who they pissed off, but if I had to guess, whoever was in charge of booking for the event must have been a former Buick/Pontiac/GMC/Saturn dealer principal.

You won't find this in the transcript of a GM press conference.

So maybe it wasn’t the most interesting show in recent memory, but it was far from an outlier. For NAIAS, it was very much business as usual for the 21st century automaker.

Up front, anyway.

                  

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Carl Modesette

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