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Story by Jack Baruth; photos by Zerin Dube and Carl Modesette

“Please, broadcast media only.” Toyota’s bouncers were all up in our grille, yo, and we weren’t in the mood to hear it. It seemed like only yesterday (because, well, it was only yesterday) that we’d watched Dodge herd cattle down Jefferson Avenue for amusement, but as usual Toyota had done the American manufactuer one better, forcing the Press As A Whole to line up for approximately an hour at the entrance to Cobo’s Riverview Ballroom before being, er, herded through a narrow gate and a humiliating little inspection, as if we were… cattle ourselves! And just when Dubspeed Driven‘s little herd of literary longhorns had made it to the entrance, we were shoved aside so the television people could just breeze through! What? The? Foxtrot?

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The joke was on the TV people, though; they had to train their cameras on the new Toyota Venza, a car which redefines the word “charmless”. Secure in their irony-free existence, our alien overlords from Japan actually chose beige as the color for the Venza show car! As the big beige Venza rolled down the center aisle of the ballroom towards Toyota’s equally bland-looking stage, we spotted dozens of the hallowed Broadcast Media furiously adjusting their cameras. Was it really Harvest Gold, or was it Desert Mica? Perhaps it was Light Bronze. Toyota’s PR folks delivered their spiel in painfully earnest fashion. “The Venza combines the comfort of a Camry, the space of a 4Runner, the sporting luxury of an Avalon…”

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“…and the buttocks of a stray dog,” replied some smart-mouthed fellow. Well, that fellow may have been one of us. Hard to say. It is virtually certain that the Venza will be a decent, reliable vehicle which will satisfy its owners, predicted by Toyota to be “active boomers and new families”, but surely the world’s most successful car company can come up with something that doesn’t look like a Ford Edge that got left in the microwave too long and melted a bit. One suspects that Toyota took Ford’s “I Like To Live On The Edge” business a bit too seriously. Really, folks, there was nothing edgy about the Edge. It didn’t need to be “turned down” for Mr. And Mrs. Active Boomer.

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Maserati, on the other hand, could have used some “turning down” in their press conference. Before an utterly slack-mouthed crowd of several hundred pressmen and dozens of cameras, Maserati’s rep launched on a bizarre diatribe about the “superwealthy”. The press conference started innocuously enough, with a discussion of Maserati’s superb 2007 sales performance, (up 56% in 2007, since you ask) but quickly degenerated into an unbelievably smug assault on the “mass affluent”.

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“Why are we not interested in the mass affluent, those people who *sniff* occasionally splurge on an Ermeeeez tie?” A what? We nervously flipped our ties around to make sure they weren’t Hermes. “These people who go into credit card debt to *sniff* *sniff* purchase a nice pair of… shoes?” Quaking in our Amex-acquired sharkskin Allen-Edmonds, we eagerly awaited the answer. “These people will fall in the years to come. They will accomplish nothing. Instead, we will focus on the one-half percent of people who own ALL THE WEALTH IN YOUR COUNTRY.” A literal tremor ran through the crowd. This fuggin’ guy is going to start the Bolshevik revolution right here in Cobo Hall! “We will focus on the superwealthy, who will only become more wealthy and powerful!” Looking neither to the left nor the right, we backed away from the new Quattroporte GTS, which incidentally offers sharper handling and better brakes to those superwealthy people who own this miserable little country lock, stock, and barrel, turned around slowly, and ran. We’re not sure what happened after that. There was a lot of screaming and shoving, although perhaps that was just for the I-sold-it-on-eBay press kits. Nevertheless, we advise the fine people at Maserati that perhaps next year’s press conference should go a little lighter on the incendiary social commentary. This ain’t the Real Housewives of Orange County, it’s the Real Ghetto Homies of Detroit.

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Nearly everyone with whom we spoke agreed: this year’s NAYIASSSSES (“Detroit Show” to the rest of the world) suffered from a lack of energy. Caution, restraint – those were the orders of the day. Chrysler has become well-known for outrageous concepts like the original Viper, the Jeep Hurricane, and the bizarre Imperial, to say nothing of that Viper-engined motorcycle that Wolfgang Bernard was leather-bearring (is that a word/phrase?) a few years ago, but this year the key word was – you guessed it – “sustainability”. The Jeep Renegade, Dodge Zeo, and Chrysler EcoVoyager were sharp-looking concepts that all combined stunning looks with production-feasible proportions. Naturally, they were all “green” cars. The Jeep combined electric drive with a diesel engine, called a “mobility extender” to fool hippies who are too stupid to understand that it’s an engine. The Zeo was rear-wheel-drive and had three hundred miles’ worth of imaginary range from batteries which don’t quite exist yet. The EcoVoyager combines electric power with fuel cell technology. Fuel cells are the wave of the future, assuming that sometime between now and “the future” somebody bothers to install fifty thousand hydrogen refueling stations in this country.

Yes, we know this isn’t one of the Chrysler Concepts, we’ll get shots of those tomorrow.

Our gripe with the Chrysler concepts was less their reflexive kowtowing to the secular religion of global warming and more a kind of unintentional anachronism. The Dodge Zeo had a long, powerful hood, since RWD sports cars have long powerful hoods to showcase their engines. But in the Zeo’s case, the “engine” is just an electric motor connected to the rear wheels. It doesn’t need a long hood. There won’t be anything under there but a set of golf clubs. The EcoVoyager is defiantly cab-forward in the Nineties Chrysler mode, because it’s FWD – but again, the “motor” is tiny and could be anywhere. The real ecologically sensible cars of the future don’t need to resemble today’s cars any more than a Cadillac CTS-V (WHICH BY THE WAY KICKS ASS!) needs to resemble a nineteenth-century steam car. Chrysler is proud of its ENVI design team, and they clearly have sharp people, but they need to push the design envelope, not doodle on it.

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Tired, weary, we stumbled out of Cobo at the day’s end, only to come face to face with a man who has done more to push the aforementioned design envelope than anybody else in the Twenty-First Century – His Fearsomeness Himself, Christopher Bangle. We all think we know Mr. Bangle. According to authoritative sources (by which we mean some pimply kid on the IntarWeb) Mr. Bangle made BMWs ugly and, like, totally ruined ’em, and stuff. Bangle’s heard these charges before, and he swiftly dismisses them with a pointed, powerfully erudite manner that has been called “pompous” but is, in actuality, passionate. Reviled six years ago for convincing the BMW Board of Directors to sign off on the infamous E65 745i, Chris can now note with satisfaction that his design language appears everywhere from the best-selling Camry to the competition’s most prestigious luxury sedans. Except he isn’t satisfied. Not one bit. In our conversation, Bangle made a poignant point. He’s pushed the envelope, only to have everybody else simply follow his lead – “There’s so much more to accomplish to accomplish in car design, and there’s no reason to stop where we are.” His intention was never to create a new style for others to imitate. Rather, he wants his contemporaries to challenge his efforts and create competing design languages. “Our generation should take the lead,” he said, but as he strode away we saw a new Camry shuffle by, some feeble Active Boomer at the wheel, the “Bangle butt” trunk standing proud on America’s blandest car, and we couldn’t help but feel sad. After all, Ozzy Osbourne used to scandalize America and bite the heads off bats, but today he’s just a friendly dad on television. The outrageous styling of the 7er has suffered the same fate, it would seem. The war for the soul of BMW and the luxury market is over, and Bangle won, but he can’t enjoy his laurels. Look for BMW to push the design envelope again, and soon. We hope Chris is successful. The world doesn’t need any more Harvest Gold.

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Jack Baruth

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