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October 17, 2018
 

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Ujian-nasional.info, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Wednesday
Jan142009

THE AUTOEXTREMIST

January 14, 2009

 

Detroit’s Winter of Discontent: Hits and Misses from the 2009 North American International Auto Show.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo

Detroit. Needless to say there are better places to be other than Detroit in January, and there are certainly better places to be than Cobo Hall, with its decidedly retro – as in, bad 70s feel – ambience too, but that didn’t stop the 2009 North American International Show media preview days from happening as planned.

Though two of the Detroit automakers (GM and Chrysler) were still reeling from their public humiliation/whipping in Washington at the end of last year, the Detroit manufacturers came out de-glitzed and swinging with an array of products and new technologies designed to convey the message to anyone who would listen that there are definite signs of life in Detroit. (Editor’s Note: Though we have some pictures from the show here and in “On The Surface,” to see a nice array of photography from Detroit check out - WG)

So, without further ado, let’s get on with it.

We’re the guys who do our jobs; you must be the other guys. The Ford Motor Company put on a precision show of outstanding new current and future products, one brilliant concept (more on that later) and displayed a company-wide momentum that was palpable for all to see. CEO Alan Mulally has his team focused and on-message, and Ford – the domestic automobile company that didn’t take any government money – is clearly beginning to distance itself from The Other Two. Ford is now the one American car company – America’s original car company lest we forget – that I firmly believe will be competitive on the global automotive stage well into the future. Ford has the best leadership, the necessary depth of talent, a very competitive technological quotient, a visionary and tightly focused strategic Plan and a will to succeed that is unrivaled by the other domestic manufacturers. Ford is clearly the car company to watch, and it was evident for all to see in Detroit.

GM sets the “Way Back Machine” to Detroit, 1975. (At least it wasn’t Moscow, 1956.) Desperate not to appear too showy given the climate and the fact that they had just received a boatload of taxpayer money; GM overcompensated and unveiled an unbelievably bland display featuring a vast sea of different colored carpeting - and little else - and that, combined with the low ceilings, created an effect of a giant indoor car lot. Not a good look and certainly not worthy of some of the excellent products they had on hand. Despite its best intentions, GM displayed a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality in Detroit (not quite as bad as Mercedes, but...). On the one hand, GM’s near-future and future product lineup is impressive - with such cars as the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon and SRX crossover, the Chevrolet Cruze compact, updated Equinox crossover, Spark mini car and Orlando crossover, and the Buick LaCrosse sedan - which bodes well for GM’s chances in the market, if America’s economic paralysis can be cured. On the other hand, GM’s painfully tedious “pep rally” theme for its main media unveiling - complete with Governor Jennifer Granholm marching in with assembled revelers - was insipid and in stark contrast with Ford’s buttoned-up and polished presentation. Quiet confidence is always better in this game, even with Washington breathing down your neck, and GM’s loud presentation lacked subtlety and didn’t do the company any favors in my book. Yes, GM announced that its Volt battery assembly would take place at a new plant in Michigan in conjunction with LG (more in “On The Surface” – ed.), and the slick Cadillac Converj Coupe concept based on the Volt’s impressive extended-range electric architecture was a show stopper, but GM’s messaging was disjointed and unfocused, feeling for all the world like they were throwing up anything and everything against the wall just to see what would stick. In this case GM’s promising product story was lost in uneven and at times shrill messaging. The products deserved better. A blown opportunity.

Dead Car Company Walking. And then, there’s Chrysler. Yes, the company displayed two handsome electric concepts – the Dodge Circuit EV two-seater and the Chrysler EV sedan – but “Minimum Bob” Nardelli sounded more like “Baghdad Bob” in his insistence that the sky wasn’t falling and that Chrysler would be around well into the future, despite the ominous signs that were everywhere for all to see. What are those signs? Chrysler dealers are slowing or stopping their orders altogether unable to accept any more inventory, suppliers are starting to make contingency plans for a world that doesn’t have Chrysler in it, and oh, by the way, Chrysler retail sales have fallen off a cliff. Right now I don’t see any scenario that would have Chrysler surviving beyond the first quarter (see “On The Surface” – ed). It will either be parted out to interested bidders (which admittedly are few and far between at this point, even for Jeep), or it will be wound down with federal assistance to insure as soft a landing for the economy as possible. I didn’t encounter anyone on the show floor that actually believed that Chrysler had a shot at long-term survival. I may vocalize my assessment more forcefully than others, but the reality for Chrysler’s future hasn’t changed: there will only be two domestic automobile makers by the end of this year.

Our valley is green, our heads are big, and our ink is red. The company formerly known as the Japanese Juggernaut - Toyota - arrived on the scene in Detroit and tried to wow the media with their usual tedious cocktail of smug superiority and technical prowess, but then a funny thing happened on the way to Cobo, because now Toyota is just another car company trying to succeed in a crowded field of car companies who have the technological ability and the wherewithal to take on the world’s largest automaker head on. Sure, Toyota made some noise about having a plug-in hybrid out in the market before GM’s Volt (which the New York Times’ in-house Toyota booster dutifully trumpeted), but that will qualify only as a giant “we’ll see” until proven otherwise. The big news for Toyota here was the all-new Prius, which is much more aerodynamic (and somewhat better looking too) and another hybrid version of a Lexus – the H250h – which couldn’t have been blander if they tried. (Talk of a special electronic device installed in this new Lexus to keep drivers from falling asleep at the wheel out of abject boredom couldn’t be confirmed.) Toyota spent the rest of the time trying to pretend that things weren’t as bad for them as for everyone else, but it didn’t work. Expect Toyota to launch a barrage of high-profile incentives shortly so that they can get back on an even keel in the market. One thing for certain, however, is that the days of Toyota’s success being “automatic” in this market are well and truly over. There are too many legitimate and very capable competitors out there now and the continued erosion of Toyota’s “Mr. Green Jeans” image in the face of serious competition leaves the company having to compete on design and drivability, two characteristics (except in a very few instances) that continue to escape Toyota’s grasp, no matter how hard they try.

We know who we are and we know where we’re going. The Marching to a Different Drummer Car Company - Audi - showed up with a hot red V-10 R8 5.2 FSI Quattro - just in case there were R8 drivers out there who felt slighted by the lack of an extra two cylinders - and also the Sportback Concept, which is a preview of the four-door A7 Coupe. What’s not to like about the R8, especially an R8 with even more power? As for the Sportback, the Germans seem to be obsessed about the notion of “four-door coupes” with slinky lines and no real room in the back seat, and it’s a trend that leaves a lot to be desired. The Sportback looks better than the woefully pathetic Porsche Panamera, but then again most cars do so that’s not saying much. But there’s no mistaking that Audi is on an upward trajectory, and it was nice to see them project their confidence within a stone’s throw of the Mercedes display. That Audi is starting to breathe heavy down M-B’s neck is patently obvious to all, and refreshing to see.

We invented the automobile, and we’ll reinvent it again, thank you very much. Speaking of which, Mercedes-Benz displayed all of its runaway arrogance intact - and then some - with the pronouncement that they were reinventing the automobile again just because they showed up with the green electric technology du jour in their Concept Blue ZERO. Typical Mercedes-Benz - nothing exists unless they do it - even though other manufacturers have been developing the technology for years. GM’s Jekyll vs. Hyde tendencies pale in comparison to Mercedes-Benz, which filled their display with everything from ultra-performance machines (the Speed Racer-esque SLR Stirling Moss Edition and the brutally appealing SL65 Black Edition) to unbelievably homely GLK SUVs to go along with their new Jolly Green Giant persona. These guys have now permanently wrestled the “being all things to all people” title away from every other automobile manufacturer in the world, and it’s not a good thing by any stretch of the imagination. Oh, and Mercedes also unveiled a new E class Saturday evening, which by all accounts was a real yawner. Maybe that’s why you can get an optional drowsy-driver monitoring system with it...

We’re still BMW (at least until further notice). BMW showed a much-needed freshening of the Z4, which makes the car actually attractive for the first time ever, and the new 7, which is light years more appealing than the previous one. Oh yes, there was an X6 hybrid, too, but that vehicle is so eminently forgettable and such a painfully overwrought joke that no one bothered to notice. BMW’s big problem going forward is that almost half their business in the U.S. was built up by way of subsidized leasing. They added volume and dealers with this strategy, and it all worked exceedingly well - at least until the financial markets’ collapsed and the credit crisis hit – but now, despite public comments to the contrary, BMW executives are nervous and for very good reason. BMW’s business, as much as any other manufacturer hinges on consumer confidence and affordable leasing programs. Without it, BMW could be facing a long, hard road of gradually contracting sales, something that they haven’t had to deal with in a long, long time.

We operate in our own little world, and we like it that way. We don’t know if there were more shiny happy people at the VW display or at Mini, but at any rate VW showed the neat little (157.1” long) Concept BlueSport, a mid-engined sports car powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel 4-cylinder that delivers 180 bhp, 258 lb ft of torque and as much as 50 MPG on the highway. The likelihood of it ever seeing the light of day on U.S. highways? None. Nada. Notgonnhappen.com. No manufacturer is less capable of dealing with the vagaries of the fluctuating dollar than VW, and because of that the Concept BlueSport will be seen everywhere else but here. Which is actually not bad considering that if VW did sell it here it would probably start out with a base price of $29,999 and be $45,000 after you’re done checking off the mandatory options. Same as it ever was.

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, I am the Great and Powerful Oz, er, I mean, Fisker!” The man who has single-handedly redefined the concept of Vapor Ware, Henrik Fisker, insisted with a straight face that he will sell 15,000 of his Karma S electric cars annually priced at $88,000 each. Right. Fueled by deep-pocket Silicon Valley investors and armed with a dangerous lack of common sense, Fisker is veering dangerously close to snake-oil salesman territory with this venture, and it’s growing increasingly tedious by the minute to be subjected to his bluster with each new public pronouncement. At one time Fisker was a talented designer - and his new cars are certainly competent but far from earth shattering to look at – but Fisker’s self image as a burgeoning, all-knowing and all-powerful industry Wizard leaves a lot to be desired. There is nothing - not one single thing - about Fisker’s business model that suggests to me anything but a slowly unfolding train wreck that will haunt the auto biz for months, if not years, to come.

Quick Hits. Mini showed a new convertible that was much nicer and better in every way, Honda showed its Prius fighter – the Insight – which was previously shown at the Paris Auto Show last fall and really didn’t look any better this go around. I expected a more adventuresome design from Honda, and I’m not buying that “all hybrids will have to look like that” as some members of the auto media corps insist. I say Bullshit to that. Subaru showed a Legacy Concept that was absolutely ghastly. I mean, come on, guys, pull up and get a new idea while you’re at it. Volvo, a handsome new S60 Concept that was said to be a preview of what’s to come. That too often means that whatever you liked about the concept will be lost in translation on the production version, but we’ll see. And Kia showed the Soul’ster Concept of its upcoming Soul 5-door thingy. It was mildly amusing - for like 30 seconds - and then instantly forgettable. And Jaguar? WTF? Why did they take the XFR to Bonneville? What’s the point? I’m not convinced the people running Jaguar have the first clue as to what they’re doing, even though they have plenty of journos slobbering over every move they make as if it were the Second Coming. This is a company to watch in 2009, for all of the wrong reasons. I smell big-time trouble heading for Jaguar, folks. (More of our Detroit Auto Show thoughts will be posted in “On The Surface” – ed.)

Even in an Electric Green World, design still rules.

I’m going to close this auto show week by pointing out one crucial thing about this business going forward and that is no matter what the propulsion system is underneath a vehicle - whether it’s conventional piston engine power, extended-range electric, full-electric, hybrid, diesel - or a team of chipmunks singing Walt Disney show tunes as they furiously pedal away underneath the hood - beautiful, compelling design will remain the ultimate Initial Product Differentiator. Consumers must have a reason to look more than once and great design will dictate the initial “buy-in” for consumers and what they will or won’t be willing to investigate further.

No matter what the generation or the perspective, great design will continue to separate the winning automobile companies from the also-rans, because consumers will gravitate toward interesting and emotionally engaging shapes and pleasing textures first and foremost.

With this in mind then, the most outstanding design statements from the 2009 Detroit Auto Show are the Cadillac Converj and the Lincoln Concept C, two vehicles that express what compelling design is and should be all about.

The Cadillac Converj is an aggressive coupe that pushes the Cadillac design language to new heights. At first glance, it reminds you immediately of the Cadillac CTS Coupe that made its debut last year in Detroit, but the Converj is much more than that. Sitting atop GM’s “Voltec” architecture (developed for the Volt), this short-wheelbase Cadillac coupe is beautifully rendered from its dramatic nose and its voluptuously sculpted side detailing, all the way to the rear lights that resolve themselves in elegant tail fins. The Cadillac Converj is - despite its ridiculous name - convincing proof that GM has what it takes to compete at the highest levels of this business. Whether or not Washington notices remains to be seen, however, but at least Ed Welburn, Simon Cox and all the talented people involved in the project can hold their heads up high. Truly excellent work.

(John F. Martin photos, courtesy of GM)

At the other end of the spectrum is the stunning Lincoln Concept C, a totally unexpected glimpse at what luxury transportation of the very near future might look like. Blessed with superb proportions and a low, wide stance, the Concept C simply redefines what traditional notions of automotive luxury are all about.

The interior elements, such as the all-white color palette, the chrome accents on the seats, instrument panel, door panels and floor, and the light gray wood veneer – made in this case from recycled driftwood – bristle with Lincoln’s design heritage. But the most surprising thing about the Concept C is that even though it’s just two inches wider than conventional C-class vehicles, it offers the roominess of a 1961 Continental at almost half the length. Or, to be more specific, the vehicle has the overall length of a Ford Focus and the overall width of a Lincoln MKZ.

“Lincoln C is about efficiency without compromise,” said Freeman Thomas, director of Ford’s Strategic Concepts Group, who led the Lincoln C design team – David Woodhouse, Jeremy Leng, Andrei Markevich and Matt Edwards. And to that end, the Concept C is powered by a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine that will deliver as much as 43 mpg.

It’s natural for designers to be able to come up with a swoopy coupe such as the Cadillac Converj, but it’s much harder to convey beauty, substance and elegance in a package with the compact exterior dimensions of the Lincoln Compact C. Freeman Thomas and his team have not only redefined the future of Lincoln, they have redefined what the future of luxury automotive transportation will be, which is why the Lincoln Concept C is the UjianNasional Best in Show for the 2009 North American International Auto Show.

Thanks for listening.

(Ford Motor Company)

 Freeman Thomas and the Lincoln Concept C.

 

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