We went to Detroit to see new cars, of course, but mainly to judge the body language of the Big Three — GM, Chrysler and Ford.
After the shocking reports of sliding sales, the tortuous negotiations over US government loan guarantees and a couple of disastrous appearances of the companies’ big bosses in televised cap-in-hand meetings with vindictive and small-time government legislators, there was no alternative but to go there and find out for ourselves.
There were instant signs that the US car industry was operating in reduced circumstances. Theatrical stage-shows were out. Show stand decor was sober and to the point. Nobody, but nobody, showed a concept without a purpose.
Officials manning the doors of Detroit’s Cobo exhibition Hall, possibly aware that organizers of the Los Angeles Show would like to put them out of business, were remarkably less officious and obstructive than usual. Even the famous ‘bomb dogs’ which used to sniff your camera bag before you took it into the hall, couldn’t be afforded.
It seemed to me that two of the Big Three showed relatively robust signs of continuing health. GM’s Rick Wagoner set a sober but determined tone at the show’s first big press conference, confounding the expectations of many reporters expecting details of heavy restructuring with a we-know-what-we’re-doing message.
Behind the main seating was a rather obvious rent-a-crowd of employees and retirees cheering every announcement and brandishing signs that read HERE TO STAY and GM CHARGED UP. Outside in the snow, all day long, was a much more genuine and spontaneous group of union demonstrators from the mighty UAW, demonstrating in favour of keeping their jobs and against their brothers working — more cheaply — for the likes of Honda and Toyota in southern car factories.
There was a cavalcade of recently launched cars headed by the Chevy Volt and including Malibu and Opel Insignia. There were some cars about to be launched (SRX, Equinox and LaCrosse), there were two production-ready 2011 concepts, Chevy Spark (a dressed-up Vauxhall Agila) and Orlando (a handsome seven-seat MPV) and — finally — there came product guru Bob Lutz in a handsome Caddy coupe, with the same electric powertrain in its engine bay as the Volt. Most of us went away happy, to see what Chrysler could do.
This was far less impressive. Its VP of communcations, a life-long Lexus employee until a couple of years ago and used to respect from the press, tried a few jokes that fell very flat indeed — to the extent that he promised no more of them. The company showed a couple of Jeeps and a Dodge Caravan apparently with Volt-style electric, range-extending motors. Apart from “EV” graphics on the sides, they looked the same as usual.
Then came the Dodge Circuit EV, the familiar yellow Lotus Europa-based concept seen quite often now, but presented as if it were new. And as if Chrysler bosses hadn’t already told Lotus — as we understand they have — that the project is a one-off.
The best thing by a mile was the pretty and apparently production-bound Chrysler 200C saloon (presumably a 300C for the future conventional power) which had a lot of impressive internet-connected fascia graphics to distract you from the real situation at Chrysler, and to try to drown the impression that the whole thing is sinking. The ship’s captain, Bob Nardelli, who was famously unimpressive this time last year, never even made it to the bridge.
Conclusion: if the Chrysler-Cerberus enterprise isn’t actually finished, it is very far from healthy.
Ford staged their usual production in the Cobo Hall’s ice hockey arena that they own or at least sponsor heavily, and were able to pack the place with a thousand employees, which helped the atmosphere a lot. As did the fact that they were able to wheel out a series of impressive cars — starting with Ford Fiesta — and the winning smile of ex-Boeing CEO Alan Mulally. This is one man who seems to thrive on crisis, a crisis that has been distinctly helped by his repeated assertions to hacks — on the subject of government bailouts that “we don’t need the money”.
Behind him on big screens, the company’s simple and direct “SEE ONE, DRIVE ONE” message was shown to great effect. Technical chief Derek Kuzak succinctly explained EcoBoost, a new plan to offer most models with smaller turbocharged engines instead of the current normally aspirated units, as an efficiency measure, (he had a Flex SUV crossover whose efficiency beat a BMW X5). In five years, he said, Ford would be making 750,000 EcoBoost cars and offering the principle on 90 per cent of its cars.
Eighty-nine year-old Carroll Shelby turned up on his birthday to introduce an even pokier Shelby Mustang GT500, now with 540bhp, chassis mods and even snazzier electronics to maintain traction under its mighty power.
But the really big news was the debut of Ford’s handsome new flagship, the 2010 Ford Taurus, a generously proportioned, V6-powered, front-wheel-drive saloon of considerable grace and luxury. Remembering the achievements of its predecessor (six per cent of the market at the peak, top selling US car or nine years; seven million units sold) Ford has the highest hopes for this car and judging by the early reception, they shouldn’t be disappointed.
The car has overtones of Chrysler 300C (good), with some hints of Chevy Volt (good) and a hint or two of Honda Accord (pretty good). If the nameplate doesn’t get in their way — and Ford people keep insisting it won’t — then this big Ford should succeed.
For all the stories that the Japanese have pulled their horns in, they still looked potent. Honda’s desirable and affordable new Insight in particular looked like a car to put Toyota’s new Prius (whose US build plans have recently been ditched) on the back foot.
The Germans were there with the brightest lights, as usual, pretending that nothing unusual was happening in the market. No-one would admit to needing a bailout or having big stocks of unsold cars. The new Mercedes E-class, described as "evolutionary under the skin", showed a refreshingly handsome shape and its WELCOME HOME banner promised lots of sales to the 70 per cent of E-class buyers who are repeat purchasers. Audi’s A6-based Sportback concept showed that the large saloon can also be a coupe.
Show star? For me it had to be VW’s Concept BlueSport, a diesel-powered mid-engined two-seater that looked so pretty and logical you wondered why it hadn’t been on the market since the days of the Toyota MR2. With a 700-mile range and mpg in the 50s, yet boasting a decent turn of performance and a set of components donated by VW’s volume cars, it looked a natural for production, though big boss Martin Winterkorn refused to confirm the fact. Let’s hope he was just fencing with us.