Tuesday 1 April - The day dawns to a clear blue sky and a drive of a few miles alongside the East River to the first day of the New York Auto Show.
If there’s a way of summing up the mood at the show, it’s probably one of quiet satisfaction. Sales in the US market in 2014 were up one million to a total of 16.5m, the highest yearly total since the boom year of 2006.
Newspaper reports in the US put the good news down to cheap oil, cheap lease deals and pent-up demand in a country where the average car is around 11 years old.
While the mainstream makers are happy to shift SUVs by the boatload and sell saloons on super-value leases, New York reflected the angst of the brands desperate to become ‘true premium’.
Without doubt, the two busiest stands were McLaren and Lincoln. McLaren’s new ‘cheaper’ 570S model is crucial in allowing the company to drive up annual volumes to 4000 units (as well as driving down the cost of the components shared by the brand’s cars), at which point McLaren’s car business will start to lay firm fiscal foundations for the future.
Almost opposite was the impressive Lincoln stand, which hosted the new Continental luxury concept. Lincoln’s design chief is Brit David Woodhouse, who started his career at Rover Group, before heading to Ford’s Ingeni studio in central London.
He took over at Lincoln around 18 months ago and the super-lavish Continental is the first view of Lincoln’s proper relaunch as a premium brand. Easier said than done, of course. But Woodhouse told me that the Lincoln was making aim at North America and China, where it is soon to have 60 new ‘designer’ dealers.
Woodhouse said that Lincoln’s research had shown that Chinese luxury car buyers wanted to be driven during the week (using the cabin as a decompression chamber) at the weekend, however, the owners want to drive themselves.
There are few details about the production car – due in a year or so – but it will be about super-luxury travel rather than having ‘sporting’ pretentions, something Woodhouse thinks has infected too many ‘luxury’ brands.
Lincoln needs to really gain traction in the premium markets. Premium brands continue to expand across the globe and, without success, Ford will be locked out of the market.The day before the show opened, however, there was a bizarre social media incident when Bentley design boss Luc Donckerwolke went onto Woodhouse’s Facebook page to ask ‘if you want us to send the production tooling?’ a reference to his belief that the Continental was a lift of the Bentley Flying Spur.
Cadillac is also working incredibly hard to become a true premium player. At New York, it showed the new rear-drive CT6 flagship, which has a very sophisticated platform made of steel and aluminium. Caddy is also struggling to sell serious numbers of its highly rated saloons with sales being propped up by the old-school Escalade SUV.
Caddy bosses are even moving the marketing team from Detroit to fashionable SoHo in Manhattan to, according to one report, ‘eat, sleep, drink and live premium’. Like Ford and Lincoln, General Motors can’t allow itself to miss getting a place on the premium gravy train.
Infiniti – Nissan’s upmarket brand – was showing the new QX30 compact SUV – which is likely to be exported from Sunderland to the US – and had an aching cool lounge area on its stand. A dimly-lit lounge seems to be an essential part of the premium lifestyle experience in New York.
The other premium-brand in waiting at the show was Alfa Romeo, which had a large stand with nothing new to show. With only the 4C on sale in the US, the space was used up with the most achingly cooling historic cars, including a 1933 8C 2300 Monza race car and a stunning 1968 33 Stradale.
Hidden away on the stand was the motto ‘The future belongs to those who have a great history’. BMW seemed to agree with this, displaying a full on 3.0 CSL racecar and a very pretty 1970 Alpina 2002Ti on its own stand.
Jaguar, also trying to get a proper volume foothold in the premium sector, the all-new XF made its public debut at New York, though the stand display was particularly low key. Quite a few observers thought the car’s styling was unexpectedly laid back and not especially progressive.
Range Rover thumbed its highly profitable nose at the upcoming Bentley SUV with the ultra-luxury SV Autobiography, as the iconic off-roader continues to reinvent itself.New York 2015 was a show that showed brands – both mainstream and upmarket – are in a constant battle to define and re-define themselves. Staggering amounts of money are being invested. While the auto industry is relatively buoyant, it seems nobody can become complacent.
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