Brian Potter gives his view on the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Navigating through the sea of automotive journalist, one can't help but passively absorb conversations in passing. From the frustrated photographers coping with the crowd to the Japanese press who devour cars with tape measures, notebooks and macro mode photography, there was still one word which met my ear more than any other: EMBARGO!
In the world of automotive media, car manufacturers impose "embargoes", or strict release dates as the earliest publish time the media is allowed to publish press materials. The manufacturers do this to ensure maximum PR impact for their new products. But sometimes publishers break embargoes in an effort to break a big story which translates into increased traffic and exposure.
In the weeks leading up to the NAIAS, numerous "leaks" of press materials from cumbersome print publications hitting the newsstands early as well as digital sources were hitting the web almost every day and spreading at an exponential rate. The affected car manufacturers gave the offending publishers a slap on the wrist and made statements that something was going to be done about this problem in the future. WorldCarFans.com colleagues, Jalopnik.com and Autoblog.com were involved in the mess but they were indeed the rebels of the show thus forcing the rest of the industry to recognize auto enthusiasts news web sites as a force to be reckoned with. Although I don't condone embargo breaking, I will congratulate the gents for stirring the pot and bringing some excitement, although short lived, to an industry which can be rather mundane.
Now, with that out of the way lets get down to cars. This was a powerful show with many debuts and concept studies. Given the current financial climate of the American auto makers, one can really see them start to squirm much to the delight of the competition. American auto makers scramble to hold onto their existing market share with even more SUV options but realize the backash against excessiveness in the midst of fuel prices redirects their attention towards revitalizing minivans and passenger cars. The Japanese auto makers released five sports car concepts in an attempt to raise their premium position and give challenge to the Germans, the kings of anything sportscar. The Germans on the other hand were all about diesel, more specifically BLUETEC technology cooperative venture amongst DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen and Audi. And just to let everyone know they haven't lost site of their primary directive, Mercedes reminds the world of its premium stance with a large luxury four-door S-Class based convertible concept.
Japanese auto makers at NAIAS
Over the past 15 years the Japanese auto makers have made respectable progress into the luxury segment with such brands as Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. Excellent build quality, award winning customer service and value pricing have all contributed to their success. However, it is still the German marques who command the highest brand loyalty despite reliability and quality control issues. The Japanese know that in order to compete they need to create more brand lift and one way to do that is through "passion". Find a way into the hearts of die-hard car enthusiasts and the trickle down effect on the brand pays itself back with increased sales.
Toyota unveiled the FT-HS Hybrid Sports Coupe, a concept of green hybrid technology combined with a carnivorous sports car design. A walking contradiction by today's standards, Toyota is betting the marriage of these two concepts is inevitable. Perhaps they are correct, but its a long way off until hybrid technology can produce the kind of power needed to make enthusiasts salivate. Toyota's answer to this, is a supposed 3.5L V6 Hybrid engine producing 400hp. Although no details were given about the engine hopefully it is real and not just fantasy like the rest of the car. The FT-HS, aimed at the trendy metro-sexual type of young professional is flamboyant in its design but it's all-bark and no-bite. Not only do the tightly sculpted wheel arches make it impossible to steer but the draping body skirts are a little too dramatic. Lastly the black painted windshield pillars made the greenhouse look incomplete and a bit awkward, especially when someone is sitting inside.
Next up was the Lexus LF-A Concept "facelift". First launched exactly 2 years ago at NAIAS, Lexus decided that the LF-A needed an update to match the current design evolution in order to really analyze the market potential for the 500hp V10 super car. According to a Lexus Vice President Bob Carter, "This latest concept is much closer to a vehicle that we would bring to market, and one in which we will be gauging consumer interest."
The LF-A has much softer lines when compared to the FT-HS and maintains a nice aesthetic balance. Light bounced off the body creating dazzling effects and made it a pleasure to photograph. My only problem with the LF-A was that the actual show car was rushed and certainly not related to the prototypes seen testing on Nurburgring. The construction was sacrificed with poorly fitted cheap plastic trim and workers moving the vehicle almost broke the rear body panel. Now, before you go off and send me hate emails, I am fully aware that the LF-A is just a dress rehearsal and not a fully functioning prototype. But I can't help but be disappointed that the LF-A second generation won't be seen in any promo videos anytime soon. Although stunningly beautiful, the execution of this concept appeared to be sacrificed. The LF-A is expected to debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in the fall and hitting showrooms in spring 2008 with an expected price tag over $100,000.
Based on the current IS model, Lexus introduced a worked over version of the IS model called the IS-F. Widebody kit, quad exhausts and some new technology to boot, the IS-F will be the first serious contender to give the German sport sedans a challenge. Despite the swishy boy-racer image, the IS-F is serious and purposeful. With 400hp 5.0L V8 mated to the world's first 8 speed auto slosh-box giving a 0-60mph time of 4.9 seconds, Mercedes should be hitting the drawing board instead of turning their noses up in the air. Unlike the LF-A, the IS-F is a real car which hits market in early 2008.
Moving over to the Acura stable, still more audaciousness abounds. The entire NAIAS came to a halt for the Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept (AASCC) press conference - the draw was impressive. Slated as the major influence behind the successor of the 15 year old Acura NSX currently out of production, Honda is pushing this "Advanced" ideal. Takeo Fukui, president & CEO of Honda Motor Co., Ltd. said "As we advance toward building a car like this, I can tell you it will feature advanced technology matching our passion for performance." There's that word again,"passion". The AASCC lines are neither muscular nor voluptuous but still tastefully exotic in a very Japanese way. Its really nice to see over the past few years, Japanese design really coming into its own without borrowing styling cues from the Europeans. Ironically, the design originates from their California design house. Me gives a thumbs up.
Parent company Honda also had a tasty treat with the Honda Accord Coupe Concept. Once again the Japanese are flexing their design muscles and showing that they can indeed make provocative cars that are emotional yet distinctly Japanese in flavor. The Accord Coupe Concept although mundane and bland at first glance surely converted my opinion in just a few minutes. Perhaps its the name, Accord, which evoked preconceptions. Over the past 30 years the Accord has developed the reputation of being the chariot of the practical and sensible. Nothing wrong with that - until you start to associate it with a legitimate sports coupe. Despite the terrible name, Honda displayed another winner revealing the styling direction for the 8th generation Accord.
Stay tuned for Part 2.