DETROIT, MICHIGAN—The first press day of the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is usually a totally exhausting blitz of nonstop press conferences, each one more deafening than the last. This year there was something of a reprieve, because press day was also Martin Luther King Day, and many manufacturers opted to present their cars the day before or after.
Before you consider this as something noble, consider that union crews want extra money to work on holidays. The result was a more relaxed scheduling, with events ending around 2 p.m. Still, there was a lot to see and write about. Let me do this chronologically.
I arrived in time to see Lexus roll out the LF-1 Limitless concept. Since there’s no end to SUV craziness, Lexus evidently sees a new niche for a premium car-based crossover. Lexus says the car is like “molten metal being forged into a fine Japanese sword.”
Under the hood is probably a blank space, but Lexus said it could be an electric motor, fuel cell, hybrid drivetrain, or something else exotic. By 2025, every Lexus will be either electrified or have an electrified option.
BMW’s U.S. leader Bernhard Kuhnt also proclaimed a “clear focus on electrification,” and said the company sold 100,000 electrified vehicles globally last year. Some 20 percent of 5-Series orders are for the plug-in hybrid variant.
But the big-selling vehicle BMW rolled out in Detroit wasn’t particularly green, just another small SUV in a market that seems to be endlessly divisible into new segments. Ready for the X2, with coupe styling cues from the iconic CS models? This was the world premiere, and the car is powered by a twin-power turbo two-liter four with 228 horsepower, capable of zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds (and 130 mph).
Still, there’s a refreshed version of the BMW i8 Coupe, on sale at $158,495, tweaked as to be capable of 155 mph (60 in 4.2 seconds). The roadster version will be introduced with a limited edition of 200. BMW will have 25 electrified models by 2025.
VW introduced its Jetta at a party the night before, but reintroduced it at the booth Monday. VW, after its missteps last year, is out to rebuild its reputation with a blizzard of new models, and the bestselling Jetta (more than 17 million sold to Americans since 1979) is a big part of that.
The styling of the new car is appealing, with character-building creases on the hood, a flush-fitting grille that seems to merge with the LED headlamps, and a fastback roof that nonetheless accommodates four doors. It’s bigger in many dimensions, with more interior room.
Under the hood is a direct-injected 1.4-liter turbo producing 147 horsepower. VW calls it “the best Jetta of all time,” and will sell it at a reduced price of $18,545. I’d have liked to learn more about plans for the electric ID Buzz Microbus, but not much was said about it. It hits American shores in 2022.
Nissan rolled out the Xmotion concept, yet another vision for tomorrow’s SUVs. It was described by Nissan’s Jose Munoz as “a dynamic crossover with autonomous capabilities.” The last part refers to Nissan’s ProPilot technology, which is semi-autonomous now but is slated to be completely hands-free by 2022 (when it will appear in all core models).
There was a lot of mumbo-jumbo about the Xmotion using the Japanese concepts of “kanawa tsugi” and “kumiko” in its design language, but I didn’t find it all that stirring. The fact is that the SUV format is very limiting to car designers, and it’s hard to make new ones stand out.
Munoz, by the way, said off stage that Nissan’s electric business is profitable, and the Alliance with Renault and Mitsubishi is now fielding a dozen battery cars.
Acura, which has been having reliability problems lately (oddly not affecting parent company Honda), is out with a new RDX. Designed, engineered and built in the U.S., it’s bigger and bolder, with a two-liter, 147-horsepower VTEC turbo and a 10-speed automatic. In a nod to how important SUVs are to the China market now, the RDX will also be produced there.
Kia has done nice things to its small car, the Forte. I liked the refinements to this entry-level model, which gives it a more upscale appeal. It’s going to achieve 35 mpg overall. Zero to 60 in…who cares? Kia showed a funny video comparing, on a race track, its Forte to the Lamborghini Aventador. The catch was that they didn’t actually race, just sat there. By that measure, the Forte has the edge in interior space, amenities (wireless charging!) and trunk space, too. It seems that Lamborghini puts the engine back there.
The odd little Hyundai Veloster (the one with two doors on the right, one on the left) is back, with that format retained. I wonder how it works in right-hand-drive markets. Do they have to rework the whole body? Apparently so.
The 2019 Veloster, which is pleasantly egg-shaped, with squared-off fenders, comes with available two-tone paint (I’m a sucker for that feature), a cascading grille, a new multi-link rear suspension, and a quicker steering ratio. The standard engine is a two-liter Atkinson cycle, but there’s also a 1.6-liter turbo. Buyers haven't a choice of a six-speed manual or a seven-speed automatic. “This is a passion project for our R&D folks,” said Chris Chapman, Hyundai’s chief designer in Irvine, California. “It makes a statement that lets our customers stand out,” added Hyundai product strategist Daniel Han.
The big news, though, is that Hyundai is also bringing its high-performance N model here in the fall. It definitely looked (and sounded) the business, with every go-faster design cue you could imagine. Up to 275 horsepower will be available, controllable through five drive modes. Hyundai didn’t disclose what specific engine tweaks the N will receive, but it has both more boost and a bigger exhaust. No price is available.
The N’s competition, said Hyundai performance head Albert Biermann, will be “all the hot hatches.” He added that the goal was not big numbers on paper, but “instant response” and great feel. They played the crackling exhaust note through the zillion-watt speakers.
Infiniti offered a concept, the Q Inspiration, highlighting “a new form language for Infiniti” said Alfonso Albaisa, the company’s new senior vice president for design. To my mind, this was the best-looking car shown in Detroit this year.
Everything about this Q is cool, including the curved rear window treatment, echoed in the gently banked rear end, the Tesla-like full-length sunroof, and an eye-catching grille, which looks solid or ventilated, depending on the angle of view. If it is produced, and it should be, the suicide doors are unlikely to be part of the package. I remember when Infiniti produced an equally gorgeous treatment for an upscale Leaf (with wireless charging!), but that one was stillborn.
Toyota showcased a new, longer and wider Avalon sedan, with a 3D grille and distinctively sharp coupe-like rear styling. Sales of the Avalon, made in Georgetown, Kentucky since 1994, have slowed recently, but a new model—powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 or a 2.5-liter hybrid setup—should perk things up. The 0.27 coefficient of drag in a big sedan was impressive.
Just before the show, Fiat Chrysler said it would invest $1 billion in two U.S. factories, and will make its Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer in the expanded truck factory in Warren, Michigan. Also on tap for the Warren plant are the RAM pickups that have been built in Mexico. It was timely, then, that I got a chance to talk to Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, at the auto show. Why should automakers invest in Michigan? I asked him.
“It’s about the total cost of quality,” Snyder said. “What’s happening in Warren is exciting, and it’s because we have a talented workforce with skills in science, technology and mathematics. There’s not much unskilled labor left in manufacturing.” Of course, tech also takes away—robots have replaced people at many factories—but Snyder said that “the positions remaining are value-added.”
The governor is putting a premium on STEM training for college students, and that makes sense to me. I noticed while I was in Detroit that some carmakers, including General Motors, are making retraining of veterans a top priority. BMW is setting up a technical training program at Camp Pendleton, the automaker said.
The auto industry is shifting rapidly, and it’s important not only that people not be left behind, but that the bar to entry is made easier with programs like these.
Here's video on the ultra-pretty Infiniti Q Inspiration:
And here's that funny Kia vs. Lamborghini video: