Detroit Auto Show 2014: The View From the Floor

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 16, 2014

DETROIT--The 2014 North American International Auto Show in the Motor City had swagger and glitz galore. The auto industry had a great year in 2013, and is spending again on the big show. A perfect example was Ford, which not only rented out the entire Joe Louis Arena just to showcase the new F-150 truck (admittedly America’s favorite vehicle for 32 years) but also had a whole separate area just showcasing new technology—with seats made from soda bottles and sustainable food served on recycled plates.
 Nissan Sport Sedan Concept with "floating roof" gives hints of the new Maxima. New models were always mobbed like this. (Jim Motavalli photo)The show revolves around new car introductions, brought forth with deafening music and enough light wattage to power the city of Detroit for a year. And perhaps because this wasn’t a belt-tightening year—the outlook is for more than 16 million sales this year—the new cars were similarly over the top. Green was kind of a footnote here, but there was still a lot to talk about. Here’s a few of the cars I saw, in order of appearance:
Aluminum-bodied Ford F-150. Considering how much Ford has invested in this truck, I think losing 700 pounds with a lightweight body (for the entire line, not just as an option) is a bold and important move. And sure, there will be some pushback. I note with amusement an article by William Baldwin of Forbes. “I’m not going to buy one of these things,” he declares. Why? He had to replace his entire Explorer hood (for $2,109) because his body shop didn’t want to work with aluminum. Baldwin should think back to the dawn of the 20th century, when I’m sure there was a lot of squawking about horseless carriages and how they were disrupting the perfectly good equine infrastructure. C’mon, the body shops will adapt if aluminum becomes ubiquitous, as I think it will. Carmakers have to meet tough federal fuel economy standards, and losing weight is a prime way to do it.
 The Toyota FT-1 concept is all about stirring the emotions--not exactly a Toyota tradition today. (Jim Motavalli photo)Toyota FT-1 Concept. Strictly a non-functional design study (from Toyota’s in-house California firm), the FT-1 was widely seen as likely to evolve into a production Supra. It might herald a return to fast and furious Toyotas. According to Kevin Hunter, who heads Calty Design Research, Toyota boss Akio Toyoda demanded “cars that spark people’s emotions…cars that make them say, 'I want this…I HAVE to drive this!'" Okay, then, the bright red FT-1 was extroverted to the max, with scoops galore, racing touches like “no hold” warnings on the (non-functional) engine, and a no-nonsense driver’s interior. The Supra, which exited the U.S. in 1998, got increasingly sporty in its various incarnations, and Toyota wants—needs—to get back to that.
 The 2015 VW e-Golf was slipped into the lineup. (Jim Motavalli photo)Volkswagen e-Golf. The all-new Golf platform rolls out later this year, and with it an all-new electric car, the e-Golf. VW clearly has its attention elsewhere, because this car was rolled out with little information and even less fanfare, but expect 100 miles of range from a 26.5-kilowatt-hour Sanyo battery pack, and sales in the states that follow the California emission rules (including the West coast and New England). I drove it down in Tennessee, and it was a blast around Chattanooga. I know 115 horsepower doesn’t sound like a lot, but there’s so much low-end torque that in town and on the twisty roads it should be a lot of fun to own. By the way, much more attention was on the Golf R—a performance version that new American President Michael Horn said was in his garage. And did you know Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook drives a Golf GTI?
 The 2015 Honda Fit has a bit more power, a bit more room--and 41 mpg on the highway. (Jim Motavalli photo)Honda Fit. This unassuming little commuter car is slightly enlarged for 2015, with bigger tires, a longer wheelbase and width (though shorter overall). Honda says the redesign makes it “more aggressive,” but really, how aggressive can a Fit be? The bottom line is 41 mpg on the highway (with the CVT transmission) and 33 in the city. Engine output is up to 130 horsepower (from 117). And the Fit is just as roomy as ever, even if you choose to sit in the back. I love the new 2015 Mustang design as much as anyone, but how can the tiny Fit have hugely more rear seat legroom than the much bigger pony car?
 The Hyundai Genesis: a formidable contender at the top of the Korean food chain. (Jim Motavalli photo)Hyundai Genesis. I think they called it “fluidic sculpture.” But my first impression was of a big Elantra with the grille from a Chrysler 300. Not that it’s a bad thing. First we said the Japanese couldn’t do high-end luxury, and then came Acura, Infiniti and Lexus. After that came the notions that the Koreans couldn’t handle it, but I’d say the 420-horsepower V8-equipped Genesis is a contender in the tycoon class.
 There was no Model X in Detroit, so we got two Model S cars and a Model S chassis. (Jim Motavalli photo)Tesla. No, Tesla didn’t roll out its ingenious Model X crossover on the Model S platform. Instead, it focused on its 80 fast Supercharger locations, and aggressive sales efforts in Europe and Asia. Some 6,900 cars were delivered in the fourth quarter, 20 percent more than the company had earlier estimated. Jerome Guillen, vice president of worldwide sales and service, downplayed the recall of 29,000 Tesla wall chargers by federal authorities, claiming that most of the Teslas were already fixed with a software update. “The word ‘recall’ needs to be recalled,” tweeted Elon Musk, who wasn’t there. And the Model X? They’re working on it. With the news that Tesla sold at least 22,450 cars in 2013, all worry about fires and recalls was abandoned and company stock soared to over $170 a share.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want you to get eye strain. Let’s look forward to the big New York show in April. But just for kicks, here's a blast from the past: The Mustang 1 Concept, from 1962, which was on Ford's stand in Detroit.

The Ford Mustang 1 Concept was an early study for the car, from 1962. All the better to get you to think about the new Mustang. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Mustang had to start somewhere. Once  the team had the go-ahead for the Mustang in '62, they rushed this two seater out. It debuted at Watkins Glen in October of that year. Of course it was totally impractical (dig that wraparound windshield!) Triumph was ahead. Here's some of the history on video:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One