NEW YORK—The New York International Auto Show for 2018 was short of mainstream participation—no big Ford announcement?—but it still managed to take the temperature of the auto industry at this turning point in our history.
At the same time consumers are switching to SUVs at a record rate—they’re 70 percent of the U.S. market, according to some measures—automakers are also busily preparing a future of self-driving, electric and connected cars. A collision course? Not really. Consumer tastes will evolve as these new cars keep getting better—and more obviously the smart choice.
“Self-driving cars are changing the way people live and move,” said John Krafcik, CEO of Google spinoff Waymo, as he announced (just before the show started) his company’s new partnership with Jaguar—which could see up to 20,000 electric I-Pace SUVs on the road as robotaxis in 25 cities. Krafcik said the I-Pace cars will begin testing in Phoenix later this year, and will be in the regular fleet by 2020. The full complement of 20,000 could be deployed by 2022.
Krafcik cited the case of a Phoenix woman, scared by an accident, who has never gotten her driver’s license—but is more than willing to take Waymo’s self-driving cars around town. Other potential users include blind people (there are three million Americans 40 and above who are either completely without sight or have poor vision) and the elderly (79 percent of seniors 65 and older live in car-dependent communities). Any mention of Arizona inevitably brings up the tragic March 18 accident with an Uber Volvo in Tempe, which killed a female pedestrian.
Krafcik was diplomatic about this in New York, but after the accident he said that it would never have occurred if Waymo’s tech had been in charge. He told the National Automobile Dealers Association conference in Las Vegas, “We're very confident that our car could have handled that situation. We know that for a lot of different reasons. It's what we have designed this system to do in situations just like that.”
An I-Pace outfitted with at least the appearance of onboard Waymo technology was on hand in New York, but the partners are far from ready to give the press rides or show off what the cars can do. “We’ve shifted to operations and deployment,” Krafcik said. He called the I-Pace “the world’s first premium electric self-driving car,” and who could argue with that?
Here's a closer look at the Waymo I-Pace:
Krafcik preferred to be upbeat when asked if the Uber accident will set back Waymo’s self-driving deployment, but obviously it will. Uber’s testing in Arizona was suspended by Governor Doug Ducey (a big supporter of self-driving technology) for its “unquestionable failure” in the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bike when hit.
Toyota was front and center in New York, with two big product announcements: a Toyota Corolla hatchback (a preview of the new model), and the new RAV4. The latter has now taken over from the Camry as America’s bestselling vehicle that isn’t a pickup truck. Some 400,000 were sold last year. Toyota’s Bill Fay, a senior vice president of automotive operations, calls this “an indication that the auto industry is always changing. When customers’ desires change, we react.” Hence, more and more SUVs.
Here's the Corolla on video:
The RAV4 is a worthy successor to the current model—slightly more aggressive, and looking bigger without actually being bigger. But I out-and-out loved the Corolla, which is a bold step forward for what the company describes as (since 1966) “the number one selling vehicle of all time.” I’m not sure how you measure that.
Sales volume for the RAV4 doubled over the last five years, and actually increased in the fifth year of a six-year model cycle—rather unusual. It proves the insatiable demand for small crossovers, so Toyota was wise to further diversify the RAV4 lineup. All RAV4s get a 2.4-liter four, with a 15-percent power increase. The new car rides on a 57-percent stiffer platform, has an extra 1.2 inches in the wheelbase (though is shorter overall), and gains a half inch of ground clearance.
The hybrid is built off the top-of-the-line HSE model, and offers both the best fuel economy and the best performance of any RAV4. People who don’t normally consider a hybrid should look at those numbers. All of the RAV4s come with an impressive safety package, and Apple Car Play plus wi-fi.
The Corolla hatchback on the stand was a top-of-the-line HSE model. It looked suitably mean, and sported the loveliest blue metallic paint—shiny in some lights, matte in others. This new model replaces the Corolla iM (formerly the Scion iM), and looks somewhat like it, but sits on top of the company’s New Global Architecture platform. Buyers will be able to order a six-speed manual, but the alternative CVT transmission has both a sport mode and can be shifted via steering wheel paddles.
Toyota is betting that many Gen X and Yers want the versatility of the RAV4, but not the sport utility vehicle that comes with it. Thus, a hatchback with fold-flat seats. It makes sense to me, the owner of a Honda Fit Sport. Rear legroom could be better in the Corolla, but it’s fine unless the front seats are at the back of their travel.
Nissan has a brand-new Altima, presented by new U.S. boss Denis Le Vot. The sixth-generation car, available at the beginning of next year, is important to Nissan—5.6 million have been sold since 1993. The dwindling band of sedan buyers take them up in great numbers. “We’re very good at crossovers, but the sedan is a big playground,” Le Vot said.
One reason buyers will go for this non-SUV—it has optional all-wheel-drive. Another intrigue point: an available turbo four with a variable compression ratio and 248 horsepower, as first seen on the Infiniti QX50. The standard 2.5-liter four puts out 188 horsepower. With both engines, you get a CVT transmission.
“When done sexy, a sedan is an escape from the mundane and everyday,” said Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president of global design. Well, they did it sexy—it’s a very good-looking sedan, and it incorporates a new suite of Pro Pilot assist semi-autonomous technologies.
Is VW going to produce an Atlas pickup truck? It showed one in New York, the Tanoak. I thought it looked ready for production, but the company’s U.S. CEO, Hinrich Woebcken, said there are no current plans. Also on the Atlas platform was the Cross Sports Concept, 7.5 inches shorter and with room for five instead of seven. This one is definitely going into production in Chattanooga at the end of 2019.
Cadillac’s Johan De Nysschen pointed out that last year’s 356,000 sales topped the 309,000 of 2016, and proclaimed that he is leading the “fastest-growing luxury brand in China.” Still not close to Buick, though. Cadillac is in perpetual quest for younger buyers, and De Nysschen said nearly 50 percent are now coming from Gens X and Y. On the stand was a new concept car, the CT6 V-Sport, which is powered by a twin-turb V-8 producing 550 horsepower. Expect to see it in other Cadillacs, but not in the Corvette.
Acura brought out the all-new, much anticipated RDX. Turns out, it’s almost exactly the same car as the concept vehicle the company showed in Detroit—with 2.6 inches more wheelbase. It’s mean looking, in the current edgier Japanese style.
Among the RDX’s features are a new independent rear suspension, adaptive shocks (an option) and variable–ratio electric power steering. Honda’s torque-vectoring SH-AWD system is onboard, and it can send as much as 70 percent of the car’s power to the rear wheels.
There’s only one RDX engine, a two-liter turbocharged four, producing 272 horsepower. That’s connected to a 10-speed automatic, with the by-now ubiquitous paddle shifters for a manual mode.
The Aviator is new from Lincoln, complementing the Navigator. Another SUV? It’s unavoidable in the current market. This one gets a twin-turbo V-6, with an additional plug-in hybrid option. The latter comes with AWD; it’s optional on the standard gas model. This is one of several cars at the show that don’t need a key—your phone will unlock and start it.
It’s a global model, with a special focus on China, said Aviator chief program engineer John Davis. He added that China has more owner-drivers than is commonly understood. Lincoln’s new Continental was especially developed with the Chinese in mind.
Megan McKenzie, Lincoln SUV marketing manager, told me that the car was inspired by aircraft design, though she denied an actual link to the Howard Hughes biopic of the same name. Her team is going to go out to where projected customers live—in places like the suburbs of Chicago, Miami and Greenwich, Connecticut—and find out where they like to drink coffee, and buy them a round. “We make sure it’s on us,” she said. “It’s the nice, little things that people do that matter.”
A personal highlight for me was a sit down with Ken Seward, a veteran designer at Mazda. I told him I owned a low-mileage 1999 Miata, and he replied, “I designed your car.” He did, too. “Our primary charge [for the second generation car] was getting rid of the pop-up headlights for weight and safety reasons,” he said. Seward’s favorite iteration of the design is the 2002 facelift version. A real car guy, he races in the Spec Miata series.
An example of what the current Mazda team could do if it wasn’t primarily producing SUVs was on the company’s stand: A Mazda3-sized concept, the Kai, it shows where the company’s KODO design is going. I liked it. It takes a “‘less-is-more' approach to creating a simultaneous sense of excitement and elegance,” said Mazda. An updated CX3 was also shown.
I finished out the day with a glance at the new concept car from Genesis, the two-seat Essentia. After the obligatory soul music revue, this time featuring a Smokey Robinson song, we were treated to the sight of a wild prototype with a glass hood that effectively merged into the windshield. It was the most eye-catching thing at the show, despite the fact that its gullwing doors signaled it would never be anywhere near production.