Things are a teensy bit weird here in Detroit. It’s a cross between Wacky Wednesday and Alice in Wonderland: Nothing is as it should be, and some things are downright trippy. Aside from the weather, which veered from drearily lukewarm and rainy to all snow and freezing wind, the true delirium began when you stepped inside. Within the main halls at Cobo Conference/Exhibition Center, guarded by a 15-foot-tall statue of boxing champ Joe Louis, things have taken a turn for the surreal. Consider:
In what will certainly become known as one of the great ironies in automotive history, progressive, tech-obsessed Toyota burped out a gigantic, cast-iron pickup truck as its main offering, and embattled dinosaur General Motors won giddy raves for its startlingly visionary Volt plug-in sequential-hybrid concept car. (But since Toyota is expected to surpass GM this year as the world’s largest car manufacturer, this cosmic flip-flop sort of makes sense.)
Chinese manufacturer Changfeng presented, with no apparent irony, a bright-orange concept car called the Rhombus that looks like a Le Car that’s missing a chromosome. It features a bamboo interior, shag carpeting, an awkwardly stair-stepped hood and trunk, and wheels not at the four corners but in a cross shape running down the middle of the car. There’s no conceivable benefit to this.
Automotive-racing tycoon, trucking-company founder and veteran car salesman Roger Penske-a dude who oozes macho from every pore-has taken up the wee-little-car cause and become the designated importer for the distinctly un-Hummer-like Smart ForTwo, coming here in early 2008 after many years of corporate agonizing over whether the American market actually wants microcars. Maybe Penske will start racing the little buggers.
Legendary singer Seal was on the Audi dais to perform, you guessed it, Crazy before going on about how much he loved his Q7 SUV.
Indeed, even the press conferences themselves have become micro-theaters of the absurd. It’s hard to even call them press conferences anymore, since they´ve evolved, mostly through one-upmanship, into elaborate theatrical productions with Hollywood-caliber video intros, computerized lighting, bombastic music, lots of crew members walking around in headsets, and performers of every variety. It’s like the manufacturers want to win not only Car of the Year but also a Tony, a Grammy and an Oscar.
At no time was this escalation more evident than when Mercedes-Benz answered the Audi/Seal performance minutes later by unveiling its new 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system with a flurry of performances on a big indoor skating rink built in Mercedes´s roomy display area. First, real live sled dogs came out, dragging a guy in a sled. Then came hockey players who seemed to be re-creating the mind-controlled ice-hockey scene from Strange Brew. Then a pair of elegant figure skaters floated out to inject a little sophistication into the whole affair. Finally, two dozen â€photographersâ€ in skates came out acting as paparazzi to welcome Dancing with the Stars winners Emmitt Smith and Cheryl Burke, who were there for exactly seven seconds to unveil the Ocean Drive concept car.
Even the parts of these performances geared toward the actual delivery of information have become, well, performances. Bad ones, too, because even though the production values are escalating, the talent in this area is decidedly not. Witness the stilted deliveries from some of the worst teleprompter readers on Earth: automotive executives. It´s easy to understand why the German and Japanese execs would struggle with these readings-and they do, mightily-but even old pros like GM head Bob Lutz, Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda, and most of the guys at Ford (smooth honcho Bill Ford being the only exception) struggle to get through them and still retain some semblance of cool.
That, however, is a modest complaint compared with the overall bluster of these conferences, which also included Jeep´s hapless effort at crowd participation, in which the company handed out bongos to 8,000 journalists and implored them to let their inner artists out, as some real talents on stage banged their drums. It’s one thing to have fun with your new cars and entertain the assembled journos with a little soft-shoe (last year Mitsubishi presented some terrific Japanese drummers), and it´s perfectly fine to jack up the production values with high-concept displays. But it’s another thing altogether when showmanship overtakes the cars themselves and the genius that went into them. Tell us the story, please-we want to hear about awesome cars and how they were created. If we want Cirque du Soleil, we´ll go to Vegas. (Thanks for the bongo, though!)