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!)
As for the cars themselves, well, launch the gallery and have a look for yourself
WonderTwinForce Powers, Activate!
The Lincoln MKR concept, a four-door coupe, uses a 3.5-liter gasoline twin-turbocharged V6 to achieve the same horsepower as a V8 without sacrificing fuel economy. The TwinForce engine cranks 415 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, running off E-85 ethanol and LED technology (is there anything those little guys can´t do?).
Chrysler invented the minivan, and now it´s come darn close to perfecting it. This new model-the Dodge version is shown here-will roll into family driveways this fall. It features more powerful engine choices (one V6 offers 240hp), a wider track and more modern styling.
A V6 engine plus a powerful electric motor will allow Toyota´s FT-HS (Future Toyota-Hybrid Sport) to produce nearly 400 horsepower. If Toyota builds it, the car will plug quite nicely the vacancy left by the Supra.
The Ryuga´s seats are quite comfy, and the two enormous gull-wing doors could easily cause the car to lift off if deployed at high speed.
The real improvements-and surprises-are inside the new van. There´s a built-in mirror above the front seats to keep an eye on the kids, a center console that can be loaded up with drive-through snacks and then slid rearward to the kids, ambient theatrical lighting to create a â€Zen-like calming moodâ€ that won´t distract the driver, a backup camera, two glove boxes, four overhead bins and, best of all, swiveling middle-row seats that can face backward. Pop in the included table, and the kids will amuse themselves for hours. Secret style weapon: LED technology.
The Airstream has pod front seats that swivel to face the rear and a 360-degree television-like thingy in the middle that doubles as a mood lamp, â€because you need that,â€ joked Ford´s head designer, J Mays.
Inside the Changfeng Rhombus
I could actually see the bamboo interior being sort of good for the sound quality of the stereo system. The shag carpeting, on the other hand, has to go.
Here are some more beauties, this time framing an equally sexy Lamborghini Murcielago.
Mercedes on Ice
Hockey players chase cars around the rink to introduce Mercedes´s new GL420 BlueTec diesel SUV concept and the new 4MATIC all-wheel-drive in the S-Class.
Smart For You?
Roger Penskeâ€owned United Auto Group will begin importing the Smart ForTwo later this year. This is Smart´s third attempt to bring the microcars to the U.S. It has been redesigned for the American market, with slightly larger dimensions and a more powerful 1.0-liter, 84hp Mitsubishi engine.
The Ryuga´s seats are quite comfy, and the two enormous gull-wing doors could easily cause the car to lift off if deployed at high speed.
I turned around and saw a little blond girl on her dad´s shoulders. Thought to myself, â€There are no children here. Maybe her dad´s famous.â€ Didn´t recognize him. Then I saw her mom. Aha! Volleyball champ, cover girl and very tall person Gabrielle Reece. No clue why she was there, but nobody was complaining about it. (Further research reveals that the dad in question would be surfer Laird Hamilton.)
Live from CES
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates made an awkward, satellite-delay-handicapped cameo appearance, remote from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, to help introduce Microsoft Autos, a partnership with Ford to incorporate new on-board wireless interfaces for portable electronics like cellphones and music systems. Users will be able to place phone calls via voice activation, receive text messages audibly through the sound system, and control music players with voice commands or steering-wheel controls. The products will launch later this year.
Volvo C30 Marketing
Still another sexy-yikes, a dude! Move along…
A Volt from the Blue
By far the most notable unveiling in Detroit was the Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric car that introduces GM´s new e-Flex system. The coupe´s onboard electric motor will be powered by batteries charged from an external outlet or via its onboard turbocharged three-cylinder engine. Alternatively, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel or any other power system can charge the battery.
Another Big Convertible
A beautiful two-tone finish and huge suicide doors grace the new Rolls-Royce convertible. The grill in the front flips up so you can cook steaks at football games. OK, that´s a lie, but it does use LED lighting as its secret style weapon.
According to Honda
Honda´s Accord Coupe concept gives a clue to the company´s overall styling direction. Honda says this model is very close to the production version, which will also feature its most powerful V6 ever. This will be the eighth version of the 25-year-old Accord.
Smart swears the car is safe, and the crash-testing of its cleverly engineered passenger compartment bears that out. But still, it´s awfully â€ small. Smart, though, had one of the busiest booths there-so maybe we journos are more excited about this than we´re letting on.
For Those Feeling the Urge to Intercept
From the looks of it, you could easily fit three or four V8 engines under the hood of the Ford Interceptor concept. As it stands, though, Ford chose a single, modest five-liter V8 â€Crammerâ€ engine that pumps out 400 horsepower and runs on E85 ethanol. Hey, wait-are those â€ yes! LED headlights!
I had staked out a spot to watch the Mercedes Ice Capades when I heard Seal´s â€Crazyâ€ blasting out from the Audi press conference. Everyone plays music all the time at this show, so I thought nothing of it, except what a great song it is. Then people started running toward the Audi display. So I did too. Sure enough-Seal, in person. Awesome!
If the Volt is driven less than 40 miles a day, it will run on electricity alone. Farther than that, the engine fires up to charge the battery, and the range jumps to more than 600 miles. Total fuel consumption: an estimated 125 mpg. GM thinks it will be at least five years before a production version of the car hits the street. Secret style weapon: LED lighting everywhere.
The Nissan Bevel generated a lot of buzz at the show for its unusual-even for a concept-and highly evolved styling. It´s a fully fleshed-out experiment in recreational vehicles. But it´s neither fish nor fowl: not really car-like, not really a van, and not even a crossover by today´s standards in that it´s more oriented toward cargo versatility than passenger capacity.
Serious Teutonic Grunt
The funny thing is, I was blowing off the Audi conference, thinking it wasn´t going to show anything. But when I came over to watch Seal, I saw the new 12-cylinder Q7 TDI, the first diesel 12-cylinder ever in an SUV. The beast cranks out 500 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque. So I guess cheesy marketing ploys like having Seal perform live actually work. Go figure.
Crew, to the Max
Toyota fired a huge shot across GM´s bow with the 2007 Tundra CrewMax. When equipped with the new i-Force V8, with its 271 horses and 330 pound-feet of torque, Truckasaurus can haul 10,800 pounds-more than five 2,000-pound objects!
It´s as radical inside as out, with cleverly imagined controls and information presentation.
Go for a Drive by the Ocean
Four-door convertibles are few and far between. Rear seats tend to be microscopic, and trunk space vanishes when enormous roofs disappear into them, crushing cases of vintage wine. The Concept Ocean Drive is Mercedes´s attempt to solve all those problems with brute force-it simply made the car massive. Secret style weapon: LED lighting.
Acura´s New Supercar
Acura´s version of the low, sleek, chiseled-looking wedge, the Advanced Sports Car Concept, features gobs of lightweight carbon fiber and Honda´s first V10 outside of Formula One racing. This is the replacement for the brilliant yet underappreciated NSX. Unlike its predecessor, though, the engine sits out front instead of amidships. Secret style weapon: LED lighting everywhere.
Easy as 1-2-3?
I met Ric Fulop from A123 Systems on the floor near the Volt booth. He showed me one of his company´s new lithium-ion batteries. This is the first li-ion battery to be used in a car (most of A123´s batteries now appear in cordless power tools). It will debut on Saturn´s upcoming Vue plug-in hybrid. The big challenge with GM´s Volt program is battery technology, and A123 is poised to fill that need. Its battery uses doped nanophosphate technology to create higher power levels and a more stable chemistry over conventional li-ion batteries. Another key factor: weight. These new batteries are significantly lighter.
More Pretty Girls
Ferrari always does such a fine job of showing off its cars, including this 599 GTB.
Ultimate Family Vacation Car
Ford partnered with Airstream to create this groovy cruiser concept. Dig the glowing window frames.
Finally, behold this treasure from the Changfeng Automotive Engineering Academy at Hunan University. Single wheels front and rear, with an axle in the middle. Powered, as if it matters, by a one-liter inline four. No evidence of LED lighting.
I could lose what she weighs.
In case you ever wondered what a really powerful 4WD drivetrain looked like, well, here it is.