CAR’s review of the 2011 Detroit auto show

Published: 11 January 2011

Click here to read CAR’s Live Blog from the 2011 Detroit auto show

Like some fast-living rock star who over-indulged, burnt out and hit rock-bottom, the US car industry is in recovery; chastened, optimistic, but still a little hungover. The hangover is visible in the lack of exciting new products and concepts at the 2011 Detroit auto show.

What we saw on the opening day of the North American International Auto Show was budgeted for at least a year ago, and much more in the case of new production cars. Like light from a distant star, we’re looking at the past. Even the stands are designed and costed up to 18 months in advance, which explains why GM’s still had what one acerbic commentator described to us as a ‘death pall’, despite its recent, successful IPO.

NAIAS 2011: a quiet optimism

But this was a considerably more optimistic Detroit show than in recent years, though it could hardly have got any more depressing. The optimism came from the car makers’ year-end sales figures which show the US car market recovering well – though still well short of the heights it reached before the crash –  and also from the new jobs that were announced.

Volkswagen is a perfect example. It boasted improved US sales figures (up around 20%) and some staggering ambitions as America starts to love cars again; it plans to treble sales to a million by 2018. Unlike most of its rivals it also revealed a new model, the slightly larger and much cheaper US Passat, and even a new US factory in which it will be made. In a faintly Big Brother moment (of the original, Orwellian variety) VW America’s British CEO, the former Vauxhall chairman Jonathan Browning, announced the good news backed by happy workers waving placards that spelled out ‘12,000 jobs’. That’s 12,000 largely non-unionised jobs in Tennessee starting at 15 bucks an hour; cold comfort to the unemployed Michigan UAW members with real placards outside.

Experienced motor show-goers (it’s nothing to aspire to) can read a lot into the stands. In the battle of the Big Three, crucial on home turf, GM was plainly the loser with its dark and largely deserted effort. Chrysler-Fiat just looked confused: you entered between a single Ferrari and Maserati – plainly added at short notice – and passed through US-spec Fiat 500s to the insipid facelift of the Chrysler 300, before exiting between Dodge Ram monster trucks. How Sergio Marchionne is going to rationalise that lot, we don’t know.

A very modern kind of motor show

Ford’s stand, however, was big and bright and bold, with the Vertrek concept previewing the next Kuga, and the electric Focus, which was actually launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas the week before; the car makers are all looking beyond old-school motor shows like Detroit to launch their products.

‘The recession was good for transplants like us, and for Ford,’ one senior Hyundai executive told us. ‘Sure, Mullaly is a rock star and they have some good product. But people are going into Ford dealerships and saying “thank you for not taking any Government money”, then buying a car.’

Hyundai’s stand was probably the buzziest, as the Americans say. Sales were up 24% to US buyers whose previous loyalty to the domestic brands now ‘only exists 100 miles around Detroit’, it had a new concept car in the Curb ‘funk-box’ (this seems to be becoming a recognised market niche), and a new production car in the four-door (one on one side, two on the other, plus a boot) Veloster. BMW’s group design boss Adrian van Hooydonk spent a long time looking at it, and the big, bright neon stand stayed packed for a long time after it had been unveiled.

Other stand-geek observations at Detroit 2011?

The big trucks were all buried away at the back of most stands, and the small cars pushed to the front; Smart had nine on display. Saab didn’t even get through the door, setting up, probably at short notice, in the freezing cold outside Cobo Hall, but making a Scandinavian virtue of it.

And there was plenty of automotive royalty about, from Akio Toyoda to the depressingly youthful and urbane Fiat heir John Elkann, all here to pay tribute to the fact that America is back, even if its cars aren’t quite, yet.

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features