Jonny Smith: the alternative NAIAS 2010 show report

Published: 12 January 2010

A couple of years ago I went for a walk on Detroit's notorious 8-mile. It didn't last long before I was stopped by the Detroit Police department. It turns out that I didn't look like a tramp or drug peddler, and certainly not a hooker. For that reason I was an alien. 'No one walks in D-town' the cop said. 'It's too dangerous'. And with that, I put my watch in my sock and fast walked back to the hotel muttering to myself. I figured if you looked like a fruit cake MoTown muggers might think twice.

This makes you realise that America's love and reliance on the automobile stems not just from being a huge country and building sprawling cities like LA, but also (at least in Detroit and Philadelphia) because the car is a mobile safehouse.

Today MoTown is a desperate place. People have moved away in droves and the historic architecture is being left to slowly die. It's visibly on its knees, thanks to domestic car manufacturers failing to build products following global trends. That and their employees have lived longer than expected. These factors make Motor City irresistibly fascinating.

Detroit: just another car show?

Walking into today's Detroit motor show (don't worry, a Merc ML Hybrid delivered me to the lobby) and you could have been at the Geneva auto salon. The front story of USA Today was right: Detroit's car makers are definitely downsizing.

You think of Detroit and you think V8 muscle. Not any more. Sure, Ford trained spotlights on their 5.0 'Stang and there was some Viper special editions, but they almost didn't matter. The '09 Detroit show was the equivalent of ground zero. This year was about emerging from the rubble with a master plan for the new decade.

Ford's plan of building models that sell globally without alteration (Fiesta and Focus) should go a long way, and Chevy confidently wheeled out their European and Korean young hatched hopefuls. Chrysler sifted through the Fiat portfolio and decided the best car to re-grille for Americans was the beaver-faced Lancia Delta. That and a poorly rehashed 300C. Tragic.

In search of the elusive V8

Less noise was made about the big brash cars on display (like Ford's Raptor twin cab truck) which were parked around the periphery of stands. In 10 hours of absorbing the press day I saw perhaps five vehicles packing petrol V8 propulsion.

My heart actually fluttered when I saw SMS's stand. Steve Saleen (who looks like Gary Oldman) appears to have devised the perfect moonshine runner's car. With radar jamming devices on every panel and an aftermarket supercharged V8 developing 700 horses, the Dodge Challenger looked, ironically, ill placed here.
 
The brightest lights and biggest dominance had German logos all over it. Merc, VW, BMW and Audi continued their world domination efforts with hybrid and electric cars based upon existing models. That makes sense. There's no need for giving hybrids a bespoke look, especially one the shape of an iron. After such a drawn out wait, it was a shame to see much of the sharp styling rinsed out of Honda's CR-Z. It's heavy too.

Great though electric plug-in cars are for cityscapes, many Americans live further afield. Before they are force-fed hybrids I'd like to see small capacity turbodiesels on people's drives. If America is to wean itself off a diet of flabby SUVs and crap V6s, it needs to walk before it can run. Not only that, if Detroit drivers are anything to go by they desperately need stop-start systems. Even hybrids just sit around with the engines running.

I met an American CAR reader who inadvertently hit the nail on the head. He's got a 2008 Mustang Bullitt edition that he drove daily but is now a weekend car. For the weekly grind he really wants a three-door diesel Fiesta. He totally gets the frugality and knows he's not being automotively castrated, because the burbling Mustang is still in garage. It's just now a treat.

To me, that's a wonderful solution for the American car nut. They have something eco and European inspired on the drive, but keep the big eight-pot dinosaurs for weekend blasts. Muscle is now an occasional treat, not obligatory. It works for the Swedes. They love classic Yank tin, but by day they all drive bio ethanol Volvos.

V8 swapped for v. small

I cannot say whether America is ready for small cars with charisma and decent interior plastics (that women can't file their nails on), but we know the Mini is adored and I'm stood with the swarms next to the Fiat 500 stand. To my left is a Ferrari 599FXX and to my right is a Dodge Nitro. Don't you just love arranged marriages?

Americans historically associate small cars with cramped cabins. They demand cars with space, yet so many of their cars in the past have been abysmally packaged. As long as the oil prices rise, American cars will get smaller. I just hope they can capture that American iconic design. Cars like the GMC Granite concept should be applauded, as you can see Detroit truck DNA trickling through a spacious tough little people mover. If they do an A-Team remake with environmental responsibility, this Vauxhall Astra-based 1.4 turbo would be cool.

Focus not Jack-of-all-trades

Not long ago car manufacturers started building cars that were fit for multiple purposes. Perhaps they should focus on monotalented cars.
 
Detroit deserves to rise from the ashes. Building cars again in Michigan is vital to its survival. Ford and Chevy know this, and intend to build more cars here again. I believe it will happen. Just understand the Germans, Japanese and Koreans won't be backing down in a hurry.

Cars of the show for me? The Ford Focus for importance, but the GMC Granite thing, the four-door aluminium Tesla Model S, the Audi E-tron (for its polished multi-spoke wheels if nothing else) and Fiat's electric 500.    

Right, I'm off to sit in the Dodge Challenger RT. It might be my last chance....
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