A man walks into a bar on Woodward Ave. and sees a telephone executive, an airline CEO and an Italian born Canadian having a drink. No, this isn’t the start of a joke. It is the new face of the American auto industry.
Clearly this is not your father’s Oldsmobile…. wait, there is no Oldsmobile…. or Pontiac…. or Saturn…. or soon to be Saab for that matter. But there is at the 2010 North American International Auto Show a cautious optimism that the worst of times may be over. Once you walk past the seemingly obligatory slew of political protesters that litter the entrance of most major media events these days, the doom and gloom of a winter’s day in Detroit is wafted away by the beaming lights and the camera crews clambering around the latest and greatest of what the world’s auto maker’s have to offer.
Still feeling slightly minimalistic, but nonetheless impressive, European giants, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have cool give-aways and statuesque models adorning their million dollar displays, while American auto makers like Ford and Chrysler 'keep it real' with just the cars telling their story. Whichever display you attend, you can feel the change in the air. Aerodynamic designs, warmer exterior colors, and fuel efficiency dominate each line of vehicles. The focus on a more global market is prevalent as Ford CEO’s Alan Mullaly talked in depth about the “world car” during his opening comments.
His 'One Ford… One Team… One Plan… One Goal' philosophy is personified in the Ford Focus MkIII. The car will look virtually identical in all of the 122 countries in which it is sold, including the UK (where it goes on sale in 2011) and will feature the latest version of Ford’s 'looks like it’s moving even when it isn’t' kinetic design. Will it have the global appeal Ford is looking for? We are all hoping so for the health of the classy American auto giant who was brave enough to refuse a government bail out. Across the expansive exhibition space, Daimler head man, Dr. Dieter Zetsche spoke about 'sustainable mobility' and putting a 'significant investment' in research and development into the luxury brand. With an EPA rating of 26 mpg on the highway, The S400 Hybrid is being touted as the world’s most efficient luxury sedan that utilizes a gasoline engine; this in a car with a nearly 300 horsepower engine. From a style standpoint, the car is all you would expect from Mercedes-Benz – sleek lines, luxurious leather and lots of chrome. To my eyes, this should be a winning combination. While the general masses are looking for immediate gratification in recapturing the love of the drive, concept cars continue to have all the star power you’d expect. Designed to whet the whistle of even the most conservative aficionado, you can’t discount the appeal of these daring designs and titillating notions of what is to come. Half Jeep, half Cooper, the MINI showed off its off-the-wall Beachcomber concept, designed without doors or a conventional roof. Shades of the Mini-Moke? (Is Number 6 lurking about somewhere?)
You can almost imagine yourself flying down sandy beach of California with the wind in your hair.
Contrarily, GM's utility truck brand GMC introduced the Granite Concept. Its bulky, boxy design may be functional but doesn’t give your mind the opportunity to wander farther than the soccer field to pick up the kids. If the target market was the young, urban professional, it misses the mark on design, even with its flashy interior and scissor doors.Walking out of the 2010 NAIAS, I had a slightly bittersweet taste in my mouth. Where I was encouraged to feel a more positive energy overall, I could still see the struggle in the eyes of the industry. Pep talks from the auto execs, a thumbs up from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and a few gravity-defying displays doesn’t erase the wreckage of the worst year in the history of the auto industry.
Still, walking the floor of the most important auto show in the world rejuvenated my spirit and tells me we are on the right road and fighting back with renewed strength and direction. And if I saw those three guys in the bar on Woodward Ave, I’d buy them a Stroh’s beer and say thanks.
Detroit 2010 gallery