It's a Wrap: Many Cars But Few Stars at Detroit Auto Show

When a Chrysler minivan steals the show, you know it's one damp affair.

Do not confuse the Detroit auto show with the Golden Globes. The stars did not swan into Motown, unless you count a cameo from Vice-President Joe Biden. Buzz was minimal, aside for the prospect of cars, like Waymo’s self-driving Chrysler Pacifica, that might serve as a robotic escort on the red carpet. And while a handful of smartly dressed models—the Kia Stinger, Lexus LS500, and redesigned BMW 5-Series among them—were ready for their showroom close-up, there was no shaking the sense that brick-and-mortar auto shows from Detroit to Frankfurt are going the way of traditional broadcast news: overrun and diminished by speedier Internet scoops.

Where Dodge once mounted an actual cattle drive on Detroit’s streets to promote the Ram, and Arnold Schwarzenegger drove a Hummer through one of the Cobo Center's plate-glass windows before awestruck journalists, 2017 brought the wan spectacle of Automobili-D. This mobility conference drew a few big-name speakers and much gas-baggery about the autonomous future. But its gaggle of budget-constrained convention booths belonged at the Peoria Hyatt, not one of the world’s biggest auto shows. (At least it was actually in the building, down in Cobo’s basement hall. We'll see how long that lasts.)

Cars on display included the Karma Revero, née Fisker Karma, a soon-to-be relaunched iteration of Fisker's stillborn plug-in hybrid, now under the auspices of Chinese parts manufacturer Wanxiang. Also, the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, whose 238-mile range more than doubles the Nissan Leaf’s, which can at least strike (for now) the save-the-world pose of an EV debutante, as it clutches a Detroit bouquet as 2017 North American Car of the Year.

The Bolt, of course, is a descendant of the original Volt hybrid that became associated with President Obama and the federal auto bailout that helped nurse General Motors back from bankruptcy.

Biden hadn’t forgotten the link. Enveloped by stern secret-service agents, the longtime owner of a ’67 Corvette checked out the latest Stingray, along with the Bolt, Pacifica, Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger SRT and other models.

America owes you,” Biden said of Detroit, underlining his administration’s support of the homegrown industry and the city that supports it—including Biden’s push for federal funds for 80 sorely needed city buses. “It’s alive. It was saved. Without it, it would not have survived as it is today. It’s one of the proudest things I’ve been involved in.”

That Pacifica basked in a spotlight rare for a minivan: the glare of accolade. In addition to the intriguing link-up between Chrysler and Waymo (with Honda potentially getting onboard, as well) the Pacifica was named North American Utility of the Year. The 2017 Honda Ridgeline, the smart-nerd of pickups, won Truck of the Year. (As a juror for the North American awards, I was two for three, casting votes for both the Pacifica and Ridgeline.)

As for new cars, I’ve been covering Detroit for 20 years; with apologies to several models that seem significant and showroom-ready, I can’t recall another show with so little excitement, with not a single superstar, or supercar reveal. If you were expecting a Ford GT or another from-left-field surprise, look elsewhere.

It doesn’t help that automakers are falling all over themselves to build more SUVs and crossovers, considering the market's shift away from anything even resembling a car. Stuffing the Cobo Center floor with their bulky, somewhat practical, and increasingly tortured shapes, these SUV’s may be a recipe for sales, but not auto-show dreams.

Toyota looked to reverse that trend—or at least hold the line—with a daringly redesigned and reasonably appealing 2018 Camry. The all-new Camry was introduced by Akio Toyoda himself, the chief executive who has vowed to purge the bland from Toyota and Lexus dealerships.

“Why should SUV’s get all the glory?” Toyoda asked in the show’s best summation, as he frankly acknowledged personal involvement in the Camry’s design process. The Camry’s hood, roof, and seating positions are more than an inch lower. The former avatar of bland gets a new eight-speed transmission and a more-powerful base four-cylinder engine; keeps its optional V-6 (surprising these days) and hybrid options; and offers a sweeping new dashboard design, airier interior, and standard Toyota Safety Sense system.

The bread-and-butter Camry was matched by a hunk of luxury cake: Lexus’s all-new 2018 LS500 flagship sedan, on sale late this year. Sharing its sophisticated rear-drive platform with the stylish and surprisingly capable LC500, this more coupe-like LS500 adopts the brand’s controversial spindle grille, the coupe’s 10-speed automatic transmission and a much-improved interior. A twin-turbo, 3.5-liter V-6 looks to ably replace the old V-8 with a big jump to 415 horsepower and a 4.5-second dash to 60 mph.

An all-new BMW 5-Series should be a big deal, but the media seemed to yawn. Yet this dark horse, 2017 5-Series may help restore a sport-sedan benchmark that has slipped in recent years. The Bimmer arrives in March, with a subtle-yet-effective redesign that includes a lightened platform and a big dose of 7-Series technology. BMW touts a tasty M550i model as history’s fastest 5-Series, with AWD and a 3.9-second burst to 60 mph from a 462-hp, twin-turbo V-8.

With a growing roster of luxury brands, from Porsche to Ferrari, electing to skip unveilings in Detroit, it was left to Kia to make perhaps the show's biggest show: The Kia Stinger, a shapely, rear-wheel-drive (or AWD) sport sedan that will sharply undercut the likes of the BMW 4-Series Grand Coupe with a base price we estimate at $32,000. Albert Biermann, the esteemed former chief tuner of BMW’s M Division, directed the Stinger’s chassis development in his new role as chief of high performance and testing at Kia and Hyundai, raising hopes for heightened performance from a brand that’s better known for value.

Among new SUV’s, the Infiniti QX50 Concept was a standout for its energetic styling, technology, and a kickass bronze paint job. The Infiniti previewed what will likely become the world’s first variable compression ratio engine in showrooms. Infiniti spokesman Nick Twork said the 2.0-liter turbo four can shorten or lengthen its piston stroke to adjust compression anywhere from 8.0:1 to 14:1, allowing zesty performance when you want it and higher fuel economy when you don’t. Expect much of this concept’s design to reach showrooms in a coming replacement for the current EX crossover.

And whoa, duuuude, check out Volkswagen’s latest Microbus concept, the ID Buzz. This time, it’s even electric, just in time for a new generation of Phish-following hippies. Bummer about that whole diesel thing, the Miami Vice-style arrest of a VW emissions executive, and the $4.3 billion in penalties VW just agreed to pay to settle its emissions scandal cover-up. Since VW has cried wolf on a new Microbus before, this electric concept doesn’t count as a mea culpa—though VW did promise to sell 1 million EV’s a year by 2025.

Audi touted its chunky Q8 Concept as something new and novel, rather than a “me-too” take on the existing, coupe-roofed BMW X6 and Mercedes GLE Coupe. Executives also strove to link the tall-riding Q8 to Audi’s legendary Ur Quattro. Um, sure—maybe if the Ur Quattro had gorged on Big Macs and fries for the past 30 years. Then again, I disliked the new-gen Q7 when I first saw it at an auto show, and now I love it, though more for its superlative road manners than a somewhat sedate design.

Nissan flung open the rear-hinged suicide doors of its VMotion 2.0 concept, again making one wonder why automakers bother showing off a door style that will never, ever reach production. Yet the VMotion’s raison d’etre was to preview the look of future Nissan sedans, and to show off its latest ProPilot autonomous technology, which Nissan says could have cars driving themselves in cities by around 2020.

(However, if Nissan chief designer Shiro Nakamura’s gratingly overwrought, obsessively crimped sheetmetal is the new styling direction, I’d suggest a 180-degree pivot.)

More copacetic was the Volvo V90, a long and frankly lovely station wagon that I’ll be driving in icy Sweden in just a few weeks. It looks roomy enough for several cases of pickled herring, and the strikingly luxurious cabin should continue the interior acclaim heaped upon the XC90 SUV and S90 sedan.

Ford updated its top-selling F-150 pickup for 2018, including its first-ever diesel engine option. It also touted the return of the much-loved Bronco SUV for 2020, and an all-new Ranger pickup for 2019.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which has never done anything of note in the hybrid or electric space—yes, that includes the Fiat 500e—revealed the Chrysler Portal, a funky electric people-hauler with gliding, elevator-style doors that create five-foot openings along the sides. Sergio Marchionne, FCA’s chief, said that Chrysler would produce a vehicle similar to the Portal around 2018.

There was more in Detroit, but I imagine you don’t need to hear about a new front-end for the GMC Terrain. You may thank me in the comments.