The Detroit Auto Show Slips Even Further Into Irrelevance in 2018
Too many SUV’s. Automakers skipping shows. Big talk but without real innovation. And don’t forget the spoilsport Internet. No wonder auto shows are going the way of the Hummer.
The only thing missing at this year's Detroit auto show was a giant pile of horse manure, or whatever people imagine they’ll be hauling in the new pickup trucks—the 2019 Chevy Silverado, Ram 1500, and Ford Ranger—that overshadowed every car in sight. If you’re bored already, trust us, so were we.
We’ve noted here before that traditional, brick-and-mortar auto shows are becoming irrelevant. They’re being rendered obsolete by the light-speed spread of digital news; the exodus of luxury and supercar brands that give auto shows their fizz and glamour; and the industry’s lack of innovation and disinterest in breaking actual news. But this was the year that Detroit really jumped the shark, only in a pickup truck rather than on Fonzie’s water skis.
The grandly-named North American International Auto Show was as exciting as a CPA convention, and equally focused on the bottom line: more trucks and SUVs; a stingy handful of cars; and a dearth of models, production or concept, that had anything to do with that "future of transportation" that automakers keep yammering about. If automakers had ever heard the wise axiom of, “Show, don’t tell,” you’d never know it. Instead, Ford kept right on talking. Chairman Bill Ford promised the company will now offer 40 electrified models by 2022, including 16 all-electric models, representing an $11 billion investment.
Did Ford show one of those 40 freaking cars in Detroit, even in concept form? Of course not. Instead, it highlighted the Ranger, a midsize pickup truck whose dull, conventional styling and powertrains suggest it wasn’t worth the endless wait. Ford CEO Jim Hackett, who is leading the effort at Ford to sideline traditional cars in favor of trucks, SUVs, and electric cars, took an unintentional swipe at the placeholders and pedestrian models that made Detroit a waste of time and space.
Ford Motor, he told the Detroit News, "is going to be so different than what you’re seeing at the show today.”
We can only hope. In a show starved for interesting cars, technology, or stories, Ford did score brownie points with the 2018 Bullitt Mustang, in part by pairing it with an amazing historic find: the ’68 Mustang used in the filming of the Steve McQueen actioner of the same name, in gloriously unrestored condition, with an estimated value between $3 and $5 million.
Throw in a dozen stories like that, and then you'd have a show.
As far as enthusiast appeal, the rest was slim pickings: A BMW X2 that had already been unveiled in Los Angeles. The affordable Hyundai Veloster hot hatchback, especially the 275-hp N edition. A trio of midrange, inline six-cylinder Mercedes-AMG 53s. But that Mustang and those AMGs weren't all-new cars; they were offshoots of existing products. I remember covering Detroit shows and being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of introductions—especially since I had to write about them all in a timely manner: literally dozens of all-new cars, concepts, or design studies, from the wacky to the sublime. How bare was Motown’s cupboard in 2018? Infiniti was virtually alone in showing a concept car. The coupe-like Q Inspiration heralds the brand’s new styling direction, its groundbreaking variable-compression engine, and latest ProPilot semi-autonomous system.
Worse, more and more brands are shunning auto shows entirely. The fantasy cars that are the lifeblood of public shows—the Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and McLarens that your average adolescent would kill to see or sit in—have mostly skipped town. Those brands now prefer to expend precious marketing dollars where wealthy prospects are guaranteed, such as Pebble Beach. (To Rolls-Royce’s credit, it did show the new Phantom in Detroit.) And now it’s not just the fancy-pants brands: mainstream mainstays like Mazda and Volvo were both AWOL in the Motor City, with no manufacturer displays to let consumers kick the tires of an XC40 or Mazda3. As Detroit News noted, Volvo won the coveted 2018 North American Utility of the Year—and didn't have a place to accept or talk up the award.
With fewer cars to brag about, Detroit’s flailing attempts at relevance now include Automobili-D, a 150,000 square-foot chunk of floor space for gas-bagging and crystal-ball-gazing about autonomous transportation. There’s certainly plenty of room in Cobo Center, or other traditional show locales: Automakers seem to believe they’re too special to reveal cars in a convention space with everyone else. So a literal, oversized Pandora’s box has opened in the form of rented studio space, nightclubs, or industrial warehouses, where automakers hold their own product reveals. Alternatively, companies unveil their wares virtually or remotely, as Ford did with its Edge ST.
Most infuriatingly for journalists who have to cover these extravaganzas, automakers keep jumping the gun, showing cars earlier and earlier in order to separate themselves from the herd. The result is even less critical mass and excitement at the show itself. Chevrolet showed its Silverado in Detroit on Saturday, two days before the traditional Monday show opening—after already spoiling the surprise via a sneak peek of the Silverado in Texas on December 18th, 2017. Mercedes showed its new (and sumptuous) G-Class off-roader on Sunday, in one of Detroit’s most famous examples of Ruin Porn: The once-glorious Michigan Theater, with its vaulted ceilings surreally overlooking what’s become the world's most beautiful parking lot. (It's at the site where Henry Ford built his first car, the Quadricycle of 1896, that was the concept car of its day.) Lamborghini chose the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art as the large frame for their Urus SUV.
These off-site events are tempting for manufacturers because it allows them to control and stage-manage everything, including the journalists, whom they bus away from the convention center or hotels and stuff full of hors d'oeuvres and open-bar cocktails at the off-site event—the location of which, conveniently, makes it harder for them to wander elsewhere to cover news from other automakers. But when automakers give the cold shoulder to their own show, you know the game is up. If I’m running the Detroit show, or in charge of Cobo Center, I’d be furious at automakers who think they’re too cool to attend the house party. I’d threaten to hand their valuable show-floor space—which for years found automakers jockeying for the prime real estate—to another competitor, since they’re obviously not interested in using it.
Like traditional television networks that have been roiled by the rise of HBO, Netflix, and YouTube, Detroit’s energy has likewise been diffused by competition and media fragmentation. Detroit has always tussled with December’s Los Angeles show to be the preeminent industry event in North America. But automakers are now spurning Detroit to show cars, including some of their most innovative, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, whose focus on tech gadgetry brings the attention of Silicon Valley and millennial media that fusty automakers crave. By the time automakers show their wares in Frankfurt or Paris in the fall, Los Angeles in December, and now CES, there’s not much left over for Detroit.
The enervated state of Detroit also shows an industry at a crossroads, talking that big game on EVs and autonomy even as it doubles down on trucks. Honda showed its new, Civic-based Insight hybrid, which promises better than 50 highway mpg, and that’s fine. But game-changing innovation was nowhere to be found, unless you’re all that excited about a mild hybrid system on the 2019 Ram pickup, or its enlarged 12-inch touchscreen. (Jalopnik called it “an insane 12-inch touchscreen,” so apparently they are quite excited.) Honestly, in terms of design and market significance, the Ram was indeed among the show stars. Between the Ram and Silverado, these half-ton battlers will surely find more than one million buyers in 2018 alone, accounting for roughly one of every 16 vehicles sold in America. So, yes, that's big business. People were buzzing about the Ram's muscular, Dwayne Johnson body and lavish interior, far more than for Chevy’s more-subdued Silverado, even if the Chevy brings more substantial weight savings (up to 450 pounds) and clever engineering of its own. Damn, that Ram looks kickass. And in Fiat Chrysler fashion, it helps to have a great ad.
Yes, auto shows still serve a purpose for the general public, allowing consumers and car lovers to see hundreds of models in a one-stop shop. Yet even there, the thrills are dissipating. It’s become obvious that Detroit must move from its January time slot to stay relevant and revive its once-prime position. October would be the ideal month because it’s the traditional beginning of a new model year. It would come on the heels of Frankfurt in September, but well before the LA show and CES, encouraging automakers to introduce the most important North American cars in Detroit. And journalists and attendees from around the world would see Michigan weather at its crisp, fall-color best, rather than a depressing Arctic tundra with perilous roads and the constant threat of flight delays and cancellations.
Barring that, or a total reimagining of how Detroit operates, I’ve got a better idea for automakers, at least as it pertains to car journalists: send us the damn press releases and images of your new cars and trucks. Hold a digital press conference if you must, so executives can still bloviate and take credit. That way, journalists can stay at their desks to cover the news, and consumers can stay home to read about it and watch the videos. Because your auto show isn’t worth three days, a lonely hotel room, and a plane ticket to Detroit.