All the Trucks (and Cars) You Need to See at the 2018 Detroit Auto Show
The Silverado, Ram and Ranger pickups will dominate Motown, but save some love for cars like the VW Jetta—their feelings are getting hurt.
There are many moods to Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, depending on the prevailing weather outside the doors of the Cobo Center. During the Great Recession, industry sales withered, and General Motors and Chrysler face-planted into bankruptcy. All the splashy displays, booming music and brave CEO speeches couldn’t cover up the show’s funereal gloom. Then the industry stormed back faster than most analysts dared dream, helping to drag the American economy to back to health with it. Consumers—including tire-kicking showgoers in Detroit—began turning new-car dreams into reality again, to the relief of car companies, suppliers, lenders and myriad businesses that depend on a healthy auto industry. Automakers feasted on seven straight years of rising sales, including all-time highs in 2015 and 2016, allowing auto journalists to again feast on free shrimp. Detroit, and its show, was rocking again.
The positive vibes have extended to the city itself, where the downtown especially continues to enjoy a multi-billion-dollar renaissance of development and jobs. Visitors to this year’s public show (running January 20–28) can see as much for themselves via the city’s new QLine electric streetcars along Woodward Avenue; they can hop off at Campus Martius for a short walk to the Cobo Center.
But with auto sales slipping to 17.2 million in 2017, and analysts projecting further erosion in 2018, the 2018 Detroit show will likely take on another familiar mood: Holding down the fort, and doing whatever it takes to distract potential customers from the ominous stuff behind the curtain: “Nothing to see here, folks, except a new car...”
Expect diversionary tactics galore: The tuxedo-and-gown comforts of the annual Charity Preview ball; the second year of Automobili-D, 150,000 square-feet worth of Barnum-style hoopla and balderdash—plus a few kernels of truth—regarding our "mobility" future. Spoiler ahead: It’s mostly about self-driving cars, sharing rides in self-driving cars, and selfies with self-driving cars.
With many exotic brands now shunning public displays for the hoi polloi at auto shows, preferring to expend marketing dollars elsewhere, The Gallery on January 13 will gather roughly $10 million worth of cars from brands such as Aston Martin, Bentley, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and Rolls-Royce. Yet car-crazy children and teenagers—those future prospects and the lifeblood of traditional auto shows—are SOL, unless they can afford the $250 ticket for the evening of fine dining, schmoozing and salesmanship.
In Detroit, the reality on the (icy) ground is that pickup trucks and SUVs, driven by humans and their reliable monthly payments, will remain the linchpin and barometer of industry success for years to come—at the very least, until the next fuel crisis or economic collapse that people will swear they never saw coming. So in terms of significance, every new car unveiled in Detroit must bow before a trio of profit-raking 2019 pickups: The redesigned, full-size Chevy Silverado and Ram 1500, and the U.S. version of the midsize Ford Ranger. The Silverado and Ram alone are virtually guaranteed to find a combined 1.1 million buyers in 2018—which means they'll account for roughly one in every 16 new cars sold in America.
And how popular are SUVs right now? In a blast from a Hummer-y past, Mercedes will unveil an all-new 2019 G-Class. It’s the first full redesign of the burly off-roader—and the industry’s most improbable status symbol—since the boxy G-wagen was introduced in 1979. Mercedes will display one of those ’79 specimens at Cobo Center’s entrance, encased within a translucent, 44.4-ton block that Benz says is the world’s largest hunk of synthetic resin. And since every archaic G-wagen has already been frozen in amber for decades, what’s one more?
In the face of the SUV and pickup onslaught, cars seem almost passé right now. But while light trucks (a category that includes minivans) grabbed a record 57 percent of the U.S. market in 2017, with 10.9 million sales, that still left 6.3 million people driving home in a new, honest-to-God car. Automakers can ill afford to neglect those customers, so Detroit will also serve up such bread-and-butter sedans as a 2019 Volkswagen Jetta sedan and a 2019 Toyota Avalon.
Automakers will also spring a few surprises, though people hoping to glimpse the long-awaited, mid-engine Corvette will likely be disappointed. Instead, expect a performance offshoot of the 2018 Mustang, either a special-edition Bullitt or a supercharged Shelby GT500. We’ll be trading elbows with an international media horde for Press Preview days on January 14 to 16, when you can check back for digital and video coverage from the Cobo Center floor. Until then, here’s a rundown of some of the key models we know for sure we can expect to see at the show:
The RDX always seems “this close” to being a smash-hit crossover SUV, and then something screws it up. The current model drives well with its powerful V6, but comes up well short on style and personality. Let’s hope the new 2019 model takes its cues from the brilliant new Civic and Accord, or pricier SUV benchmarks like the Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class and the Audi Q5.
The Bavarians have already unveiled the 2019 X2, but this new SUV will also be shown in Detroit. On sale in 2018 for just under $40,000 to start, the coupe-roofed crossover slots between the X1 and X3 in BMW’s vast SUV lineup; it’s powered by the X1’s 228-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four.
America’s second-best-selling vehicle, the Silverado pickup, looks to mount a renewed challenge to Ford’s perennially top-selling F-150. The Silverado won’t adopt the Ford’s weight-saving aluminum body and bed, but a Cadillac-style mixed-materials chassis—high-strength steel, and likely magnesium and riveted-slash-bonded aluminum—will still result in a lighter, more-rigid truck. Built in Michigan, Indiana and Mexico, the Chevy goes on sale in late 2018, though the old truck, rechristened “Silverado Classic,” will continue production in Ontario, Canada. The toughened-up styling looked good in a sneak peek in Texas, but a big question is the cabin: The current Silverado’s dated, painfully plastic interior pales before the competition from Ford, Dodge, even Nissan. Expect Chevy’s reliably excellent V8 truck engines, with the options of a modernized, overhead-cam V6 and perhaps even a fuel-efficient four-cylinder.
In strangely coincidental timing with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, spy photos have revealed the Dodge Ram will ditch its brazenly macho, Mack-Truck grille—long its design signature—for a more streamlined front end. The Ram 1500 is America’s third-best selling vehicle after the Ford and Chevy half-ton pickups, and by far the most popular and profitable model in the Fiat Chrysler lineup. So yeah, this is big. The new Ram (codenamed DT) starts production in January in a retooled factory in suburban Detroit, and goes on sale in the second quarter.
Jumping the gun has become tiresome par for the auto-show course, as automakers reveal models earlier and earlier—online, or at off-site soirees away from show convention centers—to separate themselves from the show herd or avoid their secret unveilings being spoiled by enterprising journalists. An apparently time-traveling USA Today claimed that Ford had already revealed the high-performance Ford Edge ST at the Detroit auto show, which is odd, since the Cobo Center is dark and even Press Days don’t begin until Jan. 14. The way it’s going, automakers will start unveiling cars on Labor Day and still insist they're "Detroit introductions."
Now, Ford is merely one of multiple offenders, at shows from Geneva to Los Angeles. Josh Condon, our deputy editor, has argued persuasively that traditional auto shows have become virtually obsolete in the digital age, aside from their glad-handing, industry-convention aspect. Perhaps media should begin boycotting show coverage of models like the Edge, since its premature virtual arrival disqualifies it from the show that journalists from around the world actually bother flying to, hoping for hot news rather than cold leftovers, in a real physical place and time known as the North American International Auto Show. On the plus side, Ford is expected to pull an actual sheet off the midsize 2019 Ranger pickup in Detroit, while we ooh, ahh and take cell-phone videos.
Most people have forgotten, but the Insight was America’s first modern hybrid, introduced in 1999—just months before the Toyota Prius arrived and blew the Honda out of the water in sales. Honda will revive the name, and ideally more glory, with a Civic-based, 2019 Insight (shown in "prototype" form, which is Honda-speak for "basically production ready") that looks like a Greek god compared with the humpbacked original. Honda claims class-leading power and a minimum 50-mpg from the Insight that goes on sale later this year.
The funky, first-generation Veloster hatchback raised hopes for budget enthusiasts, then dashed them with disappointing performance. The new model plays it straighter in terms of styling, as it seeks performance credibility against the class-benchmark Honda Civic Si, Ford Focus ST, and Volkswagen GTI. Sharing its platform with the Elantra GT, the Veloster should offer a three-model lineup, including a Turbo version with roughly 201 horsepower from a 1.6-liter turbo four. The range-topping Veloster N will likely adopt the 2.0-liter turbo four from the Hyundai i30 N that’s not sold in the America, making about 271 horsepower.
After years of aimlessly-styled SUVs, anonymous sedans, and name changes that even journalists can’t keep straight, Infiniti could use some inspiration. Infiniti says the flowing, blessedly simple lines of the Q Inspiration Concept will inform several new models to come—including a flagship Infiniti based on this four-door concept coupe.
Not wanting to miss out on the high-stakes action in six-figure SUVs, the VW Group’s Lamborghini brand brings the 2019 Urus, making its North American debut in Detroit. Lambo claims the Urus as the world’s fastest SUV, capable of 189 mph and a 3.6-second sprint from 0-60 mph, thanks to the 641 horses from the brand’s first-ever (twin) turbocharged V8. Saudi princes will approve of the dedicated off-road mode for sand-dune hijinks, and at a base price of “only” about $200,000, they can afford a whole convoy.
A facelifted 2019 Cherokee looks noticeably more appealing than before, with a gussied-up interior and new powertrain options that Jeep will reveal in Motown.
A front-end teaser image of the LF-1 Limitless concept suggests that Lexus hasn't grown tired of its controversial, Transformers-style design tropes. Fully in the flesh, the LF-1 previews a flagship luxury crossover coming to showrooms, likely including a hybrid version.
Longer, wider and much roomier inside, the off-road-happy 2019 G-Class finally joins the 21st century, including an independent front suspension (replacing a solid axle) that should dramatically improve the current model’s antediluvian handling. The G 550 version is powered by a carryover 4.0-liter, bi-turbo V8 with 416 horsepower. And to feed the booming sales beast known as the AMG division, Mercedes will likely show show mega-powered versions of its new 2019 CLS and/or E-Class sedan and coupe.
VW is looking to an all-new, 2019 Jetta sedan to continue its improbable sales comeback in America in the wake of Dieselgate. The perennially bland Jetta is suddenly strikingly handsome (at least in the concept sketches), drawing cues from the shapely Arteon concept that will end up replacing the CC sedan. The Jetta rides the fine MQB platform that supports models like the Golf and Atlas, with new features including VW’s Audi-esque Digital Cockpit. But say “Auf Wiedersehen” to the optional 1.8-liter turbo engine, with a 150-hp, 1.4-liter four the only engine for now. And whether you have asthma or not, don’t hold your breath for a TDI diesel version.