2009 NAIAS: School Is Back In Session
If you've ever been to an auto show, you know that it's part Las Vegas, part reality, part fantasy, and wall-to-wall people. In those respects, the 2009 North American International Auto Show doesn't disappoint, but the proportions in the standard recipe have definitely been changed.
For more than 100 years, the auto industry has hosted what is known in Detroit as simply "the Auto Show." The flash of past years – breakthrough walls and water curtains that spell out automotive brands – isn't here this year. Instead, cost-conscious automakers have scaled back the showmanship in favor of more straightforward talk about current models and models on the horizon. Where the automakers may have put more money into flash, they plowed that cash straight into the cars themselves. The Class of 2009 holds its own when it comes to vehicle design.
Ford came the closest to olde-tyme showboating with a fly-apart vehicle that guests are welcome to sit in. The sides of the vehicle come back together while the attendants extol the virtues of Ford's new and planned design changes.
A few makers were absent – most noticeably Nissan and Suzuki– because they had no new models to introduce. Some new faces replaced them – BYD from China and Brilliant from Italy. BYD plans to make a big splash in the 2011 model year in the US. The company displayed all of its current models, which are on sale or soon to enter production in China. BYD says it will bring is F3DM PHEV to the US market for around $20,000 per unit. The exterior designs are conventional, but these vehicles looked right at home at the 2009 NAIAS.
The largest display spaces were reserved for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, but dozens of other makers brought their A-games to the 2009 NAIAS. Toyota introduced the 2010 Prius PHEV, and the all-new hybrid-only 2010 Lexus 250h. Cutaway vehicles were the order of the day, explaining the latest in propulsion and environmental technologies. Hybrid cutaways showed off the battery locations, drivetrain operation, and plug-in recharging connectors.
The show floors featured more open space than in past years and the displays were less outrageous. Giant video walls, presentations, and light shows are still part of the plan, but the cars and trucks are definitely the stars of the show. Also noticeably absent were the reams of product literature that the automakers freely distribute. In many cases, single-sheet slicks and cards that refer the holder to Web sites replaced product booklets.
If most auto shows are a celebration, this year's show got right down to business. For many visitors, the first sight was the Ford display. Touting the 41/36 mpg ratings of the Fusion, Ford was clearly interested in letting people know what they can expect from the Blue Oval in years to come. Guests lined up to try out the SmartGauge driving simulator, which is designed to show drivers how to maximize fuel economy while driving.
Ford's informational displays touted the new EcoBoost engine that will be more widely available in 2009 and 2010. The engine can boost fuel economy by as much as 30 percent using conventional combustion technology. Lincoln showed a heart-stopping "C" concept that the division is keen to put into production. The C features the same interior room as its full-size predecessors, but takes up only about half of their length. Cadillac countered with the Converj concept, which you simply have to see to appreciate. The pictures don't do the car justice, but this is the car you want to be seen in.
The Chevy Volt held court somewhat forlornly in a corner of the GM salon, and the Malibu hybrid was practically abandoned at the show, but these vehicles will lead the charge (no pun intended) for GM in the coming years. Much of the development work that GM has done on these two platforms will be distributed to other vehicle programs in the next few years.
Most of GM's space was devoted to its trucks – many of which will be offered with hybrid options. Another common sight: flex-fuel vehicles sporting an E85 badge. GM has committed to providing half of its fleet with a flex fuel option in the next three model years, and it appears that they're making good on this promise. Smaller, fuel efficient vehicles held center court in the GM display. If nothing else, the automaker wants you to know that you'll have plenty of fuel-efficient options in dealerships in the 2009 and 2010 model years. (You can also still get a Hummer, if that's what you want. The Hummer line also offers flex-fuel options.)
For those diehards who love a good pony car, the 2009 NAIAS doesn't disappoint. The Mustang Garage, complete with a crew from MTV's Pimp My Ride were on hand to customize the 2010 Mustang, based on design requests solicited from the audience. Visitors will also find the 2009 Shelby Mustang GT500KR. Not to be outdone, the 2010 Chevy Camaro made its presence known, as did the Dodge Challenger SRT8. (No hybrids there, though!)
Chrysler's display put a special emphasis on the company's electric vehicle program. Consumers will find many of their favorite Chrysler vehicles on a PHEV platform in the coming model years. Also in the Chrysler display was a set of Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) vehicles designed to operate as "city cars" and special purpose vehicles. When you look at them, the first thing that comes to mind is "golf cart" but this platform will take on more significance in the coming years for short-trip commuters.
Tesla and Fisker were nose-to-nose at the auto show this year, and neither vehicle can be accused of being frumpy. The Karma and the Roadster were out of reach in more ways than one for show visitors this year, but their designs are undeniably magnetically attractive, and are sure to inspire those who design vehicles for the more budget-minded auto buyers.
The NAIAS featured a handful of fuel-cell vehicles. The Honda FCV was on hand, as was the Kia Sportage FCEV. Lawrence Technological University students also had a carbon-fiber hydrogen FCV experimental vehicle sponsored by Denso. These are the ultimate concept cars. Although the FVC Clarity is in very limited production, these hydrogen-powered vehicles will remain on the automakers' wish list until the hydrogen refueling infrastructure is more readily available.
BMW was out in force with its line of Blue Hybrid vehicles. It's clear that the company plans to appeal to drivers with a higher-end budget and who are also concerned with emissions. BMW is also a leader in fuel cell vehicles, with its Hydrogen 7. Like other FCV manufacturers, the Hydrogen 7 won't take off until the proper infrastructure is in place.
The NAIAS runs through Sunday, January 25 in Detroit. You can also catch the Chicago Auto Show February 13-22 at McCormick Place. Be sure to visit Hybrid Car Chat in the coming days for more in-depth reviews of the hybrid vehicles at the 2009 NAIAS.
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