In freezing Detroit, carmakers are gearing up for the market’s big thaw
New concepts and old reliables were on show at the North American International Auto Show in the Motor City
Singer Kelly Rowland performs next to the new Mercedes-Benz 2015 C-Class during a media preview on the eve of the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph: Joshua Lott/Reuters
The Ford F-150 pickup truck is unveiled during the the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The Porsche AG 911 Targa at the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
There has to be some reason for holding the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in the depths of a Michigan winter. The post-apocalyptic wasteland of downtown Detroit doesn’t look good in the best of weather, and the thousands of journalists and car industry executives who came to the city for the show this week saw it at its worst, gripped by the polar vortex that has frozen much of the US.
Detroit makes a great barometer. When the car industry was in freefall, the mood at the Detroit show was even bleaker than the weather. But this year the exhibitors at least were sunny again, with sales up in many markets and a warm reception likely for the new cars making their debut in “The D”.
The US, now only the world’s second-largest car market after China, saw car and pick-up truck sales rise again to 15.6 million, up 7.6 per cent, though still some way short of its pre-crash peak. Western Europe continued its long slump, with a fall of 2 per cent to 11.5 million sales, to which Ireland’s 6.6 per cent fall to 74,303 cars contributed. But strong growth in the UK (up 10 per cent) has prompted some analysts to believe that Western European car sales might be back in modest growth this year.
And there were plenty of new cars and concepts at Detroit to encourage us. We won’t be able to buy the most significant, the Ford F150 pick-up truck, which was launched in a rumoured $10 million (€73m) production so lavish it had to be held at a nearby sports arena. The F150 is comfortably America’s biggest selling vehicle with 763,000 sold last year, nearly 300,000 more than its nearest rival and enough to stretch from Los Angeles to New York if parked bumper to bumper.
But the number of carmakers choosing Detroit for the debut of major global models indicated both their own confidence, and their renewed confidence in the US market. The new Mercedes C-class was probably the single most significant. Available in Europe from March, the junior exec saloon and estate gets exterior styling that apes the S-class limo, and a swoopy new interior that makes good on its promise to leap two generations at once. BMW showed its renamed and redesigned 2-series small coupe that replaces the 1-series two-doors, and the highest performance M3 and M4 versions of its C-class-rivalling 3-series saloon and 4-series coupe.
Honda showed the latest generation of its clever, good-looking Jazz small hatchback. There was a genuine surprise from Japan in the Toyota FT1 concept car, which hints strongly at a bigger, rear-drive coupe to complement its well-received GT86 sports car, and might revive the famous Supra name. And Subaru revealed a sharky-looking new high-performance, all-wheel drive, turbocharged WRX STi saloon.
Porsche revealed a Targa version of its 911 sports car. Porsche CEO Matthias Muller described the folding glass hard-top mechanism as “engineering ballet”, and it got a genuine gasp from the crowd when he first got in to demonstrate. And of the concept cars, those from Audi and Volvo were the most significant, hinting strongly at the shape of the new Audi TT sports car and Volvo XC90 seven-seat SUV, respectively.
It has been some years since the Detroit show has seen such activity, with the warmer and more glamorous shows in Los Angeles and New York stealing some of its thunder. But the Detroit Big Three remain committed to their home-town auto show, and as they exit bankruptcy and see their fortunes continue to stabilise, the show’s immediate future looks secure. GM, Ford and Chrysler managed to maintain or slightly increase their market share in the US, and Fiat has just completed its takeover of Chrysler.
The city itself has slipped into bankruptcy since the last show and there are few visible signs of improvement in its fortunes to match those of its biggest companies. The sidewalks are still eerily deserted and whole city blocks are still slowly being reclaimed by nature.
But there are a few green shoots; for instance, innovative watch brand Shinola has established a factory downtown, retraining former car assembly workers, among others, as watchmakers. One young couple I spoke to said that there are so many start-ups in the cheap office space downtown that what remains of the area’s liveable housing stock is all taken and rents are rising in a city where once you literally couldn’t give houses away.
Shifting the motor show to summer might encourage a few more visitors to join them.