I remember getting into the Hummer H2, as a kid at the Chicago Auto Show. I remember how unbelievably huge it felt. I remember climbing into the frankly enormous backseat, feeling like I was back at recess on the jungle gym. I remember walking around with my dad, joined off-and-on throughout the years by my uncle.
I don’t remember the exact moment I wanted to go to the auto show more than my them. Work, and the exhaustion that followed, consumed more and more of my dad’s energy and time as he and I got older. Though it was fun, the last few years, to bring my mom with; a chance to sit in cars we’d never be able to afford.
I remember the excitement as that weekend in February drew near. Skipping down the hallways of McCormick Place, hopping up and down on the escalators.
I felt that same kind of elation when I moved to the Metro Detroit area a few years ago. When January came, I’d finally be able to walk around the biggest, most important car show in America. I’d even be able to race and talk with the people who wrote the articles I’d pored over in my spare (and class) time.
I didn’t really walk into Cobo Center with that same kind of feeling this year. Oh, getting a chance to talk with Patrick George, Kurt Bradley, and (briefly) David Tracy during Sketchbattle was incredible. However, at first NAIAS seemed rather flat (especially considering some of the things shown in Chicago).
But I realized something, as I wandered around. As a kid, just walking amongst the shining lights and glistening metal was enough to wow me. Some of the best parts, though, have to be discovered.
Without further ado, I present my rambling meditations on NAIAS 2018.
Moments of Zaniness, Engineer Porn, and Eye Candy
The Fiat 500 is Aging Well
Fiat hasn’t really done any major visual refreshes of the 500's exterior or interior—though the news of giving every 500 a turbo is welcome from a performance standpoint—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Abarth may not be as timeless as the 500 of the 50s, but there’s nothing about its design that really screams ‘dated’ at me.
Hopefully that doesn’t mean FCA will let it languish for too long and holy cow I can’t finish that sentence without laughing.
Give Me (Real) Wood
Like I said, one of the funnest parts of attending an auto show is getting seat time in models you’d never be able to afford. Over the years, I’ve generated a list of my favorite interior features.
Top on that list is wood trim that actually feels like wood. By that, I mean wood that hasn’t been polished and sanded down to a flat surface. Some of the wood trim in Audi’s and BMW’s, for instance, is so smooth it actually feels like a fake applique.
I’m not saying automakers should just cut up some two-by-fours and stick ‘em in the car. Wood trim has to be lacquered/oiled, and sanded down, but only to a degree. Most of my apartment furniture is mid-century modern, and you can feel the grain of the wood when run your hand down it. It’s beautiful to look at, and the tactile sensation gives it a feeling of solidity and authenticity.
Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Genesis, and Chrysler were some of the standouts in this regard. Yes, the Chrysler 300C is in a slightly different price-bracket than an Audi A5, say, but to me, that real-grain wood trim makes the former’s interior feel more upscale than the latter’s.
The Alfa Romeo Giulia is a Nice Place to Sit
Speaking of Alfa, I finally got a chance to sit in both the Giulia and the Stelvio, and wow, Alfa nailed the interior quality. Nothing felt loose or unnecessarily cheap. It helped that the non-Quadrofoglio Giulia I sat in wasn’t a morose ocean of black. I probably wouldn’t ever spec a car with white leather, but it and the light wood trim (with real grain!) helped class and brighten the Giulia up significantly. Also, while the back seats weren’t that roomy, I didn’t feel cramped.
The Stelvio I sat in, sadly, had an all-black interior, but at least the material and seat quality felt right on the money for its price point.
But the red paint is glorious.
Guys, Can We Actually Sit in the Cars? Guys?
Look, auto reps, I get it. Dumbasses steal shifter knobs, and your cars as a whole are expensive. But can you please let us unwashed proles forget our troubles for like, five minutes, and sit inside a BMW 7-series?
BMW and Mercedes were particularly bad at this, BMW more so than Mercedes. Last year I was able to sit inside a G-wagon; not this year. But that was the only Merc I couldn’t sit in.
There was also the 1983 280 GE rally car, which won the Paris-Dakar in the car class. I was glad I couldn’t sit in it, lest I disturb the historic sand and dust (no sarcasm).
BMW had most of their model range out on the floor, but all the good stuff was locked up tighter than Tide Pods. I was able to get some seat time, luckily, in what appeared to be a nicely equipped 5-series plug-in hybrid. Once there, I sadly came to the conclusion that BMW has gone a bit down-hill over the years.
Nice stitching, cool color, but the leather didn’t seem worth the price tag.
Lincoln Has the Best Seats in the House
Lexus, Buick, Lincoln, Audi, Acura, Infiniti, Alfa Romeo, BMW, Mercedes, Genesis, Cadillac: I sat in at least one of each company’s cars. Here they are, ranked from most to least comfy:
- Lincoln Continental
- Acura TLX
- Genesis G80 & Mercedes-Benz E400
- Cadillac CTS-V
- Alfa Romeo Giulia & Buick Lacrosse
- Buick Regal & Infiniti
- Lexus & BMW 5-series
- Audi TT RS & A4
What makes the Lincoln Continental stand head-and-shoulders above a lot of other luxury cars in regards to its seats, isn’t just the quality of the leather or the way the seat cushioning cradles you, but also how damn configurable your seating position is. The BMW M5 may have a bajillion transmission, steering, and traction control settings, but the Continental has just as many ways to position your seat. You can even individually adjust the support for your left and right hamstrings—I don’t think any other automaker offers that, or at least none that were at NAIAS. Forget about in-car aroma diffusers, give me more butt-cheek comfort controls.
I was really surprised as to how comfortable the CTS-V’s seats were. Supportive in all the right areas, and almost ridiculously grippy. It’s like the Recaros you get in a Fiesta ST went to a ridiculously expensive finishing school, and realized you could be a good street fighter and know how to function in high-class society.
I was equally surprised at how little I enjoyed the Audi interiors. Yes, the Bauhaus cliche is alive and well, but sitting in the A4 and TT RS was kinda boring. There is such a thing as too simple, too uncluttered. The materials aren’t low-quality, but they don’t invite me to trail my fingers over them.
I recently watched the Jay Leno’s Garage videos where he talks about his Mercedes 280SE and his 600—those interiors were simple, but they had amazing details that didn’t distract from the functionality. The TT RS and A4 removed too many details. Also, the seats were not as comfortable as I would’ve thought. The sporty TT RS can be forgiven, but the base A4's seats were just as uncomfortable. The A4's cloth holds you tight, though.
China Makes a Perfectly Acceptable Car
I remember sitting in some Chinese cars in NAIAS 2016, and being distinctly not impressed. The interior materials felt chintzy, as did the rest of the car. As a matter of fact, I think the SUV I sat in was broken in several places.
Chinese cars, even a few years ago, still felt a little like Hyundai did in the 90s: cheap, and that’s about it. That isn’t the case anymore.
GAC Motor brought their entire model range to NAIAS. Taking a few minutes to sit in both the entry-luxury GA6 and the more luxurious GS8 SUV (both of which are apparently branded Trumpchi in China), it was immediately apparent that Chinese cars are no longer something to joke about.
Nothing about the interior felt uncharacteristically budget. There were no broken buttons or cracked grab handles. The GS8's seats were actually roughly as comfy as the Genesis’. There wasn’t anything that blew me out of the water, but as I said about the Hyundai Sonata, that’s probably intentional.
That being said, the interior did have one quirk: the cover for the cupholders slides so far back, you have to open the center console in order to slide it back out again. But it’s a minor gripe.
Although GAC had a few interesting concepts on stage, it’s clear that the company just wants to make an inoffensive, day-to-day car. Nothing fancy, no sporty pretensions. Jason Torchinsky will probably do a Meh Car Monday about the GA6 someday. And that’s perfectly alright for a company with no presence in the US market.
This is a solid approach for a new automaker on the scene. I’m interested to see what will happen next.
Toyota Watches eX-Driver, Too
Back in 2000, a little OVA named eX-Driver debuted. It featured electric cars that drove themselves, would park in specially-designated self-charging stations, and communicate with passengers; the car’s AI would even make restaurant reservations for you. It’s an amazingly prescient anime. Granted, your new car may have an Internet connection, but it can’t reserve seats at Spago via the infotainment screen quite yet, let alone hold a conversation with you.
Seems like there are some otaku in Toyota’s engineering staff, though.
Toyota had several concept vehicles on display. Two were cars, and one was an electric scooter. These were part of the Concept-i family. And yes, the scooter really is called the Concept-i Walk.
The letter i (three guesses as to why that was used) is used as a homophone for the Japanese character ai, which means “beloved” or “loved”, and the goal of these concepts is to demonstrate the eponymous software which links them together. The Concept-i software gathers information about the driver: their habits, likes & dislikes, how they perceive the road, even how they display their emotions. All the things that ‘moves one’s heart’ will be collected and analyzed in order to make the Concept-i vehicle become an aisha, or “car that is loved.” A ‘member of the family’, as Toyota puts it.
To be sure, Toyota didn’t say anything about how the data was going to be collected, and it’s clear that the physical concepts are just vehicles (pun sadly intended) for software development, and nowhere close to production viability. Still, Toyota’s basically started down the road of making an AI car.
All this means is we better start stockpiling Lotus Europa’s, Caterham & Lotus Sevens, and any Lancia Stratos’ we can find (modern replica or otherwise).
Ford Makes Me Sad...
The FiST will die in the US this year. As a pocket rocket enthusiast, I’m already in mourning. Sno-nuts out for the Fiesta.
The Edge ST is a thing that is happening. The FiST will die, and this will take its place. An excellent, zippy hot hatch that’s the closest thing to a modern MkI GTI on US shores, is being replaced by a stiffened-up crossover. I’d smack my head on my desk, but I don’t want to give the Edge ST the satisfaction.
The EcoSport is another thing which is occurring. I don’t get why. If I wanted a small, sporty car, I’d buy a
Fiesta ST Fiat 500 Abarth.
Dan Gurney, one of the greatest American motorsports heroes, passed away before NAIAS. Added on to the Ford GT, already resplendent in Gurney red-and-white, was an additional tribute to one of racing’s guiding lights, now sadly extinguished. RIP sir, may the angels spray champagne in your honor.
I may not want, understand, or want to understand the EcoSport, but its trunk door opens sideways and made me giggle like I was eight years old. So it gets a pass, for now.
I re-watched Bullitt for the Jalopnik Movie Club, but regardless of my movie opinion, seeing the original Bullitt Mustang in all its rusty, patina-d glory, parked next to the brand new 2019 Bullitt Mustang was a highlight of the show.
It was made even cooler by the fact that the Chicagoland Petrolheads & Car Spotters Group, a Facebook group I joined back when I lived there, helped break the story on the Bullitt back in December.
While the latest Mustang’s styling is just a bit more complicated than the original’s, the gorgeous green color, blacked-out trim, and almost complete de-badging—the only one left is a sweet bulls-eye insignia—make Bullitt 4.0 a worthy successor. It almost makes up for the Edge ST. Almost.
Lexus Catches the Eye
If you’d told eight-year-old Scouting For Zen that one day, Lexus would be making some of the most visually-arresting cars in the mainstream market, he’d laugh in your face. Well, he’d probably run and tell his mom that some strange adult was talking to him, but you get the point. Love or hate the grille, Lexus’ styling has definitely moved from ‘vanilla yawn’ to ‘traffic-accident inducing.’ At NAIAS, they went even further.
It’s easy to dismiss the effort Lexus put into making their new Structural Blue paint. But should we really mock the company for putting this much effort into creating something so utterly gorgeous?
We appreciate ruthless devotion to quality and detail, a la the Mercedes-Benz 600 Grosser and Singer 911. And having worked for some time in automotive coatings, I have a deep appreciation for the sheer amount of work that goes into creating new paint colors, especially ones as rich as this.
Admittedly, I’m a sucker for blue paint. I didn’t have a specific dream car in high school, but I knew I wanted it to be painted cobalt blue. But my 10AE NB’s got nothing on this. This might just be the perfect shade for the Lexus LC, with the way the lines of the lights and body flow. It’s simply beautiful.
‘Beautiful’ wasn’t the word on my lips when I saw the LF-1 Limitless Concept; and this is coming from a fan of the grille.
At the show, it was just too much. And after I saw Motor Trend’s cover story featuring the concept, the sense of awkwardness didn’t really go away. But after going through my photos, something clicked.
It’s the details. The way the head- and tail-lights flow so crisply, the warm metallic shade of the body (which took several months to develop), the amazing interior. And the more you pay attention to the details, the more the grille just sort of...works. That’s most likely because this is the first car that was designed with the spindle grille fully integrated into the overall styling language. In fact, the Calty design team took a month to redesign the grille so it would better flow with the headlights and hood.
That team had a year to sweat these details, and it shows. Not just with the beautiful copper-rose gold coloring and grille tweaks, but also in the fact that the LF-1 Limitless was fully designed with production in mind as a flagship crossover. It rides on the existing GA-L platform, for instance, and the door latch mechanisms are borrowed from the LC. Those Michelins? Production-spec, as are the seat controls. Take away the side-view cameras and make some minor center console mods, and this could be on sale as soon as 2021.
It’s one thing to see cars like this on a pedestal, safe from prying eyes and hands. It’s quite another to think we could see prowling around the city streets some day soon.
Honda Brought Back my Inner Child
Lexus was an unexpected treat for the eyes. But Honda was a treat for the soul. Every automaker has a spiel, but Honda’s was the only one that I left genuinely excited. The way I did back in Chicago.
But first, I have a confession to make. I’ve scoffed at it, I’ve resisted it, but in the end, I was too weak. Honda just knew their audience too well.
They were giving out fidget spinners.
I’m a man-child. I’m sorry. I regret nothing.
At least you had to work for them. Honda had set up several stations around their vehicle area, with anyone interested getting an NFC band at the first. Every time you went to a station, you’d scan the band, and at the end, get a spinner. It was a simple, effective way at getting people interested in the brand’s developments. It helped that the stations were really well designed. The first was a general information stand, but the second was centered around the new Accord.
Each person put on a pair of augmented reality goggles, which launched a presentation that physically led you around and inside of the car. Looking around, you could see floating displays describing the evolution of the Accord, as well as performance figures and info about the newest features. One of the best things about the interior is how Honda’s simplified the center display. They need to get that design into the Acura range ASAP.
Being able, as a consumer, to walk around the car and sit in the seats is something that every automaker should incorporate into their presentations. Adding AR was just frosting on the cake. We’re still not quite at Tony Stark-levels of manipulation, but the sheer ability to put on a pair of glasses and see a whole ‘nother side of the world is something I, and probably many other people my age, dreamt about as a little kid. The ability to feel like you’re discovering something on your own cannot be over-emphasized.
The third station was right around the new Insight concept, and involved shooting smoke rings at an electronic display. As a student of science, it was fun. As someone channeling his inner eight-year-old, it was fun and cool. You couldn’t help but smile when the machine whooshed out that wafting ring, regardless of your age.
I kept smiling when I saw the enthusiast crowd circling the Civic Type R.
Cameras were clicking all over it: inside, outside, even into the engine bay (they asked permission first). I’m going to have a deeper dive into the Type R’s styling soon, but for now, I’d just like to say that it brought me back to Chicago in winter 2005, a few months after I’d seen 2 Fast 2 Furious in theaters.
Honda got people excited about cars. That’s what auto shows are supposed to be about. It felt good to be reminded of that.