I know everyone is anxious to talk about the big “Mahler Project” that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is putting on, but before I do this, I must digress. While music is a huge interest of mine — certainly the biggest one that applies to this blog — I have many others as evidenced on the menu bar above by every other topic to the right of “MUSIC.” Every year in early January, I try to indulge two of these — gadgets and cars — in a big way by traveling first to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and then to the Detroit Auto Show (or the “North American International Auto Show” as it is more formally called). You’d assume that a trip to Sin City would be more worthwhile and interesting than one to the Motor City. This year, you’d be wrong.
The Los Angeles Auto Show (most recently held last November) is a big affair, but it’s a show largely catering to consumers. Rooms full of super-luxury brands and specialty cars kept behind plexiglass partitions seem appropriate in a land where you can valet park at a dry cleaners and velvet-roped-venues run rampant. The vibe at NAIAS is very different. Engineers wielding calipers and clipboards run around examining competitor’s vehicles, measuring gaps and taking photos of undercarriages. Exposed engine parts are everywhere, Lamborghinis are missing. And did I mention that the weather usually sucks? I’m not quite sure which brainiac decided to put the city’s biggest event of the year in January, but a whole bunch of other Detroit people decided to go along with it . . . and right there you have a microcosm of Detroit’s problems over the years.
The one thing the Detroit show has over it’s LA counterpart is a bevy of new product reveals and concept cars, and this year marked a dramatic rise in both. There was energy in Cobo Hall. The domestic automakers and their minions had swagger. European and Asian brands held their own. The weather was even mild. This was a good omen, and as it turned out, my detour to Michigan was worth it. My own personal awards to hand out:
- Best car of the show: Lexus LF-LC Concept. A stunning Lexus — not an oxymoron. Oh my goodness. This car is beautiful, inside and out. It is flamboyant yet refined. Pictures do it absolutely no justice. The LF-A super car is a magnificent piece of engineering, but there hasn’t been a Lexus that captured people’s imagination this much since the original SC 400 coupedebuted over two decades ago. The follow-on SC 430 hard-top convertible had some initial buzz, but it dissipated after a few years and did not age well. Kudos to the folks at Calty Design in Newport Beach for penning this head-turner. Even if it loses some of its more extreme swoops and edges, there is a hope and a prayer that the LF-LC evolves into the next-generation SC. Please, God, let it.
Best production car: 2013 Ford Fusion. If any single vehicle were to truly indicate that Detroit was back, this is the one. It may be a shameless copy of Jaguar and/or Aston Martin, but you’ve gotta appreciate Ford making a standard mid-sized family car look this good. It’s going to come with five engine options, including turbocharged, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid options (BTW: Ford doesn’t ever use the words “turbo” or “turbocharged,” preferring instead their branded euphamism, “EcoBoost”). The interior is similar to the Focus in design and materials and can be described as “clean” or “blah” depending on your point of view; given the exterior appeal, interior design won’t matter much, so most people won’t care about the goofy storage pass-through behind the gear shift. It comes with MyFordSync, the cool sounding if functionally frustrating electronics system. No matter. People will be drawn to this because of its sheet metal. I guarantee that Toyota and Honda are paying close attention.
- Best booth design: Lincoln. The image make-over for Ford’s luxury division has been a long and painful process. The production cars still need a lot of help, and their MKZ concept actually started spewing smoke out of a door panel (click HEREto see the video). At least their display space looked killer: sleek & modern without being stark in a Eurotrash kinda way (ahem, Audi).
A tall, fence-like wall featuring the outline of the Lincoln logo framed the entrance, and the wing-like display structure subtly mimicked the brand’s new grill design. Underneath the wing were dedicated display rooms for audio and other demonstrations. As a bonus, the models were stylish and sexy without looking plastic.
- Saddest booth: Honda. The folks that brought you the ubiquitous Civic and Accord have been in quite a funk lately. Their Japanese counterparts at Toyota have experienced more pain yet seem to be doing much more to capture people’s attention; meanwhile, Honda continues to languish with uninspired design and ho-hum advertising. Their booth seemed to reflect it — dull, no energy, nothing exciting to see. When are these guys going to wake up?
- Most disappointing revival of an old nameplate: 2013 Dodge Dart. I have a soft spot for the old Dodge Dart. My very first car was a hand-me-down ’73 Dart “Swinger,” complete with a cream-colored vinyl roof and a 318 V8. When I inherited it from my mom in the mid-80’s, I thought it was the ugliest thing ever, especially compared with the Honda Preludes and BMW 2002s that dotted my high school parking lot. It wasn’t long before I grew to love it’s retro personality and the fact that I could beat any tool with a measly four-banger off the line without breaking a sweat. It also was useful that I could comfortably seat six–including my girlfriend right next to me on the bench seat — and pack everyone’s beach stuff with ease. So when I heard that the folks at Dodge were getting the Alfa Romeo Giulietta to turn into the “new” Dart, I was anxious and optimistic. Sadly, the car they created is completely and utterly unremarkable. Any distinctiveness that the Giulietta has was sucked out by the Dodge designers when they penned this variation. When the coolest thing you have going for you is your press kit, you’ve messed up. Sigh.
- Most head-scratching concept car that may actually get sold: Chevrolet 130R. I’ll admit it — I don’t really get it. I guess Chevy thinks that there’s a market for people who want a muscle car like a Camaro, but either can’t afford it or think it’s too big — not sure, but since I don’t have the market data, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Now, this squatty execution is the one that’s supposed to do the trick? If they say so.
- Most amusingly gratuitous use of “booth babes:” (tie) Jeep and Ram. You’ve gotta hand it to the Italians — they take over a bunch of American brands, and the first, most visible change at last year’s Detroit auto show was that they installed short-skirted spokesmodels at all of their brands. This year was more of the same. Somehow, a girl wearing Christian Louboutin pumps standing in front of a Ram 1500 pick-up truck seemed to make perfect sense. The use of faux-leather in the Jeep model’s minidress clearly represented the brand’s outdoorsy image. Yup, sure. I’m not complaining, mind you . . .
Any trip to Vegas is something to look forward to, and CES always seems like the biggest party of the year. Well, almost always. Typically, business and technical matters co-mingle with socializing, schmoozing, and all manner of revelry, all fueled by “business development” budgets and corporate expense accounts. God bless America.
For whatever reason, this year was a bit of a letdown for me. The big product buzz wasn’t really that big, at least by past CES standards. You know things are relatively dull when CNET’s Best in Show award goes to a 55″ TV. Yeah, its black levels are impressive and it’s damn thin, but that’s the “Best in Show?” Yawn. Perhaps I’m a still a bit annoyed that all my favorite Las Vegas haunts — even the allegedly under-the-radar ones — were crowded beyond belief with people who were at best dull and moribund and at worst geekily obnoxious. Missing this year were some of the more colorful elements that made the people watching so amusing: the Adult Video News (AVN) Adult Entertainment Expo and AVN Awards show, usually running concurrent with CES (“the perfect marriage of silicon and silicone”, as one reporter described it), was moved this year to the following week. In the end, I have no stories to tell that come anywhere close to my Vegas trip last summer. I’m almost shocked to say that I could’ve happily skipped this part trip.