Yesterday, I joined my friends Andrew and Steve on our annual pilgrimage to the Detroit Auto Show.

If you’ve never been there, this show is usually quite high on the glitz. Many manufacturers’ displays include floor-to-ceiling video displays, multiple floors with sweeping staircases, private owners-only lounges, and high-tech interactive kiosks.

This year, things were toned down a bit, but much of the old razzle-dazzle remained.

Here are some thoughts.

  • The crowds were much lighter than usual. Good for visitors, probably not so good for exhibitors. In past years there have been some extremely uncomfortable moments as crowds packed around certain car displays. Not this year.
  • There are two levels in Cobo Hall, where the show is held. The big name vendors are on the main floor. The lower level is usually filled with smaller manufacturers and other car-related organizations. This year some of those folks were on the main floor, and many others seem to have stayed home. Almost the entire lower level was cleverly taken up by a hybrid car demo track.
  • This demo track was pretty interesting. Most of the cars on it were large hybrid SUVs from US manufacturers. Even though there were probably a dozen trucks moving around this track, the room was eerily silent since most of the time the vehicles were able to run on battery-power alone. We got a ride in a Hybrid Chrysler Aspen. The driver was very friendly and informative. It turns out the hybrid system on this SUV is the same one that GM uses on their SUVs like the Tahoe. It’s apparently based on designs developed for city buses and nets about a 20% increase in fuel economy — something like 24 MPG. The thing we couldn’t believe was that this very generic SUV lists for over $50,000. Crazy.
  • After being out in the lobby and on the lower level the last few years, the Chinese did finally invade the main floor. BYD and Brilliance were right there between GM and Ford. Their cars look much like Hyundai’s did about 10 years ago: Generic, but unobjectionable. Probably totally unreliable. But if these companies make the kind of progress that the Koreans have, everyone else better watch out. Hyundai’s new full-size Genesis sedan won North American Car of the year this week. It appears to be a very solid competitor to the Lexus LS at about a 25% discount. Seems like good timing for Hyundai to come out with something like this.
  • As you’ve probably heard, several major vendors were not at the show at all: Nissan, Infiniti, Porsche, Ferrari. This seems pretty weird, because not only is this a big national auto show, it’s also Detroit’s local auto show. I’m certain that the local Detroit Nissan and Porsche dealers are very unhappy with the corporate decision on this.
  • While Ford’s car display was basically the same fancy one they had last year, both GM and Chrysler opted for a much more toned down presence. Chrysler in particular had roughly the same kind of display that they do in Cleveland. Cars on carpet. It’s fine, but quite a come down from the Jeep obstacle course and the waterfall that spells out words.
  • But I’d have to say that most of the other manufacturers had roughly the same kinds of stands that they usually do. Some, like Lamborghini’s, were even nicer.
  • There were many, many electric cars, including a much bigger presence for all-electric manufacturers Fisker and Tesla. Pretty much every manufacturer had at least one hybrid, and many had plug-in electric or even fuel-cell based cars. Now that fuel prices have dropped temporarily, I’m wondering how many of these products will get to market over the next year or two. I hope most of them do.
  • The most disappointing car was Ford’s new Taurus. The engineering might be good, but the exterior design is an ugly mishmash of half-baked ideas. I can’t imagine why Ford thinks they can compete with this kind of design against the Avalon, for example. Maybe on price alone? Not a great plan if you’re trying to keep your company out of bankruptcy. And another thing I’m wondering about: Ford’s made this big statement that they are going to start designing and selling all their cars world-wide. There is no way this philosophy has floated down to the Taurus. It’s a big, unattractive, traditional American car. I’d be shocked if they would even think of selling this thing outside of the US and Canada.
  • Of the cars I’m actually likely to buy, Honda’s were the most interesting. Both the 2009 Fit and the newly introduced “Prius Killer” Insight (on sale later this spring) are definitely on the short list should one of our old cars die.

All in all, despite the economic downturn and associated cost-cutting, this show is well worth the trip. Looking forward to next year’s show.


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