This past year has not been a good one for the auto industry. Even though a few automakers had a good year last year by-in-large most felt the big bear claw of the global economic downturn. So when I trudged my way to 2010 Washington (D.C.) Auto Show media day (as I have for the last few years) there was a feeling of emptiness in my gut. Though the 2009 show was a good show – what a difference a year makes. The events in the Auto Industry since last year’s show are enough to make anyone depressed. During the long cramped subway ride during morning rush hour, I kept thinking back to previous shows and all the fond memories. But thinking about the anticipation of this year’s show and what I was going to see, kept me wondering maybe the good times are over.
A few years back who would have thought there would be a show without Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer? Saturn and Hummer will probably return to future venues, since both have just changed ownership. However Pontiac which 22 years ago was the number three domestic brand name in sales, is gone forever.
Rewind two short years, the 2008 Washington Auto Show was a glitzy presentation with elaborate displays – including a massive indoor off-road course called “Camp Jeep” which showcased the entire “trail rated” Jeep lineup going through every imaginable off-road condition (with awestruck passengers enjoying every second of the ride around the off-road track). By 2009 the bottom had fallen out of the auto industry and the 2009 Washington Auto Show was puritan in comparison with displays that were much understated with a strong emphasis on green (environmental) technologies. Jeep Country was gone and so were most of the other elaborate displays for 2009. So you can very well imagine my uneasiness about the 2010 show.
Upon arrival to media day, the show seemed familiar – some of the uniqueness of displays from older shows could be seen and felt. With 2009 when I stepped from one automaker’s section into another, I felt as if I was on a Carmax lot walking from car to car with no real demark line between the different automakers’ sections. For this year’s show it was different. For instance when I stepped into the Ford section I felt as if I was in the fictional Land of OZ. I quickly forgot about the world’s problems and reverted back to my childhood years with my big eyes taking in all the wonderful displays. The Mustang and Taurus sections were works of art giving observers a museum type run down of features, specs, and technical innovations. There was even a large display area of Ford’s current line of engines. These types of displays were what made past shows worth the price of admission. When I left the Ford section, I wanted so badly to drive home the (412 horsepower) 5.0 liter V8 powered 2011 Mustang GT on display. Maybe that was the whole point of the presentation? Ford also showcased its new green technologies, proving that there can be a proper display balance between performance and green technology. The Ford section was one of hope; I left feeling very good times were ahead for Ford. And the recent announcement of Ford’s 1.7 billion in profits for the 2009 model year solidifies this point of view.
Chevrolet which had a wide display of its performance car lineup (starting with a base V6 Camaro and going all the way up to the 638 horsepower ZR1 Corvette), seemed a little afraid to boast its performance offerings. Chevy’s performance cars were relegated to the carpeted floor. If this had been a few years ago, a car like the mighty ZR1 Corvette would have been on a glitzy revolving platform with a beautiful glamorous model articulating through a microphone all the performance features of the car to a mesmerized audience. GM and Chevrolet’s strategy does not make sense to me, it would be like Steve Jobs releasing the new iPad at a big show and placing it on regular display with budget iPods. It is a marketing no-no. GM however did things right with the Cadillac section at the show. The displays were classy and elaborate, after spending some time in the Cadillac area I was convinced it was one of the best Cadillac displays I have seen in a long time. GM and Chevrolet may have been taking a cue from Toyota and Honda which had plain but very functional displays. Toyota and Honda left the more elaborate displays for their upscale brands. Chrysler was also understated compared to previous years. There were only two big revolving platforms in the combined Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep section; one platform had a pair of Fiat 500s and the other showcased a beautiful bright yellow 2010 Dodge Challenger R/T.
Nissan had its own “fortress city” type display. It was a modern rendition of a fortified city. For Nissan fans it was a little bit of automobile nirvana. The Nissan models were lined up in this section as if they were ready for a race with the chic black GT-R at the front of the pack.
Lexus had a surprising display; a Design Project 2010 IS 350C which was a VIP Auto Salon and JTuned.com joint effort. The purpose of the project according to Lexus was to “assist in brand awareness by creating a realistic image vehicle in which end consumers can relate to.” The IS 350C’s exterior was painted in Matador Red which was a BASF DC5775 ultra flat clear coat paint. The ultra flat paint, and the aftermarket performance tweaks made the car look as if it was grabbed right off a race track and put on display. Interesting to note, a coordinator who helped setup the Lexus display told me when the ultra flat paint was wet the day before the liquid on the paint caused the paint to turn shiny temporarily. I don’t know if the guy was pulling my leg or giving me some good inside scoop.
Hyundai was the real surprise of the show wandering over to this section had me almost believing I was in the BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus section. It is hard to believe that this is the same automaker that 25 years ago entered into the U.S. market with only a Yugo competitor, has done so well in recent years and is now even gunning for the best in the luxury car market with the Hyundai Equus. With strong rumors of Hyundai producing a modern rendition of the first generation 4×4 Ford Bronco to compete with the Jeep Wrangler and its current nipping at the heels of the luxury car giants, Hyundai is most surely giving the execs at the other big automakers some sleepless nights. Hint to Hyundai: a rear-wheel drive V8 powered performance (two-door) sports car would round off your lineup perfectly.
As for the exotics, there was a nice selection of super performance and luxury cars. Everything from Bentleys to Aston Martins was on display. Audi had on display a bright red 2011 R8 convertible. I could have spent all day looking at the car inspecting every line and curve, it is such a work of art. Same could be said about the beautiful silver 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLA AMG Gullwing which was the centerpiece of the Mercedes Benz section.
Also different in this year’s show was a large area dedicated to “green” cars and technologies. Fittingly the carpet in this area was a bright green color in case anyone forgot the purpose of the section. In this section was the much touted Nissan Leaf which goes on sale later in the year. The Leaf is an innovative fully battery powered car with a range of around 100 miles between charging. BMW also showcased here its battery powered test car which is based on the 1 Series platform. This car has a range (in miles) between charging similar to the Leaf.
One of the big highlights of the show for me was the chance to drive a new 2010 Taurus SHO. The Ford reps were kind enough to let me take one for a spin on the potholed D.C. streets. Having been impressed with the new Taurus I have been anticipating a test drive of the new SHO. Also having been dazzled by past offerings of the SHO, I had high expectations of the new offering. Anyone who has ever lived or traveled to D.C. knows this is a great real world driving experience with lots of traffic and plenty of rough roads. And for a performance car it is an unfair test, since performance cars usually are more comfortable on smooth roads with no traffic. But if the SHO passed this tough test, it would prove how well rounded a performance car it is. Zipping around on the D.C. streets in automatic transmission mode and later paddle shifter controlled manual mode was a fun experience. The rough potholed streets turned out to be no match for the SHO; it handled the rough terrain like a real pro as it did the tight 90 degree turns. To say the SHO knocked my socks off is an understatement. It is the perfect all around performance sedan. It had just about every amenity you could imagine from front seat massagers to a voice activated navigation system that could tell you where to buy the cheapest gas and where to fill the belly with your favorite kind of food. The SHO is docile when idling; it is quiet and civilized. If you drive around town lightly touching the accelerator pedal; you never would realize a monster lurked under the hood. However mash the pedal down to the floor and the 365 horsepower twin turbo V6 comes alive with a rush of instant power to the (all-wheel drive) drivetrain. The power is smooth all the way to red line, not to mention turbo lag is completely absent. The EcoBoost 3.5 liter twin turbo V6 made the SHO feel like Chrysler’s powerful 5.7 liter Hemi V8 was under the hood. Only the V6 sound and the V6 gas mileage were tip-offs it was only a V6.
Ford reps also allowed me an opportunity to test their new automated parking system called “Active Park Assist” on the 2010 Lincoln MKT. With this system the computer finds the parallel parking spot – the driver only controls the shifting from “Drive” to “Reverse” and the accelerator and brake. The steering is controlled by the computer. Ford calls this steering – Electric Power Assisted Steering (EPAS). I put the “Active Park Assist” system (which uses an ultrasonic sensing system) to the test in a tight D.C. parallel parking spot and it worked flawlessly. The computer discovered the spot quickly and it moved the steering wheel with precise perfection. The net result was an ultra quick perfect parallel park in a very tight spot; the passerby observers probably thought I was the Mario Andretti of parking.
After last year’s “plain Jane” green show, this year was a pleasant surprise and a move back to the fun shows of yesteryear. Hopefully this show is a foreshadowing of good times ahead for the auto industry. My subway ride home was full of hope; I had an enjoyable day which had turned out to be much more promising than the anxious subway ride earlier that day first led me to believe.
Written and photographic contents in this article – © 2010 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved