Ten Burning Questions For The Detroit Auto Show

No Daily Kanban staff were required to set foot in Detroit's Cobo Center during the making of this report.

No Daily Kanban staff were required to set foot in Detroit’s Cobo Center during the making of this report.

10: Has it become any better to cover? Are the WiFi hotspots still overloaded? Does your phone still switch to an international roaming plan if you stand in the wrong corner of Cobo? Has the free everything been great? Is the weather halfway decent? Just kidding, everyone knows the answer to those questions. And since each of these ten “questions” is really more of a series of questions, let’s just get on with it, shall we?

9: Is Sergio going to crush Canada? Having purchased Chrysler with more audacity than cash, Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has been granted authorization for a new Three Year Plan, reports Reuters’ Bernie Woodall. But caught between the US and Italy and facing brutal competition, it seems that Marchionne is releasing the pressure of the two highly political obligations on Canada. In a curt blast, Marchionne put Canada’s long-successful minivan plants on notice: “I’ve got an issue with the environment and the conditions that support the investment are adequate to ensure proper return on our capital. That includes labour, that includes everything else.” Will Canada’s government and unions bow down to what is still a top-selling and -producing automaker in their country, or will Fiat-Chrysler pull out, becoming the second bailed-out automaker to close a plant in Canada? Many have sat down at the negotiating table with Sergio Marchionne, and few have come out looking like winners.

8: How does the timid redesign of a pickup that is isn’t exactly setting the sales charts on fire but is setting itself on fire, win North American Truck Of The Year? Oh right, because it came out this year. GM’s own dealers aren’t happy with the new Silverado, a vehicle that is supposed to deliver enormous profits, but as far as NATOTY voters are concerned GM’s new trucks were the politic pick. Which nicely illustrates the extent to which the auto media’ and industry’s bizarre internal politics keep the whole affair blissfully unmoored from basic reality: never mind the engine fires, there’s a way of doing these things, kid. But can you expect anything less than extreme cognitive dissonance from an experience that asks “the automotive press” (to use a personal example from a past NAIAS) to behold a homeless person dancing in the depths of intoxication outside the swanky hotel bar where you’re drinking free mid-shelf on Jaguar’s dime?  You’re not supposed to call it the “Detroit Auto Show” anymore, but that’s exactly what the North American International Auto Show is…

7: Does Volkswagen understand the US market yet? Preview concepts of the new 7-passenger CUV, likely destined for its Chattanooga, TN plant, suggest that Ze Germans are finally cottoning on to the American love of things large, bluff and capable. On the other hand, the Dune “Baja Bug” concept only highlights how played-out the New Beetle has become and what a drag it has become on the brand. Here’s an interesting comparison: the Subaru Crosstrek XV whooped the Beetle in US sales last year, 53,741 to to 43,134. The thing is, the Crosstrek plays perfectly to the core of Subaru’s market (ask the kid who lives in Portland, OR how he knows) whereas the Beetle highlights the fact that VW has been clutching to a nearly 20 year-old  reboot of a fabled but long-gone hit car for a while now. That’s not a substitute for a real brand, and it’s at the heart of what’s preventing VW from becoming the formidable US-market presence it wants to be.

6: Why must BMW only sell the two most-niche versions of its 1 Series in the US? BMW regularly invokes the heritage of the fabled 2002 in its marketing efforts, but neither the X1 nor the new M235i shown in Detroit indicates that any such vehicle is in the works for the US. I’m sure BMW’s defenders would argue that “it’s the profits, stupid,” and that the modern 2002 is a leased 3 Series… but what kind of world is that?

5: Can I please have a Nissan IDx now? And since BMW won’t make a neo-2002, could Nissan please make a four-door neo-Datsun 510 as well? Not because I am willing to personally commit to buying one, but because it’s the right thing to do. The 510’s sheer bang-for-buck made it an accessible entry point for driving fun and motorsport for decades, creating a cult that nurtured not just the brand but automotive enthusiasm as a whole. In light of worries about falling interest in cars among the youth of developed markets, it’s important to remember that an investment in fun, livable and attainable cars is an investment in the industry’s long-term future.

4: Will any automaker actually bring a lifted Shooting Brake-style car to market? Audi and Volvo have joined Subaru to make sporty-yet-lifted three-door concepts a trend, with the Detroit debuts of the Allroad Shooting Brake and Concept XC Coupe. But no automaker has built a legitimate Shooting Brake since the BMW Z3 Coupe gave the bodystyle a bad (sales) name around the turn of the Millenium. Are the tides turning, indicating a return to an era of Nomads, Scimitars and various other sportwagons, or is this just a way to whip up the online auto enthusiast hivemind? Given the ferocious competition in automotive design, this trend could have real legs.

3: What’s going to be the new knock on Toyota, now that it seems so determined to fight the perception that it is “not a vanilla company anymore,” as CALTY designer William Chergosky told Jalopnik’s Patrick George while describing the new “daring” FT-1 sportscar concept? Having recently spent a few hours driving a 2012 Corolla, I have a new appreciation for how necessary Toyota’s upgrades to the more recent Corolla’s aesthetics were. If the new Supra looks anything like the FT-1’s “Japanese Viper” styling and drives anything like a GT86 with more power, Toyota will have done much to beat back the hordes of  “beige kills”-chanting online enthusiasts. But will Toyota’s stylish new duds win it new share in the US, or will it simply allow the well-established brand to keep up with the Korean upstarts and resurgent American firms?

2: How are people reacting to the idea of aluminum pickup trucks? The auto world has been discussing the question abstractly for some time, but the public begins to see the first aluminum-bodied full-size pickups destined for the US market, their reactions could be telling. Given how fast other technologies are changing, innovation in this hidebound, profit-harvesting segment could well be greeted with open arms. Provided, of course, that it doesn’t light itself on fire or something.

1: Is rear seat experience even considered anymore in the design process for new midsized sedans? Amidst the rave reviews of the new Chrysler 200’s styling came a few worrying reports: TTAC’s Derek Kreindler summed up the concern in a tweet: “Chrysler 200 is small in the back. I’m 5’10 and headroom is cutting it close.” With a styling arms race under way in the mid-size sedan segment, it’s not surprising that rear seat room and view is being lost in the rush to create flowing rooflines and tight greenhouses. But considering GM’s recent trouble with a lack of rear seatroom in its 2013 Malibu, it’s pretty clear that D-segment buyers still want those back seats to be more than an afterthought. But then, with Nissan getting raves for its own looks-over-backseat Sports Sedan Concept, it’s not clear automakers will be able to balance the demand for sleek styling with the need for acceptable packaging.