x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

If they build it, customers will come - and buy

The problem with auto shows is that car makers first tease us with the cars they should build and then show us the cars they will build.

The problem with auto shows is that car makers first tease us with the cars they should build and then show us the cars they will build. Thus, at the latest Los Angeles Auto Show, Cadillac proudly presented its latest in a long line of large luxury saloons geared to its traditional, (though now not nearly as) geriatric audience. Beautifully rendered inside, the XTS' exterior is just a tad somnolent, its silhouette a half-hearted attempt at the four-door coupé motif that's sweeping the auto industry.

It might have left one wondering if Cadillac's angular and once radical Art & Science styling has run its course were it not for the concept car display not 15 metres from the XTS podium. There you would find the Ciel, a massive boat of a car - a roadster no less - that looks like a cross between a CTS and one of those gorgeous, curvy wooden lake runners that made boating in the Gatsby era seem so glamorous. Of course, it won't be produced; too expensive, too radical, say the beancounters. We'd have to build a completely new platform, complain the engineers. There's no consumer demand for such a car, say the marketing mavens.

It all sounds like pathetic weaselling to me. The same marketing mavens are constantly reminding us that Cadillac was once "The Standard of the World" and that their biggest desire is to see it return to its deserved former glory. Yet, if the company truly wants to return to whence it came, it's going to need a flagship to sit atop its line-up like royalty upon a throne, something the XTS or even a "V" version of the CTS can't even begin to pull off.

Infiniti's contribution to the LA show seems equally timid. As phenomenally luxurious as its new JX seven-passenger luxury crossover is inside, the exterior is fairly conventional save a for a couple of "crescent" shaped curves in the rear roofline, and a front grille derived, say the company's cravat-wearing designers, from the Essence sports coupé initially launched at the 2009 Geneva motor show. The problem is that the Essence is, by some margin, the most gorgeous shape ever penned by anyone even remotely associated with Nissan. It must be frustrating for Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan's vice-president of design, to be constantly fielding questions on when the Essence is going to be put into production, rather than answering queries regarding the new JX, which is being produced.

Even Land Rover got in on the timorousness. Unveiling the DC100 ("D" is for Defender, "C" is for concept and "100 for its wheelbase), the company's global brand director, John Edwards, explained the DC100's raison d'être as testing North America's desire for a return of the Defender, which hasn't been sold in the US since 1997.

"We are here in Los Angeles to showcase our DC100 and DC100 Sport concepts and to start to actively explore the possibility of bringing the future Defender to North America," says Edwards, which is really corporate speak for, shades of Sally Field, "do you like us? Do you really like us?"

In fact, the DC100 is so unanimously attractive to both sexes that Land Rover should put it into production as soon as possible as a replacement for the uninspired LR2. The fairer sex will love its soft curves, especially in its baby blue LA auto show livery, while we of the XY chromosome will revel in its off-road bona fides. So, a note to Mr Edwards - no need for vacillation; the DC100 is ready for prime time as is.

At least a few car makers get the message. Jaguar, for instance, lists the breathtakingly beautiful CX-16 as a "production-ready concept" which, again, is corporate speak for "the drivetrain may change, but the basic shape shall remain". Oh, a cynic might postulate that Jaguar, its sales remaining basement-bound despite a new XJ, is less risk adverse because sales are so lowly. But the reason matters not: the CX-16 will get produced and that is cause enough for celebration.

Even Subaru gets the message that any shape worth penning is also worth producing, revealing the BRZ STI is its final stage "concept" form. The first front-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car from Subaru in more than a generation looks to rekindle the excitement around the currently staid brand. Dubbed the BRZ Concept STI, the two-door sports coupé is all but production ready. About the only thing typically Subaru is the company's tradition boxer engine, displacing 2.0L in this guise. It's mounted extremely low - Subaru is claiming a Ferrari-like centre of gravity - and the company is benchmarking Porsche Cayman for performance. They are leaving themselves an out, however, should all this radical divergence be too much for its traditional clientele: there is room for all-wheel-drive.