A full report of the North American International Auto Show from Detroit, US.
Stingray seizes spotlight at the US Expo
Whenever journalists gather together to compare notes on an event, certain words end up being bandied about, especially when there is a consensus of opinion. And the 2013 North American International Auto Show, it would seem, is best summed up with the word "underwhelming". Everyone was saying it.
For anyone well versed in the glitz and glamour of the Geneva show, which always follows Detroit on the motoring calendar, it's perhaps surprising that the American effort is relatively small, under subscribed by manufacturers and lacking in any real sense of excitement. Wandering around the single exhibition hall in Detroit's Cobo Centre, the atmosphere seemed heavy, as gloomy as the hideously cold weather outside.
You'd expect certain companies to be missing from this show - manufacturers such as Lotus and Alfa Romeo, but Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, McLaren and Bugatti were all conspicuous only by their total absence. And Ferrari might as well not have bothered, having only one car on display, and was likely only there because, next door, Maserati was unveiling its new Quattroporte - undoubtedly a better car than that which it replaces but, seriously, what have they done to the rear end? Once a breathtakingly gorgeous car (at least from a rear-three quarter view), it now looks utterly ordinary. If there was a "Passat" badge on its boot I wouldn't have been at all surprised.
Many of the carmakers occupied stands that had room for only a very small number of vehicles, telling us really that this isn't the most important show in the world for them. The same could not be said for the locals, however, who turned out an impressive display of regained strength that should hearten the people of Detroit. The "Big Three" might as well have had the show to themselves, but this really was GM's chance to bask in the spotlight.
The show had started off on a bit of a high note for GM, because the first thing to happen was the announcement that the new Cadillac ATS had (deservedly I reckon) been named the 2013 North America Car of the Year. What a way to start proceedings. Everyone on GM's various exhibition stands was understandably ecstatic because this award is not simply some back slapping exercise. Rather it is a fiercely contested fight for the most votes from independent motoring journalists. For the ATS to have won this prize is a very big deal.
Big - dare I say exciting - news had already been announced the night before, at a special, pre-show event. The first public unveiling of the all-new, seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette had drawn gasps from an obviously appreciative American press, but it took a bit longer to make a lasting impression on me. Looking initially like a remix of everything the company has ever done, with a bit of Ferrari F12 front end thrown in, it nevertheless grew on everyone I spoke to about it. "Yes, it's a blending together of everything visually, but it's still a properly exciting car for us Americans," said a nearby hack, who wished to remain anonymous. Quite.
Chevrolet said it is redefining modern performance with this debut of the Stingray. Yes, you read that right; a name that has been missing from the badges of Corvettes since 1967, is back. "Only a Corvette with the perfect balance of technology, design and performance can wear the iconic Stingray designation'" said a nearby company big wig. "It's never going to sell in enormous numbers, it's a halo car for the brand."
All along the Chevrolet stands stood immaculate examples of Corvettes from the very first to the very last, all painted in white. And when I stood by the new Stingray, looking at an example of the current C6 near it, it became obvious that it blows its ancestors out of the water. Visually, at least.
It's the most powerful standard model ever, with an estimated 450hp and 610Nm of twist, and Chevrolet says it is the most capable standard model ever, able to accelerate from 0-to-100kph in less than four seconds and achieve more than 1g in cornering grip. It's the most fuel efficient, too, and its maker states that it shares only two parts with the previous generation Corvette. It incorporates an all-new frame structure and chassis, a new powertrain and supporting technologies, as well as completely new interior designs.
Highlights include an interior that boasts real carbon fibre, aluminium and hand-wrapped leather materials, two new seat choices - each featuring a lightweight magnesium frame for exceptional support - and dual eight-inch configurable driver/infotainment screens. There is a five-position Drive Mode Selector that tailors 12 vehicle attributes to fit the driver's environment and a new seven-speed manual transmission with Active Rev Matching that anticipates gear selections and matches engine speed for perfect shifts every time.
The new 6.2L, LT1 V8 engine combines advanced technologies, including direct injection, Active Fuel Management, continuously variable valve timing and an advanced combustion system that delivers more power while using less fuel. To save weight, the car uses a carbon fibre bonnet and removable roof panel; composite wings, doors and rear quarter panels; carbon-nano composite underbody panels and a new aluminium frame that helps shift weight rearward for an optimal 50/50 weight balance.
"Stingray is one of the hallowed names in automotive history," said Ed Welburn, GM vice president of global design. "We knew we couldn't use the Stingray name unless the new car truly lived up to the legacy. The result is a new Corvette Stingray that breaks from tradition, while remaining instantly recognisable as a Corvette the world over."
On the face of it, he's right, and this appears to be yet another example of General Motors getting a product right in the face of some very stiff competition, particularly from Europe. The new model will be built at GM's dedicated Corvette plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which recently underwent a US$131 million (Dh481 million) upgrade, including approximately $52 million for a new body shop to manufacture the aluminium frame in-house for the first time.
The Stingray, which goes on sale in the third quarter of 2013, drew attention from all corners, with even rival company executives hot-footing it over to the stand whenever they were able. It's a measure of the love and respect that the Corvette has always had, no matter how badly designed and built some have been in the past, that everyone at the show seemed to be genuinely egging it on, willing it to succeed. Personally, I cannot wait to experience it.
There was more to the show than the unveiling of a local hero, however. While the rest of the Big Three didn't have quite a showstopper as the Corvette, Ford put on a display of lowering its pickup concept, the Atlas, on a platform down to a simulated construction site. The company says the looming, chiselled concept is a preview of its future pickups.
Honda's posh brand, Acura, took the wraps off its revised NSX concept car, which looked very similar to the one that was doing the rounds last year (although Honda has been busy designing and making an interior for the car, which is clean, simple and intuitive - I really hope Honda builds that thing.
Like Audi, rival BMW has been accused in the past of unnecessary niche filling, and its new 4 Series will only pour fuel on the fire. But boy, does it look good. Here to replace the two-door 3 Series, it is easily the finest looking Bimmer in decades, while BMW says that the majority of design cues will make their way onto the production version.
Mercedes-Benz unwrapped its CLA in Detroit, although not at the motor show. Instead it showed the new model, essentially a downsized CLS, to guests at a party the night before the show. Seemed a bit daft to me, but you can expect to see it at the Geneva show in March.
Hyundai demonstrated its "possible" new design direction for larger models like the Genesis, with a frankly weird concept car, the HCD-14. It's a brave design, and gained more praise from the assembled onlookers than criticism, but Hyundai is insisting that there is more to this model's future than just good looks, claiming that it will be a dynamic drive, too.
With yawning predictability, Bentley announced its GT Continental Speed convertible, while across the hall, Audi did at least surprise me with an incredibly sexy RS7 - the quickest production car yet designed by the company. What a machine that thing will be.
Infiniti had something called the Q50 - a proposed rival to the more luxurious offerings from BMW, Audi and Mercedes - on display but, to be honest, I could not have been less interested. I'm sure it will sell in healthy enough numbers in certain parts of the planet, but these waters are crowded enough already. The world does not need another bland executive barge, now does it? Toyota, meanwhile, had show-goers scratching their chins with its Furia Corolla concept saloon - an imagining of what a future Corolla might look like. Only it won't look like this at all (possibly a good job, too) because the company's bestseller is too important to change as drastically as this. So it was probably a pointless exercise.
All in all then, a bit of a mixed bag, where the show was stolen by one of GM's most enduring icons - a car the Middle East has a lot of love for: the new Corvette. While there were no great surprises anywhere else, the biggest impression I was left with was one of the Americans fighting back. Detroit may never return to its glory days but it does look like the company is gearing up to offer customers, old and new, the best products of its rather extensive history. For them, this was no doubt the show of the decade and I think it's safe to say we should all be looking forward to testing the results later in the year.
Geneva will blow in soon, bringing with it the showiness and bluster. But somehow I reckon the residents and workers of Detroit won't care about that one bit. Their new poster car has arrived and a new, positive dawn for its maker signals great things again for a once great company.