Saturday, November 28, 2009

Auto Show Speculation

Ahh, perfection.

I went to the San Francisco International Auto Show this weekend. Unencumbered by any research, interviews or statistics, here are a few random thoughts:

1. Wandering around the concourses, taking in hundreds of cars that more or less look exactly the same — give or take a few oldies and oddities — it just seems like there are too many makes, models and players in this game. Are there really enough people out there to buy enough of these bland cars to keep all the automakers in business?

2. Remember back, oh, a few months ago when cars with decent mileage were all the rage? Remember all the giddy talk of weening ourselves off foreign oil? Aside from the hybrids, Smart cars, and a few small exceptions, the show was all about pickup and power.

3. Saab should just fold. You could not look at one of their cars and differentiate it from any other brand. The spokeswoman seemed depressed and unconvincingly said, "The company has two perspective buyers. We'll have new owners soon." Volvo is also getting dangerously close to anonymity. What's happened to the once-distinctive European carmakers? Could it be that they are owned by the Americans now?

4. Even if you don't like the look, you have to hand it to Cadillac. Their sharp-angled design stands out, even though it seems like you might cut yourself if you get too close.

Don't believe me? Listen to Joe Lorio of The New York Times:

Even if you knew nothing about European wagons, one look at the CTS Sport Wagon would dispel any notion that this is the second coming of the Country Squire. There’s nothing retro to it. Even more so than the CTS sedan, the wagon is a showcase for Cadillac’s faceted, angular design.

Take the liftgate, for instance. Instead of a flat plane, it comes to a point in the middle. And check out the bladelike taillamps, which extend from the bumper all the way to the roof. Particularly unusual for a wagon are the ultraslim rear-quarter windows and extra-wide rear pillars. They make it look as if Cadillac’s designers were afraid to let their wagon look like a wagon — and in fact, they were.

5. One of the loneliest guys at the auto show was the Buick Lacrosse spokesman. He kept pitching while he paced the rotating dais he shared with Buick's hope for the future, but nobody was listening. Where was everybody? Huddled around the Camaros and Corvettes.

Anyone in the market for a V16? Look no further than the 1934 Cadillac Aero Coupe.

How big is the Escalade? It's as wide as the wingspan of Michael, my 6'3" Polish-American friend from Kansas.

It's hard to tell but this is a Chevy Impala. I'm not really sure what to say about this car except that is was mesmerizing.

This Rolls Royce tank costs $430,000. It doubles as a very large stainless steel fridge.

The Impala of your dreams.

A woodie without the wood, courtesy of a trompe l'eoil paint job.

Traci experiences what it's like to drive something other than a 1990 Camry or a 2002 Elantra.

UPDATE: Some thoughts, via Facebook, from Eric Francis, a journalist I worked with in Little Rock, Arkansas who once wrote one of the best car articles I've ever read way back in the early '90s. (Hey Eric, if you have a digital copy of that piece, send it my way.)
Ah, I'd LOVE to go to one of the big auto shows! I share your opinion of the anonymity of so many car brands. They look alike, feel alike, sound alike - there's nothing to distinguish them. But remember, in America it's bland that sells. (Viz: American Idol last year.)

The speed with which this nation abandoned fuel efficiency as The New Top Priority also amazed me. I recently talked to a friend who sells used cars and asked if there's a booming market for gas-sippers; nope, he said, it's all pickups and SUVs. I still firmly believe the only thing that will drive up average MPG in America is government establishing a floor on gas prices - say $4.50 a gallon - but that'll only happen after every member of Congress voluntarily gets a lobotomy.

As for the distinct European brands, they still exist - they just aren't sold here. Fiat, Peugeot, Renault, Citroen (yes, I know those last three are French, but...), even GM's European cars tend to look a little more distinct than their American lineup. It's ironic that the (marginally) most distinct American car line, Pontiac, got the axe in favor of keeping Buick, which appeals to senior citizens and the Chinese.

As much as I'd enjoy driving a asphalt-burning, tire-spinning, gas-guzzling road racer, I'm still perfectly happy with my Golf turbodiesel. Great mileage, great practicality, fun to drive.


  1. Your Polish-American friend look's quite familiar. Ever seen Mythbusters?

  2. REF: Comments- "Saab Story" Frankfurt Motor Show, Sept.09. Maureen-Anonymous-JWilly. unclebuck

  3. I just want an American made car that works---I don't care what it looks like. Either that, or give me back my 1971 Firebird that I was still driving 12 years later, even after the miles had clicked over on it nearly twice. I miss that Firebird almost as much as I miss the America I once knew.
    I'm from what used to be considered the Motor City. I'm not sure what we are now but my guess is that it begins with the letter 'L'.

  4. 1. I think Eric's comment had an accidental edit to it...the last few lines of the fourth paragraph after "fun to drive" appear to have been cut from between "priority" and "gas" in the second paragraph.

    2. Both SAAB and Volvo really went out of business years ago, after their development and operating costs grew to the point where they didn't have enough customers to be viable. GM and Ford only bought whatever part of their customer loyalty would be transferrable to rebadged, slightly-different-appearing versions of the respective existing GM and Ford vehicle platforms.

    3. Many of the recent entrants to the auto manufacturing arena will be forced out, or into mergers, by these same cost pressures. Those in China and India may get a little more time due to local market growth rates and their cheap labor, but only if they don't try to compete in the US market.

  5. A news article on the two potential SAAB suitors:

    All I can say about this is...BEWARE when financial types, not car guys, buy an auto company. You do not want to buy a car from a company that's being squeezed dry of whatever remnant value it may have.

  6. JWilly; I believe you summed it up right on target. Sit back and watch it unfold now. unclebuck

  7. Jwilly, thanks for the catch on Eric's comments. I fixed it.

    And the post doesn't really reflect it, but the autoshow was a lot of fun. You really get a sense of the design trends when you have so many examples. It's also good to watch where the other folks are headed and observe the cars they hover around. The Corvette was extremely popular, which you might not expect in SF.

  8. And the fact I don't have the money to buy any of these cars erased all the anxiety I would have had if I was actually car shopping.

  9. You know, the complaint about look-alike cars goes back at least as far as the 1920's and the Edsel of 1958 proudly touted in its ads styling that "set it part from the lookalike cars".

    However, in this case modern cars do look more and more alike. I attribute it to the fact that everyone's stylists come from Art Center (in Pasadena) these days, where they all learn the same things from the same teachers, hence an Astom Martin dashboard resembles a Ford F-150.

  10. Thanks for the photo of the Impala of our dreams. And it is: of our dreams. Dreamy.

    Steve Vivian


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