NEW YORK, N.Y. — The conclusion of the New York Auto Show on May 1 also ended the international auto show season for 2011, affording us an overview of a recovering automotive industry facing a struggling economy with rising fuel prices, and the coinciding demand for inexpensive vehicles with good fuel economy.
The New York show, at Jacob Javits Center, is now the nation’s largest-attended auto show, and indicates strides U.S. companies are making to take on the levels of style, technical, and luxury of the top European companies, and the price and fuel-efficient leadership from Asia, where Japanese companies themselves are challenged by the surging Korean tandem of Hyundai and Kia.
Audi got a jump on the show by holding a sneak-preview media launch of its new A7 sedan on the eve of the first press day at the show. Audi still has the compact A3, and recently introduced a new A6 sedan that fits between the midsize A4 and the luxury flagship A8, leaving little room for another niche vehicle in the Audi line, but the A7 will plug in where its numerical designation fits as arguably the best-looking sedan in the fleet. Audi chairman Johan de Nysschen said that while the A6 is outselling the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-Series in Europe and Asia, the company intends to have it do the same in the U.S. “The A8 and A6 fit nicely as full-size and mid-size,” he said, “and the A7 will appeal to buyers in both segments.”
At the A7 introduction, lead designer Ulrich Beierlein gave a presentation of what inspired him to draw all the curves and grooves on the sleekest Audi yet, a car that begins with an enlarged Audi family grille, and two parallel crease lines tracing the sides, with the upper crease curving upward to meet the rear pillar. The effect is a unique accent angle to make the sleek four-door sedan emphasis the fastback, coupe-like roofline. The A7 is loaded with futuristic connective technology, emphasizing new partnerships with Google-Earth, Wikipedia and T-Mobile, making the A7 a rolling WiFi hotspot. It is built with a lot of structural high-strength aluminum, and powered by a supercharged 3.0-liter V6 with 310 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque. Thanks to an 8-speed Tiptronic transmisison, it claims instant responsiveness and highway mileage up to 28 miles per gallon.
German companies always have justifiable pride in their engines, but this time Audi is promoting a bit of confusion because of a “3.0T” badge on the A7 rear decklid. In Audi and VW nomenclature, “T” has always meant turbocharging, which is an exhaust-driven turbine that sends a blast of increased air-fuel into the engine, whether a TDI (turbo diesel injected) or the 2.0T (for turbo). Supercharging is a belt-driven power fan that force-feeds air to do the same thing. The 3.0T badge should thus mean the 3.0 is turbocharged, but another little badge on both sides of the A7 says “supercharged.” Audi executives tried to be flippant about it, saying we should now consider “T” to mean “charged,” whether turbocharged or supercharged. Since the two systems are so different, and Audi has always been so precise, that doesn’t add up, and when cornered, an Audi executive said,”I’ll look into it.” The charged-up new A7 is, officially, supercharged, thank you, and will be available by mid-May, at a sticker price of $59,250.
The show itself had numerous new attractions that were either global or at least getting first North American display after being shown in Geneva or Shanghai last month. The Javits Center is located just far enough from Midtown that we can declare it Off-Broadway, and if is an Off-Broadway show, Hyundai and Kia, which show no signs whatsoever of leveling off from their recent meteoric rise in stature, did their part to steal the show.
The U.S. “Big Three” also has been promoting high-mileage entries throughout the auto show season. The four major U.S. shows — Los Angeles in November, Detroit in January, Chicago in February, and New York in mid-April — have featured Chevrolet’s Volt and Cruze, and upcoming Sonic. Ford has the Fiesta and Focus. Chrysler has a highly efficient new V6 and its new owner, Fiat, offers its tiny new Fiat 500. While pushing high-mileage cars makes sense, the American “Big Three” tastefully withheld the recent heavy promotion of earlier unveiled and overpowering cars, such as GM’s Camaros and Cadillacs with supercharged Corvette 6.2-liter V8s, Ford’s variety of high-powered Mustangs, and Dodge Chargers and Challengers, plus the newly unveiled Jeep Grand Cherokee with available Hemi V8s up to 6.4 liters without supercharging.
As for new products, Chevrolet presented an all-new Malibu, with just enough revisions to remain between the larger Impala and the smaller Cruze, while resembling both. A new 2.5-liter 4-cylinder Ecotec has 20 more horsepower than the old 2.4, and has EPA estimates of 26 mpg city, and 38 mpg highway for the car, which will hit showrooms in early 2012.
Ford previously introduced its compact Focus and subcompact Fiesta, both attaining 40 mpg with special models, preceding the New York introduction of a revised Taurus, which will add the new 2.0-liter4-cylinder EcoBoost engine as an option. The EcoBoost indicates turbocharging, which will deliver 237 horsepower and 250 foot-pounds of torque, and will also get “at least” 30 mpg. Standard in Taurus will be the 3.5-liter V6 with increases in horsepower and torque to 297 and 255, respectively. The SHO high-performance Taurus continues with new styling touches and the EcoBoost 3.5 V6, turbocharged and with all-wheel drive.
Chrysler showed several new 300 models, and introduced the SRT-8 model of its totally new 2011 Grand Cherokee, meaning its Hemi can lay four patches of rubber, presumably, on burnouts, while taking you to the mountains it can also scale. Chrysler downplayed its outstanding new 3.6-liter V6 that will supply very good base power to all its vehicles. New owner Fiat has done some impressive things with the interiors of all Chrysler and Dodge models, and it goes its own way with separate Fiat 500s, including the unveiling of a cabrio model that has a nicely arranged full sunroof that slides back over the cabin.
Hyundai’s totally redone Accent subcompact comes in both sedan and hatchback, starting at a mere $12,445. Standard is a new 1.6-liter, dual-overhead-camshaft, 4-cylinder engine with the costly feature of gas-direct-injection (GDI) and 6-speed manual or automatic transmissions. Structures built with a lot of high-grade steel can be both lighter and stronger, and the 2,396-pound Accent is 182 pounds lighter than a Fiesta, making it simple to join the Elantra, the soon-to-be-released Veloster and some Sonata models in the over-40-mpg brigade.
Hyundai president John Krafcik assured any reluctant buyers that Hyundai’s rising residual value will now be bolstered by a guaranteed future trade-in value. Krafcik also tossed a clever dart at the misleading promotion of high-mileage competitors. He said that high price and lack of recharging infrastructure limit the new plug-in-electric Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, but there are others promoting 40 mpg — the Honda Civic FX, Chevrolet Cruze Eco, Ford Fiesta Super-Economy, and the Focus Super-Economy, the Smart fortwo, and the Elantra.
Krafcik said he wondered how they were all selling so Hyundai asked Edmunds.com for sales figures on all those special 40-mpg models for the first quarter of 2011. “Altogether the others sold just under 5,000 units,” said Krafcik. “We sold over 30,000 Elantras in the same time, so we were outselling all the other 40-mpg cars six to one for the first three months. We wondered why those others were not selling.”
The answer, he suggested, was the asterisks required on ads by competitors, which indicate, in fine print, that the car pictured wouldn’t get 40 mpg, and only specialty models costing a couple thousand more can attain 40-mpg.
Then he clicked on a video, showing a flock of animated blue asterisks blowing across the prairie like tumbleweeds. Actor Jeff Bridges did the voice-over, explaining how asterisks “once roamed free in this country,” but have recently become an endangered species because of all the auto companies who must use them to point out that their main models won’t hit the advertised 40. As the video goes on, the animated asterisks hide out behind trees like fugitives on the run, emerging happily only when a Hyundai Elantra approaches, with no need of an asterisk, because all of its models top 40. The video ended among laughter and applause from the usually cynical media, and was followed by cannons firing blue foam asterisks into the gathering.
Kia, with the benefit of Hyundai’s recent engineering brilliance as a subsidiary partner, unveiled its 2012 replacement for the subcompact Rio in both sedan and hatchback, sharing the same 1.6 GDI engine. An engine shutoff at idle should help the Rio fuel economy even more, and for less than $13,000, the Rio will be built out of 85 percent recyclable material.
Kia also introduced some styling and engine revisions to the hot-selling Soul, which hasn’t even been out two years yet. The new Soul will use the new 1.6 GDI or a 2.0, and officials promise greater use of the popular hamster commercial concept. Priced between $12,000 and $15,000, their stickers and their 40-mpg stature fit well as gas prices sail over $4 per gallon and head for $5.
High mileage was the buzzword from Japan, which started the trend years ago, but which is currently faced with production slowdowns because of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Mazda promises a makeover of its mainstream engines — major news from a company that will add “green-greeen” to its traditional “zoom-zoom.” Mazda officials vow their new Skyactiv gasoline engines will get the fuel-economy of a diesel, which is very good, and will bring to the U.S. a turbodiesel that will get the fuel-economy of a hybrid, which is even better. The diesel is coming to North America in two years. Meanwhile, Mazda said the Menagi concept SUV first shown in Geneva and on display at New York, will be built as the CX-5, using an all-new platform with Mazda’s all-new engines.
Honda introduced the long-awaited production model of its new-generation 2012 Civic, and features its extra-cost HF, which will reach 40-mpg. The same 1.8-liter engine remains in the new-bodied Civics, as does the unchanged 5-speed stick or 5-speed automatic transmissions, which drop Honda behind several competitors that now offer 6-speeds in both transmissions. The Civic Hybrid changes from nickel-metal hydride to a lithium-ion battery pack that is smaller and more potent, to combine with the 1.5-liter out of the Fit. The sporty Si is the only model that will get a 6-speed stick, although its “new” and larger engine with “more power” turns to have only four more horsepower by replacing the higher-revving — and more fuel-efficient — 2.0-liter gem with the larger 2.4 Handa has used with larger vehicles for two decades.
Nissan, which has moved past Honda as Toyota’s top challenger in homeland Japan, introduced a new Versa subcompact, which looks good, and should be a bargain with a base model starting at $10,990. However, after delivering the Leaf all-electric car, the subcompact Versa offers a disappointing highway maximum EPA rating of 37 mpg amid the flock of competitors’ 40-plus cars.
Toyota displayed its new iQ model of Scion, a tiny runabout which will be rolled out first on the East and West Coasts before venturing to the Midwest. Scion also will get the new FR-S sports car, so far only a concept, with a front-engine/rear-drive plan, with a Subaru-built “boxer” engine, low and flat-opposed pistons for a lower and sleeker set-up.
From Germany, Volkswagen has redone the “new” Beetle into, simply, the Beetle, with its arching silhouette peaking just slightly more toward the rear, as if hinting at more of a teardrop restyling, and it touts its 2.0 TDI turbodiesel which is clean and quiet and already proven for getting more than 40 mpg, with gusts to 50, along with the slick 6-speed DSG (direct sequential gearbox) automatic. March sales were reportedly the best for the company in seven years for VW, with the new Jetta doubling sales from March of 2010. Loyalty rates are up 46 percent among buyers, and conquests are up 106 percent. There is a hybrid engine in the Touareg SUV, but VW is most proud of its turbo-diesels. Jonathan Browning, CEO of VW of America, said customers are becoming more aware of the TDI models of Golf, Jetta, Passat and Touareg.
The new Passat TDI will get 43 mpg, and the Touareg, which is up 44 percent in sales, is up to 46 percent TDIs. The Golf TDI will come out with VW’s 4-Motion all-wheel-drive system, on its TDI model. VW also showed the concept Bulli, a squarish, vanlike vehicle that has a lithium-ion batter for electric drive, and an iPad for all driving and other information, fastened on the center console stack.
Along with Audi, Mercedes commanded plenty of attention with the North American showing of its new C-Class Cope and C63 AMG Coupe, and captured some economy-car impact with the Concept A-Class debut, with a live, but apparently lip-synching group of energetic folks from Mercedes TV ads, emerging from the audience to sing, “Oh lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez-Benz?”
Porsche and BMW talked hybrids and electric power for the future, with a hybrid Panamera a breakthrough for Porsche. Saab, from Sweden, unveiled a high-styled and exotic sports coupe with a 1.6-liter turbo powering the front and an electric hybrid motor running the rear.
Mini, a subsidiary of BMW, attracted a large gathering to start the second press day with a performance by legendary rock band KISS. Photographers pressed close, prepared for a loud and raucus show, but when the curtains opened, there were only three members. Paul Stanley was away, tending to personal business, and apparently he’s the only member who can sing, because there was no music. Four custom-painted Mini Countryman 4-doors will be given away as Unicef charity auction donation, but the whole show fell flat because painted-face guys repeatedly sticking out their aging tongues, and a PR man painted up to look like a short and pudgy KISS member, were humorous parts of a much-hyped show that misfired.
As cars get more high-tech, sometimes the advertising and promotion can’t keep up. Advertising copywriters for Honda appear to be trying to dumb down prospective buyers of the new Civic. Honda’s advertising and promotion have lagged sadly behind the company’s technical brilliance for two decades. Recently, Honda’s television ad campaign about really big deals shows salesmen trying to operate enormous, 20-foot tall calculators, or saying everything in the showroom is such a big deal that salesmen are shown crushed under gigantic donuts. We come away more convinced that their electronic gadgets and their snacks are bigger than the bargains. Ads accompanying the 2012 Civic introduction have hit a new low, however. The Civic was introduced as it sat on a raised stand, behind which giant letters spelled out: “TO EACH THEIR OWN.” Of course, the old saying “To each his own,” uses “his” as a collective meaning both genders. Apparently RPA, Honda’s ad agency of 29 years, couldn’t think of any other phrase, and decided that to be more politically, and genderly, correct, it had to ruin the phrase and slaughter proper English usage.
John Mandel, vice president of Honda America, was using the now-common teleprompter as he finished explaining that the 2012 fleet of Civics will range in price from $15,605 for the base DX to $24,050 for the hybrid. Mandel concluded his presentation, by saying, “remember…to each his own.”
I caught Mandel privately afterward, and asked him: “Did the teleprompter really say ‘To each his own,’ or did it say ‘To each their own?’ ”
Mandel caught on immediately, smiled, and said: “I’ll never tell. That’s going to have to go down as a mystery of the ages…But I will say, I live with an English teacher.”
Perfect. At least Honda is still trying to be high-tech, even while its advertising agency is proving itself to be semi-literate.