The Lighter side of the NAIAS
Published: January 18, 2012
Listen to Detroitblogger John discuss this story on WDET's Craig Fahle Show
It's early January in Detroit, which brings certain predictable things every year — weather charitably described as miserable, amateur skaters doing face-plants on the Campus Martius ice rink on any given night, and the North American International Auto Show, which started last week with a handful of media-only days. And who better to send to a show about autos than an automobile know-nothing like myself!
The fact is, I understand very little about autos, except how to drive them and, based on experience, how to crash them. Having me explain an auto show is like having Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano explain ethics in government — neither of us is at all familiar with the subject matter. So for those who are looking to this issue of Metro Times to find detailed information about actual automobiles, welcome! You've come to the wrong place.
The annual auto show means just one thing: models, the auto kind and the girl kind. OK, so really two things. And journalists. Three things. And auto executives. And suppliers. Plus the waitstaff and union crews at Cobo, I suppose. All right, so it's like 16 things. The auto show means at least 16 things, OK?
So the show really is about more than just showing off new vehicles. The cars and trucks, and the little buggies and golf carts masquerading as fuel-efficient cars and trucks, are merely the center of a uniquely Detroit circus, and like any circus it features strange characters, outlandish performances and silly costumes. But enough about the French journalists.
The real point of press days is to give the media a chance to look at this year's new models, and compare the ones that are classy and refined to those that are fully loaded for adventure. And no, I'm not just talking about the new autos.
Like previous years, the higher-end models were stationed next to the higher-end cars – the Ferraris, the Bentleys and the Porsches. The scene at those exhibits was like a wealthy man's midlife crisis dream — a fancy vehicle, a model so blond she produces light, and a desperate attempt to reverse the hands of time and the cruel march toward old age by purchasing a colorful car and accelerating fast at stoplights.
Many of the models are new and different this year, just as the cars are. And you can get right inside them too. The cars, that is. (It takes a little more effort with the models.)
Not that the execs didn't try. I saw these aged one-percenters cozying up to 24-year-old models, who were grinning nervously like at that family party last year when that one weird elderly uncle got drunk and said things to them that suggested he forgot they were related. Some international photographers tried their best shot at them too, taking flattering, up-close photos of the women they know damn well aren't going to run in their publications, but will instead only be revisited later on their laptops, so to speak.
This year's show began before it even began — with a local sigh of relief — with a deal struck a couple of weeks ago to keep the auto show at Cobo Hall for another five years after a regional authority promised to step in and do what the city was unable to do, like fix the leaking roof and expand the place, which otherwise would have hosted nothing bigger than Midwestern gem and mineral shows. Among the new Detroit trends this year, outsiders running things could be a big one. (See also: Emergency Managers.)
It was important to keep the show in Detroit not only for reasons of pride, since we pretty much invented the damn automobile, but also because the show is financially critical to the area, as out-of-town journalists. executives, engineers and other visitors pour an estimated $350 million to $400 million per year into the local economy as they patronize our restaurants, our hotels and our online escorts.
There was a glow of relieved happiness in the hall for the Big Three, now that years of management incompetence, union intransigence and consumer indifference have given way to decent profits for the first time in years. That might have something to do with the fact that our domestic automakers finally figured out that if you make well-built cars that people actually want to buy, they'll actually buy them. After years of $3 and $4 gallons of gas they realized, thousands of Hummers later, that they should manufacture smaller, fuel-efficient cars because people were buying all those smaller, fuel-efficient cars from Japan because they really did want smaller, fuel-efficient cars.
Cobo Hall was full of the smaller, fuel-efficient models, not only from foreign companies as usual, but from our own homegrown automakers too. So this year we get the Dodge Dart (40 mpg), Cadillac ATS (30 mpg), Malibu Eco (37 mpg), Ford Fusion (37 mpg) and a slew of electric cars and hybrids with cool colors and sleek designs and great fuel economy. Have you ever wondered how the engineers come up with all these new ideas year after year? Me neither.
The green theme has become a bigger part of the show every year, and this year it was everywhere. Nissan, for example, had an electric car exhibit featuring hanging banners showing a misty, tree-choked forest, to suggest that instead of the auto-emissions kind of air pollution, the trees are more comfortable with the electricity-generating, coal-burning kind of air pollution.
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