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At Detroit’s auto show, partying too much to worry about the future

Neal Pollack
January 14, 2014

“How did you like the auto show?” I asked the young German who was lounging by the hotel fire. We were waiting for our shuttle. I figured football was going to be outside his small-talk scope of interest.

“It was very nice,” he said. “Everything was much brighter than last year.”

I don’t think he meant the convention lighting in Detroit's Cobo Hall, which seemed pretty much the same as usual. There definitely was an brighter feel to the 2014 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But it wasn’t an end-zone dance, exactly. The whole show seemed to be breathing relief, as though it were having a well-deserved couple of drinks at the end of a hard workday. The dark specter of corporate death and bankruptcy that had loomed over the American auto industry from 2008 to 2010 had lifted, and there were shiny baubles all over the floor.

But wandering the show, I found myself a little dismayed at the direction the American car industry has taken since the bailout. That moment, dark and horrible as it was, also represented a perfect opportunity for the business to reinvent itself, to truly modernize, to embrace values of fuel economy and sensible design that had long been anathema when it came to American cars. At NAIAS this year, it was very clear that the American industry, for whatever reason, hasn’t really pivoted in that direction.

There was a strange nostalgia to the American offerings. The era of SUV worship has long passed, though there were still plenty on the show floor. Instead, the Big Three were busy featuring sexed-up versions of old classics: The new Ford Mustang, the Corvette Stingray, the Dodge Challenger, venerable symbols of automotive might and phallic power. (Ford even brought the original Ford Mustang 1 sports car concept from 1962). The cars all looked cool, ready to drive through a ring of fire. But they also looked like overgrown Hot Wheels. The car business needs a Corvette, my colleagues argue. It needs a Mustang. But it doesn’t, really. As fun as they might be to drive around a racetrack, those are cars from a semi-glorious automotive past that cannot be regained.

The Cadillac and Mercedes stands faced each other. It was an instructive comparison. Mercedes, which had been moving downmarket faster than Henry Chinaski on a bender, dropped its new C-class this year in Detroit along with the S-Class Coupe Concept. The new cars didn’t disappoint, giving some sleek modern class to a badge that had grown as stale as a two-day-old pretzel. Caddy’s offerings, by comparison, were bulky and front-heavy, as muscular as trucks, weightlifters compared to Mercedes’ soccer players.

That’s a minor design quibble, but the real problem remains: American cars are too big, and they’re not fuel-efficient enough. As I walked through the American show halls this year, I saw mostly toys. When the Big Three try to address that problem, they end up with disasters like the Ford C-Max or the new all-electric Cadillac ELR, machines beloved by neither fuel-economy nuts or American car lovers. The overall strategy has brought the American car industry back from the abyss in the short-term, but it doesn’t strike me as a recipe for extended health.

Here’s why: We’re living on the verge of complete planetary collapse. Cars are a major contributor, whether one wants to admit that or not. So they absolutely have to change, because I doubt they’re going to disappear. I’d much prefer to live in a world where most people owned (or leased, or shared) small, self-driving vehicles that run on alternative energy. It would be nice if the American car companies put more energy into making that happen. The Japanese car companies seem to, at least some of the time, and so does BMW, which is making a serious play at reinventing the industry with its electric i division. And the fetish for dorky nostalgia vehicles is hardly confined to U.S. companies —Volkswagen is making plenty of unhealthy retro cars in its frightening quest for world-over domination.

The U.S. makers have escaped the shadow of bailout by enjoying the spoils of profitable truck divisions and slightly updated versions of the cool cars they used to make. The lights are definitely brighter, but they're not illuminating the road ahead.