Every January, automakers and members of the auto press assemble at Detroit, Michigan’s sprawling Cobo Center to see the newest cars and technology soon to hit the market. I, for one, have always dreamed of making the pilgrimage to what was considered the most important show in the industry. While this may no longer be the case, with notable absences from Audi, BMW, Mercedes Benz and other high-end European manufacturers, it was an opportunity for the spotlight to shift to other automakers in what will be known as the last wintertime Detroit Auto Show.
The absence of the German Big Three left a large void in the near million square feet of exhibition space at Cobo. While some may view this as a missed opportunity, I saw it as an opportunity for other automakers to shine. It was hard to ignore the tremendous presence of Korean automaker Kia, who heavily promoted the Telluride, their brand-new full-size SUV offering.
Taking advantage of the available square-footage, Kia presented multiple displays of the Telluride, from a cartoonishly gaudy bespoke model with leather hood straps, a snorkel and Rimowa luggage, to aftermarket models from SEMA on a ride-along off-road course — fare typically reserved for the likes of Jeep in stock setup. While riding the tiny amusement-like trail navigating steep inclines that articulated the custom lift, my only realization was that the interior was quite nice, unexpectedly on par with the BMW X5. Although I doubt we will ever see a Kia off-roader invasion, over my lifetime, the Korean auto industry has evolved from cheap economy cars with zero appeal to seriously desirable cars — so anything’s possible.
Press conferences are the bread and butter of an auto show’s press preview. Scheduled in rapid succession throughout the day, it’s best to get a seat early for the fanfare and theatrics of a high-production (and likely very expensive) reveal of a never-before seen vehicle. I did just that, and took a seat early for Ram Trucks, recipient of the 2019 North American Truck of the Year Award.
Beneath a matrix of flashing lights, artificial fog and guitar riffs, the giant LED screen slowly slid open and a Ram Heavy Duty rumbled onto the show stage. As a seemingly endless list of features were read from a teleprompter, I was struck by how tech-laden the truck was. While advanced technology-assisted parking features in passenger cars seem gratuitous, the Ram’s 360-degree parking camera incorporating a towed trailer will surely be advantageous to the user.
This brings me to my point that new vehicles are incredibly high-tech these days. With Volkswagen’s recent announcement of their next generation of gasoline engines being their last, and impressive performance figures from Mazda’s SkyActiv-X, I wholeheartedly believe that the gasoline engine may be approaching its final form before a massive transportation revolution.
What the future holds is always in question, given the history of concept cars revealed over the years at auto shows. While I saw my fair share of futuristic mobility concepts largely in Toyota’s booth, the most surprising concept was not a vehicle, but a simulation from Denso, a Michigan-based automotive supplier. As a manufacturer of behind-the-scenes components that go largely unnoticed, Denso is invested in building our autonomous future.
In their booth, I took a seat, donned a set of VR glasses and experienced a simulation of their technology at work on a typical autonomous commute. In brief, their speculative technology blends an AI assistant such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri with a digital screen-based windshield. In the simulation as your vehicle switches into autonomous mode, the view of the road becomes obscured by widgets such as your calendar, as the hauntingly monotoned personal assistant reroutes your vehicle to a meeting, and a bleak highway landscape is then transformed to a Hawaiian seascape. One function of the simulation was even the promise of drone-delivered coffee and snacks to your autonomous car. While this detail seems completely novel, it does point to an ever-closer future level of efficiency and seamless travel.
It wasn’t all future at the Detroit Auto Show, with a few pristine classic cars gracing the exhibition space. Subaru Technica International unveiled their red-hot special edition WRX STI (S209) between examples of the 1998 22B STI and the 2004 WRX STI. Limited to 400 units and never sold in the United States, the 1998 22B is a beautiful all-wheel-drive coupe with 280 horsepower forced out of its 2.2-liter boxer engine. Wearing fender flares and a spoiler bathed in Subaru’s iconic blue and gold livery, the 22B almost looked subtle by today’s standards, and was one of my favorite sights from the show.
Big changes are ahead for the North American International Auto Show. The 2020 show will take place in June, bearing the end of the January cold that journalists love to hate in every published article. With this shift, the North American Auto Dealers Association hopes to bring elements of the show outdoors and utilize Detroit’s outdoor spaces for demonstrations and festivities. As the Detroit Auto Show once marked the beginning of a new year, I hope it will now kick-off a summer-long celebration of the car that culminates with Detroit’s annual Woodward Dream Cruise.