Monday, January 19, 2009

Upstairs at the 2009 Detroit Auto Show

Okay, enough of the oddities in the Auto Show's basement. What was going on upstairs where the big boys exhibit? Well, the first thing we came across was another oddity, something called the Bertone Bat 11. Looks like a nice, clean sports car from the front, doesn't it?

But feast yer eyes on these freaky fins!

I can't imagine those fins serve any useful purpose whatsoever, but I thought it was a nifty-looking concept car. I'm definitely ordering one up as set dressing when I make my science-fiction flick one day.

On to the Mini Coopers! I don't really fit in them, but they are cute as the Dickens:

We didn't get a shot of the new Mini Cooper Convertible they unveiled this year, but rest assured it's cute as the Dickens' dimples.

I'm not sure how well this photo comes across, but this is the back seat of a Maybach luxury sedan. It's worth clicking on to see the full detail:

This thing was plush. Note the comfy reclining leather seat with legrest and the convenient holder for your champagne bottle. It also has a window that can be raised to separate the back seat from the front seat when the chauffeur gets too familiar and chatty. I hate when the chauffeur gets too familiar, don't you?

This is a picture of me with the new Tesla sports car:

Aside from looking like an angry and squatty red bug, and being named after a crazy electrical inventor, what really distinguishes the Tesla from other high-performance sports cars is that it's powered entirely by an electric engine and a really big battery pack:

Impressive. This may be a slightly higher performance option than the ol' Stealth Boat with its three 12-volt batteries and a trolling motor.

I may not have fit in the Mini Cooper, but Monique thinks the Smart Fortwo fits her just fine:

Is it a car or is it a fashion accessory? Since it's made by a Swatch/Mercedes joint venture I leave it to you to decide. Either way, I have to admit she looks good in it.

Back in the more serious tech advances, here's a view of a hydrogen fuel-cell system from the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation, another joint venture, this time between Ford and Daimler:

There were several hydrogen fuel cell displays among the other alternate-fuel vehicles. The technology's obviously not quite ready for retail, but it's a nifty idea if we can figure out a decent source of hydrogen. In theory, if you can get to cheap electricity you can create hydrogen by electrolysis of water. We're not at cheap electricity yet, but I think that concept has to be one of the big drivers for us to really push towards cheaper, cleaner sources of electricity.

When we were showing this picture to Monique's mom Brigitte afterwards, she seemed a bit discomfitted by the idea of driving around with several tanks of hydrogen. I pointed out that it was really no worse than a nice big tankful of highly explosive gasoline. I'm not sure that really helped her overall worry level.

Here's a picture of me sitting in the nifty new Dodge Challenger:

I must confess that this Summer -- when we had to buy a new car and were mulling over several nice, sensible options -- somebody in our neighborhood had just picked up the new Challenger with the really big, honkin' V-8 engine. And a little part of me kept thinking, "Oh, that thing is so cool."

Don't get me wrong, I'm extremely happy with Lenny the Lumpymobile, the little Honda Civic Hybrid that we chose, and I wouldn't actually trade it for one of these. But it would be great to have one to cruise in on the occasional Summer weekend. Alas, I fear Chrysler might've been better served to stake its future on fuel-efficient hybrids instead of a return of the muscle car. But they really did make a nice muscle car here.

Now on to a couple of convertibles that I dug:

The top ride is the Saab convertible and the bottom is a Chevy Corvette convertible. Both of them came in with a price tag around $45,000 or so. The interesting thing about the Corvette is that there's a Cadillac sports coupe convertible based on it that I didn't like nearly as much. I'm not sure why, but it just didn't feel comfortable. The Corvette felt like it was hugging me and asking me to take it home. The Saab just said, "Hey, let's find a windy road and go for a drive," with a bit of a Scandinavian accent.

Sweet rides, both.

Now, a ride that I didn't dig so much:

This is the new 2009 Chevy Malibu hybrid. Its mileage is comparable to the Toyota Camry hybrid. (Hurrah!) Unfortunately, just like my experience with the Toyota Camry that we looked at this Summer, I'm eating roof in this car. In fact the Malibu was the worst that I tried all day, including the Mini. When I looked straight ahead I was literally looking at roof, not windshield. That lack-of-headroom experience was similar to my experience in the other two American manufacturer hybrid sedans that are rolling out this year, the Saturn Aura hybrid and the Ford Fusion hybrid. Monique talked to a tall guy who owned a Malibu model from a couple of years ago and liked it, and he had the same beef about this 2009 model.

In fact, this is my number one pet peeve about a huge number of the sedans and compacts made by the Big Three and Toyota: no freaking headroom. If I have to bend my spine to sit up, and I have to turn my head sideways and duck to be able to see the road, I'm not going to buy your car -- no matter how "aggressive" your swept-back windshield and roof looks. Criminy.

Also new to the main floor in 2009, the Chinese auto manufacturers:

Two years ago these companies were all in the basement and had maybe two cars among them. This year they had a nice row of display vehicles. They're not yet ready to meet U.S. regulations, but I think it's safe to say that we're going to hear a lot out of them before this century is done.

And now, a couple more cool concept cars:

The top one is a smallish Chevy that was supposedly designed to capture the styling feel of a small Asian tuner hot rod. Monique and I both thought it looked pretty sharp. The bottom two pictures are of a nifty Lincoln sedan. You might need to click on the bottom picture to get a good look at what really caught me, the "steering wheel." It's really just a ring with buttons on it. Apparently this car is entirely drive-by-wire.

Maybe it's just that I've owned too many old junkers over the years, but I feel about a car that loses its steering altogether if there's an electrical problem the same way that Brigitte felt about driving around with several tanks of hydrogen under her seat. Images of the Hindenburg flash before me! It is a cool concept, though, and I know that there are lots of jets that run just fine on fly-by-wire. It's just that I might not be ready to go there yet. Show me 20 years of better-than-linkage reliability and then we'll talk. (Monique had a similar feeling about the cameras that replaced the side- and rear-view mirrors in the Cadillac Converj concept car.)

And in what really was a sheer coincidence, the absolute last car that we saw at the auto show caught our eye. It was the Honda Civic Hybrid. Look who looks at home in it:

I'm a little slumped in this picture, but rest assured there are still inches and inches above me in which I can stretch my neck. And when I do so, I'm still looking out at windshield, not roofline. Finding the Civic Hybrid right before we hit the exit was great because it let me stack it up against pretty much the entire automotive output of all of the North American retailers. Even aside from my headroom issues, this is a really well designed car. I'm more convinced than ever that we made the right choice when we pulled the trigger.

There were lots of other things we liked but didn't get a good picture of, so I'll list a few here: the BMW Z4 convertible with its nifty foldaway hardtop; the sleek-looking Audi Fastback and Volvo s60 concept cars with their great curved lines; the new 2009 Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, both of which look set to battle it out for top of the hybrid market. And then there's the Chevy Volt, which will supposedly get the equivalent of 100 mpg and is now slotted to start its production run in November 2010 if GM is still here to make it.

Final note to Bob Lutz (the GM exec in charge of the Volt project): in the extremely unlikely event that you're reading this, please please please put enough headroom in the Chevy Volt. If I can't sit upright in it when it makes its floor debut in the 2011 Detroit Auto Show, I'm going to find you and kick you in the shins.

And that's my report from the 2009 Detroit Auto Show.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. 1- ooooh, look. You got spam.

    2- I absolutely loved the convertible comments. I could almost hear the Saab whispering to you with that Scand. accent.

  3. Oh, goodie, Spam! This means that I'll get a chance to master a *new* blogging skill: figuring out how to delete comments!

    Yeah, I'm in a pretty good mood today.

  4. A nice and very thorough write up of our Auto Show visit!

    It was fun and far less depressing than we feared it might be based on the local press coverage of the show and the warnings of our auto industry friends.

  5. Oooh, look, I finally figured out how to delete the spammy comment!

    Probably I shoulda let Monique delete it. Nobody loves deleting spammers more than Monique.