Jan. 12, 2013 at 1:37 PM ET
Detroit isn’t your typical winter destination – but you could find it difficult to get a flight into the Motor City or line up a hotel room anywhere near downtown in the coming days. As many as 10,000 journalists and automotive media are expected to flood into the city for the annual Detroit Motor Show.
More formally known as the 2013 North American International Auto Show, the annual gathering is considered one of the industry’s most important and closely watched event, and for good reason. According to sponsors, as many as 60 new cars, trucks, concepts and crossovers will be revealed in the coming days while many of the industry’s top executives subject themselves to a media grilling that could reveal automotive trends and strategies for the rest of the decade.
“The market is more competitive than ever and this is a show that will give us a good look at how the industry is changing,” explains Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Automobile Dealers Association, the show’s organizer.
Ford, meanwhile, is rumored to be preparing a sneak peek at its next-generation F-Series truck, hoping to take a little steam out of the Silverado “reveal.” While the second-largest of the domestic makers won’t confirm that speculation it does acknowledge plans to show off the MKC, a compact crossover that could be critical to the long-term viability of its Lincoln luxury brand.As one might expect, domestic makers will have plenty to show and tell during the NAIAS media days, starting with the much-anticipated unveiling of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette – the C7 to insiders and aficionados – on Sunday night. Chevy will also provide the first public showing of its all-new Silverado pickup.
Chrysler, meanwhile, has an assortment of products on tap, including an array of Jeeps, such as the replacement for the compact Compass and Patriot models, along with an update of the popular Grand Cherokee.
The fact that it’s tweaking the bigger Jeep flagship underscores one of the significant trends reshaping the automotive market. In decades past, makers might have gone anywhere from five to eight years before making major changes to the typical model. Competition is so fierce, stress industry analysts, that even a strong-selling product like the Grand Cherokee has to have frequent updates.
And while design changes are still eye-catchers, more and more of what makers talk about at a car show like Detroit focuses on technology. Indeed, some of the most significant news the industry will make this month won’t be announced in Detroit but, rather, in Las Vegas, at the Consumer Electronics Show, where more than a dozen carmakers showed off their latest in infotainment systems and even a few prototypes of autonomous vehicles that can drive largely on their own.
“Our focus is to enhance the driving experience” with technology that can also improve safety, explained Julius Marchwicki, a senior manager on Ford’s Sync infotainment system.
While Detroit’s Cobo Center may be less than a half mile from General Motors’ Renaissance Center headquarters, NAIAS organizers have worked hard to ensure it remains a truly global car show since it adopted the “International” designation two decades ago.
In fact, the most significant debut that year was the launch of two new Japanese luxury brands, Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti. And both will be back and hoping to make major news this year, as well. The former marque will reveal its redesigned entry-lux sedan, the 2014 Lexus IS, and Infiniti will not only roll out the replacement for its G-Series sedan but introduce buyers to an all-new alphanumeric naming strategy, the 2014 model to be known as the new G50.
Industry watchers contend that major car shows like Detroit’s have a direct impact on potential buyers, near and far. And with the U.S. auto industry finally recovering after the worst depression it has suffered in more than half a century, a blitz of new product could deliver some welcome momentum, according to Joe Phillippi, of AutoTrends Consulting.
Of course, that’s something that auto shows have aimed to deliver since the first one was held in New York City more than a century ago. Back then, show-goers were given a variety of powertrain options , about a third of the vehicles on display driven by steam, a third by batteries and the rest by gasoline. The abundance of petroleum eventually led gas power dominate but as the 2013 NAIAS will make clear, things are up in the air again.
There’ll be plenty of alternative models making their debut, including the Cadillac ELR, a luxury spin-off of the more mainstream Chevrolet Volt plug-in. Nissan, meanwhile, plans to pull the covers off its Resonance Concept, a hybrid-powered crossover.
The Resonance reveals another significant trend one can spot at Detroit’s Cobo Center next week. Since the legendary General Motors design chief Harley Earl crafted the Buick Y-Job – generally considered the first true show car – in 1938, concept vehicles have become an essential part of the auto show allure.
Long-time showgoers will likely recall some of the wild and wacky concept vehicles of the past, which former Ford design director Jack Telnack liked to call “fantasies in chrome.”
These days, however, the fantasies have been toned down and it’s become much more a case of “what you see is what you get.” Even though competition is tougher than ever, automakers are more likely to use concept vehicles as a way to signal what’s really coming – and gauge public reaction.
The Nissan Resonance, for one, will reappear with relatively minor changes, in 2014 as the next-generation Murano CUV.
One of the challenges for organizers of major auto shows, like the NAIAS, is to keep them relevant. Detroit’s event now includes a special, limited-access gathering called the Gallery, where some of the most exclusive products, like the new Bentley Continental GT Speed, are put on display.
The 1-day gala is limited to AmEx Centurion – or “black card” – and Platinum customers and a select group of other invitees, “folks who can readily afford to buy anything on display,” according to the DADA’s Ash Caza.
One other significant addition to the Detroit show will return for 2013, giving show-goers the opportunity to test drive the latest battery cars and plug-in hybrids. But considering the extreme weather possible for mid-January in Detroit, organizers have found a novel way to sidestep the worst Mother Nature might deliver, running the test drives in the massive basement of Cobo Center.