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Written by Kitty   
Sunday, 22 January 2006
My Report from the 2006 North American International Auto Show
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   It was a cold windy day in the big city. Crowds of people and snarls of traffic congested the downtown area, but this is more than common. Throughout the rest of the year the consumers’ thoughts are on how far a $20 bill will go at the gas pump, worries of overpass potholes, and nervously eyeing the Big Three’s tenuous grasp on the now shaky market. But for two weeks in January, in the heart of the city that brought us the automobile, (okay that’s not technically true, but it did bring us the over-sized beverage holders) the people are brought ‘face to grill’ to the dazzling, sleek, and optimistic side of things during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit Michigan.

    Going to the NAIAS has been a cherished tradition for most of my life. It really is a red-carpet showcase of the industry, with all of the glitz, pageantry, and drama that one would expect from such an event. There were days when I was younger when going to the auto show meant learning about all of the different companies and where they were from. (Growing up in the region that houses the Big Three, a Daewoo was exotic and new to me) As I got older there was a period where, as a mere motorist-hopeful, it was not just my only opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a real car, but I was able to compare and pick out my dream car(s). All throughout the years, the annual visit in some ways served as an interactive key-note speech for the auto industry. You can learn a lot from what you see. Behind the shine and the stiletto-sporting sales girls, lies stiff competition, all vying for the attention of the consumer, hoping to woo them into a dealership later in the year.

    I went into this year with a few main questions on my mind. Firstly, back in 2000 the big automakers, notably GM, promised us hydrogen fuel cell technology by 2006. Here it is ‘ought-six’ and I was curious to see what happened on that front. Second, lately there’s no way you could’ve missed that Toyoda is almost neck-in-neck with the struggling giant General Motors as it slipped into the number two slot once held by Ford—it was all over the news. I wanted to know “why is this?” Is it a difference in product line? Or does the answer lie in the background in how the companies are run? And finally, my annual side-quest: ‘The Search for the True Station Wagon”. ^_^ Here’s what I discovered:

    Surprise surprise. 2006 has failed to be the future as projected, the internal combustion engine is still king. But that doesn’t mean that this year was devoid of cleaner cars, they were there, but much of it was pretty PR and no consumer-ready hard-copies to back it all up. BMW addressed the pragmatic problem of Hydrogen, the lack of fueling stations. Their duel fueled 12-cylinder combustion engine, while the poster child of their hydrogen using, water emitting, sustainable driving project, also can run off of normal, every day gasoline. According to the display, for when you just can’t make it to a hydrogen refueling station… which are darn-near non-existent this day in age. Mazda, Toyota, and others showed off with great pride their hybrid gasoline/hydrogen vehicles, but none could offer more than basic, theoretical information. There was nothing about what kind of mileage these cars, vans and SUVs achieve, how much they cost, how they could be utilized in ‘Anytown USA’. Sadly, while these cars are on the right track, unless they were ready to be taken on the road yesterday, they are nothing more than another mirage for the eco-conscious. (That’s ecological and economic) This was however, an interesting year for the electric/gasoline hybrids. The Toyota Prius, and the now ubiquitous Honda Civic were joined this year by some *gasp* American models. Mercury unveiled the Mariner, which with a hybrid engine is capable of 33 mpg (that’s miles per gallon) city. That sounds rather lousy when you think of a standard car getting about that with a normal engine… but wait… did I mention that the Mariner is an SUV?! Well it is. An SUV with a V6 no less… which from what I understand gives it 95% better fuel economy than the average V6 SUV. GM threw its hat into the ring with at hybrid full-size pick up, the Silverado. The sad part about this model is even with the new technology, it only gets about 18 mpg… good for a truck… I guess… So no matter how hard I searched, fuel cells were nowhere to be seen and actual purchasable clean-options were few, far-between, and usually foreign.

    Now I will admit to you, with my family and relatives for generations having close ties to the US auto and steel industries, I was raised to ‘Buy American’. I drive a Chevy, growing up I’ve only known Chryslers to be the family’s cars, and as a child visited Ford’s River Rouge steel mill often. Despite all of this, I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve been watching the US Auto giants slide further and further in the charts, and the sun rising on Japan. I studied the products put out by Honda, and Toyoda verses Ford, Chrysler, and GM. Overall it’s a lot of the same stuff, sedans, trucks, SUVs and so on. However over at Honda, most of the vehicles sold here in the states, including the 49/55 mpg hybrid Civic, were 70% or more made of North American parts and labor—like that of some of the Big Three. Meanwhile, to the chagrin of “Buy American” stalwarts, much of the automobiles made by the big US auto companies were far less than that. I guess it’s hard to buy American if they aren’t being made here anymore. Something else I noticed this year was that while still dazzling as usual, the displays put together by the Big Three were greatly toned down. It was as if they are trying to trim the fat anyway they can. While in the ever-expanding Toyota section, I spoke to their representatives about their domestic production and their opinion on its rise in the industry where the American giants are falling. It seems that such as I thought, much of the Toyotas sold domestically are made here with US management. Their statement was that the difference doesn’t lie in difference in product line, but rather in the quality of the product and the quality of their service. I’d hate to say it, but they hit it right on the nose. I’ve been saying it for a while, if the US has any hope of regaining its footing, it’s going to have to start making vehicles that aren’t made of junk, and not make things worse when people need to get their junk fixed. I tell ya… its enough to make me want to buy a Honda. *hides from angry kin-folk*

    But it wasn’t all industry critique, I still had my sub-quest. As most of you know, my car is rather unique, and to some legendary, it’s the station wagon. (Aka the Band Wagon, the stay-way, the Tank, the Grace-mobile, my pride and joy etc.) It is a 1991 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon, red/silver two-tone exterior, V8 engine, and seats eight. That car represents the last of the great generation of station wagons. Those great cars set the standard that lead me on my now annual side-quest: ‘The Search for the True Station Wagon”. There is one feature that defines a vehicle as a true ‘stay-way’ and that is a third row of seats… that face backward. If it didn’t have this key feature, in my book it wasn’t a station wagon… it was an elongated sedan! Over the past couple of years there has been resurgence in the popularity in vehicles calling themselves ‘wagons’. My quest took me from the German engineering of BMW, to the familiar Ford Taurus… no dice. Nearly every line had something that they called a wagon, but in all actually it was either a crossover model (a cross between an SUV and a car… I’d like to call them Sport Utility Cars, but I can see that it would hard to market that acronym) or just a sedan with easier trunk access. Even Volvo, dear, dependable, Volvo couldn’t produce me a true station wagon. At the end of the day, I found my query in a most unlikely place: Mercedes-Benz. Their station wagon had all of the storage and charm of a true wagon, as facilitated by its third row of seats… which did indeed face backwards. ^_^ Unfortunately the thing cost around $55,000… I hate to say it, but which money like that to spend on wheels, why get a wagon when there are perfectly good Roadsters who need love?

  Okay, okay, enough industry and anecdotal babble, as mentioned before, the NAIAS is the event of the year for these gorgeous machines! What report of such an event be complete without a "What's Hot/What's Not" and mock awards? To wrap this up, here's the 1st annual Kitty no Kuruma awards! Don’t forget to hit the forums with your thoughts and opinions on any of this: the industry, your dream cars, additions to the WH/WN list… anything!

        Most Frivolous Interior Option: Espresso machine (tucked into the center consol) –Audi Roadjet concept

        The Most Stereotypical ‘Soccer-mom Car’: Volvo V50

        Best Waste of Time Standing in Line: Mini Cooper- Maker your own Mini Coup…postcard

        Best Use of Padding:  The Michelin Man

The WTF award:  GEM (Global Electric Motorcar)

        Biggest Disappointment:
Chrysler Crossfire (0% North American made, 16 mpg, Smog index 1)
        Quote of the Day:
“goes from 0 to 60 on the first gear” – Dodge Charger history

        Most Openly Mocked:

        Cars that Stopped Kitty in her Tracks:
2006 Dodge Charger, Chevy Camero concept, Dodge Viper, Ford Shelby GT5
        The “Where the Hell Were You Guys?!” award:
Cadillac, Ford Thunderbird (tie)
        Most Likely to Succeed:
Saturn Sky  
        Drool Bucket Awards:
Gold- Ford Reflex concept

                                     Silver- Jaguar XK

                                     Bronze- Chevy Camero concept

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 22 January 2006 )
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