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The Show Goes On. Again.

23 Jan

Welcome to 2016, and welcome to the first manifestation of my New Year’s resolutions, to wit, the revival of this irregular collection of activity reports, back-in-the-day musings, and irreverent observations. I confess that Swan Drives languished during 2015, which was a very good year for me (and the industry) in terms of new car introductions, major auto shows attended (5 of them), North American Car of the Year, and extra-curricular automotive events (read: 24 Hours of LeMons racing).

Extra-curricular also applies to my ongoing dance with the Devil, better known as squamous cell cancer. The short version: after a third round of pruning by the redoubtable Dr. Yoo—a BMW owner, BTW—a follow-up CT scan last week did not set off any new alarm bells. While this isn’t exactly a cause for hosannahs, it does inspire cautious—very cautious—optimism. And it allows me to focus more fully on resuscitating this column. So this year I vow to do better on all of the fronts.


Detroit’s 2016 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is just about in the books, and aside from the puzzling absence of Jaguar-Land Rover, Bentley, and Mini it was once again an exposition chock-a-block with world premieres, which is how we assess the merit of big-time shows. World premieres and concept vehicles.

I’ll confine myself to a couple of my show favorites, both very sexy, one a concept, the other a production car.

Lexus LC 500

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It’s no secret that Lexus has be working to put some adrenaline in its corporate image. It’s not something that happens overnight. Images are easily acquired, but when they’re undesirable they’re very difficult to alter. Lexus is a powerful case in point. Created as a Japanese rival to German luxury sedans, Lexus drifted into a series of beautifully boring offerings—meticulously assembled, beautifully finished, handsomely furnished, quiet as midnight in a cathedral … and as exciting as tofu. Toyota’s luxury division has been trying to alter this perception with its performance-oriented F models, as well as the LF-A supercar.

And now, closer to the economic realities to at least some of the rest of us (the very limited production LF-A carried a $375,000 pricetag), here’s the LC 500 coupe. Chassis with granitic rigidity, lots of carbon fiber, magnesium, and aluminum. A 467-horsepower V8 feeds power to the rear axle via a 10-speed automatic transmission. And there’s nothing conservative about the styling. It almost makes the trademark spindle grille treatment acceptable. Almost. Look for an MSRP in the vicinity of $100,000, Can’t wait to drive this one.

Buick Avista

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It’s fair to say that Buick has successfully hoisted itself out of near-obscurity with a line of vehicles that appeal to buyers well outside of geriatric ranks. So now the challenge is coming up with designs that go beyond merely attractive to compelling. Buick has had a few of these over the decades—the 1939 Y Job, the 1953 Wildcat, the 1973 Riviera, and now the Avista. I am not alone in thinking this was the hottest concept at the show; it took the EyesOn Design award for design excellence. The Avista is a real car, with a 400-horsepower twin-turbo V6 engine under that long hood. But whether it will get a green light for production is unknown; coupes don’t sell in the kind of volume General Motors marketing people like to see. Maybe if it had four doors…?

As noted, there were many more newbies at Detroit’s Cobo Arena over the show’s two press preview days, 35 of them at least, far too many for me to catalogue here. For a comprehensive rundown, check, where you’ll find all of them in glorious color with detailed info.


The acronym stands for North American Car and Truck of the Year, and by now I’m sure you’re aware that the Honda Civic and Volvo XC90 have been named North American Car and Truck of the Year for 2016.

I was privileged to announce the Honda Civic as 2016 North American Car of the Year.

I was privileged to announce the Honda Civic as 2016 North American Car of the Year.

What you may not know is that both vehicles have won in the past, the Civic in 2006, the XC90 in 2003. But for both winners, those predecessors are ancient history. The state of the art keeps evolving and advancing, and the pace seems to keep accelerating; last year’s wundercar is this year’s old news.

To someone who’s been making a living in connection with wheels for over four decades (hint: that would be me), contemporary vehicles are incredibly sophisticated. My notion of infotainment, for example, dates to cars like my 1954 Mercury, a time when AM radio was as good as it got. KDWB, Minneapolis, Channel 63.

But I digress. The thing that impresses me about the new Civic is not only that it’s the best compact sedan going for model year 2016. It’s that Honda has sustained that nameplate ever since the first Civic made its U.S. debut for 1973. Not all generations were best-in-class, but unlike many domestic nameplates, Honda never gave up on Civic. (The same can be said for Toyota and the Corolla.)

One other Honda note: the sedan is only the first chapter in the new Civic story. Next we’ll see a new coupe—I’ll file a report in early February—followed by a four-door hatchback, a high performance Si, and an even higher performance R version.

Geneva 2014

10 Mar

The 84th Salon de l’Auto Geneve is in progress through mid-March, and as always, it brings back memories, as well as a striking contrast with my first visit to this terrific annual show (see “Geneva Then”).

Though two days are devoted to press preview before the show opens its doors to the public, pretty much all of the formal presentations are crammed into the first of those days, basically 8 hours.

It’s basically a sort of organized madhouse, with at least two press presentations in progress at any given point during the day, each of them kicked off by musical fanfare at decibel levels that would shame a heavy metal rock concert. This is standard practice at auto shows everywhere, apparently rooted in an unshakeable conviction that a musical crescendo heightens the anticipation.

Yeah, right. Anticipation of hearing loss. I really should bring noise cancelling headphones.

Another peculiarity of many of these conferences—press conferences, that is, presented so the world will be informed about each dazzling new vehicle—is that the carmaker commonly reserves the front row of seats for assorted executives. Sometimes the first two rows. Very few if any of these execs have anything to do with the presentation. And meanwhile, journalists are standing around on tiptoe at the periphery.

German carmakers do this regularly. So do many of the Japanese. And the Koreans. I have to say I don’t get it. Don’t your execs know about the product already? Are we preaching to the choir?

Anyway, a press conference pace like Geneva makes it impossible for a journalist operating alone to cover the show. It even strains the manpower resources of media operations that are able to dispatch several staffers to attend the various press conferences. There are literally dozens of them—53 this year, according to my count, which does not include presentations by aftermarket companies. And there were at least two in progress at any time during the day, 15 minutes each, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Accordingly, I’ve culled out a few cars that caught my eye. To see all the new hardware unveiled at Geneva, visit Car and Driver. You’ll find reports on every Geneva debut, including a few by your humble narrator. My observations follow.

Bugatti Veyron Legend Rembrandt

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Geneva is always awash with high-end exotica, but this Bugatti creation topped the 2014 charts. It’s one in a six-part series of Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse special editions, three cars per edition, each named for a prominent figure from Bugatti history. The Rembrandt edition is number four in the series, named for Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of Bugatti founder Ettore. Rembrandt was a prominent sculptor, known for his bronze animal creations, which included the dancing elephant figure that adorned the hoods of the six Type 41 Royales created by Bugatti between 1929 and 1933. Essentially an ultra elegant and exclusive trim package, the Legend treatment adds nothing to the Veyron roadster’s performance, though with 1184 horsepower from its 8.0-liter W-16 engine, how much does it need. But it does add to the bottom line. The pricetag is a non-negotiable 2.18 million euros—roughly $3 million, and about a half-million more than the regular production version. Exclusivity does not come cheap at Bugatti. But that makes it all the more desirable, and as of this writing two of the three Rembrandts have been sold, as have all nine of the previous Legend editions.

Audi TT

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Styling home runs are both a blessing and a curse for designers. When you hit one over the fence, as Audi did with the original TT in 1995, expectations are high next time you step up to the plate. So here’s the third generation TT—mechanically sophisticated, and bristling with electronic wizardry. But does it have the same curbside wattage as the Bauhaus original? Maybe not. The proportions are athletic, but angularity has supplanted the uniquely rounded profile. Then again, the original TT defied evolutionary change. Anyway, as you’d expect, the new TT is cutting edge in terms of technology, highlighted by its so-called virtual cockpit, with nav system, climate, and other secondary controls displayed in the instrument nacelle, eliminating a big and potentially distracting display screen in the center dash. And if the exterior’s one-of-a-kind zaftig curves have given way to edges, the dynamics—lighter body shell, stiffer chassis, more power—figure to be exceptional. Look for pricing to start at a little over $40k when the TT hits showrooms later this year.

Jeep Renegade

2015 Jeep Renegade Latitude and Trailhawk Models

This was the coolest Jeep in the show. Now, that may sound like an excessively narrow category. But there were other Jeeps on the Jeep stand, as well as a number of Jeepish knockoffs presented by other manufacturers. The Renegade is, in fact, a response to knockoffs like the Kia Soul and Nissan Juke, considerably smaller than the Jeep Patriot and Compass models it will replace. Consistent with Jeep tradition, the little Renegade will have real off-road chops, in sharp contrast to its Korean rivals. But it also represents a sharp departure for this all-American brand. The foundations come from Fiat, shared with the 500L, the 1.4-liter turbocharged base engine is shared with the 500 Abarth, assembly will take place in Europe, and corporate execs expect European sales to exceed those in the U.S. Never mind. The Renegade is a timely and well conceived addition to the Jeep line, one that will quickly eclipse the disappointing Patriot and Compass. Look for Renegades to begin reaching U.S. showrooms late this year.

Honda Civic Type R

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I confess to a weakness for pocket rockets, and this little Honda is a prime example. Presented as a concept, a “racing car for the road,” the little three-door sports the usual aero bits, a racy rear wing, 20-inch wheels backed by oversize brakes, and propelled by a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine capable of generating upwards of 275 horsepower. That would make it a serious rival for U.S. market hot hatchbacks like the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI. But don’t get your hopes up. High-performance seems to have been back-burnered at Honda North America, and the likelihood of a the Civic Type R becoming a production reality for U.S. Honda dealers is pretty close to nil.

Mercedes S-Class Coupe

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC CoupŽ Edition 1 (C 217) 2013

In a market segment where opulence, technical sophistication, dynamic superiority, and prestige are all on a pretty even footing, styling is often the tie-breaker. And considered on that basis, this big Benz two-door emerges as a star. The S-Class Coupe replaces the Mercedes CL-Class, and is in my estimation the sexiest thing issued by Mercedes since the first CLS (the so-called four-door coupe), back in 2004. That takes in a lot of territory, because the Mercedes design team hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands since then. As you’d expect, the new coupe will embrace several techno innovations and deliver plenty of power. But assessed as eye candy alone, it goes to the top of the chart versus rivals from Audi and BMW, the other major players in this rarefied realm.

Mini Clubman Concept

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Mini’s auto show concepts are invariably previews of production cars, and this Geneva Clubman update is no exception. From a practical point of view, this version of the Clubman makes plenty of sense—four real doors, instead of the two and a half doors of the current model. This is a bigger Clubman, too—just over 10 inches longer, and almost 7 inches wider, making the rear seat area more useful. It retains the vertical rear cargo doors, which you may or may not appreciate—I don’t like what they do to rearward sightlines. But be that as it may, this expansion makes me wonder yet again how much elasticity there can possibly be in the word Mini. Webster’s defines the word as “miniature, very small.” Like the Countryman and Paceman, which are neither miniature nor small, this Mini is another example of the English language in transition. Look for this concept to become production reality by the end of the year.

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