By Mike Antonick, Author of Corvette Black Book - What has happened to the auto industry worldwide since the closing months of 2008 and how it all meshes with Corvette, Chevrolet, General Motors and the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit is worth a quick look back before we get into 2010 NAIAS specifics.
The 2008 NAIAS was a great event for Chevy and GM. Remember the timing…January 2008. The long-awaited Corvette ZR1 made its show debut. Chevy had shown the car to select media a few months earlier, so multiple car magazines had it on their covers coinciding with the NAIAS unveiling. AutoWeek editors voted the ZR1 Best of Show. Best Concept went to the Cadillac CTS coupe. The Chevy Malibu got NAIAS Car of the Year, as voted by a panel of automotive writers. Chevrolet had a super cutaway of the ZR1 chassis and another of ZR1’s supercharged LS9 motor. Despite the awards success and the quality of GM’s overall display, I wrote at the time that this show didn’t have the glitz of previous years, that it felt more subdued, an apparent sign of the times.
Think back. Early 2008 was already showing signs of a weakening economy driven in part by skyrocketing oil prices. But few had any clue of what the economic gods had in store for us in the months to come.
Now flash forward one year to the 2009 NAIAS, January 2009. President-elect Obama was waiting to be sworn in, along with a raft of new senators and representatives. The world economy had sustained devastating blows in the last quarter of 2008, triggered by teetering US financial giants who’d leveraged themselves to the gills with sub prime mortgage instruments. US stock markets lost more than a decade’s gains. Auto sales tanked for virtually all brands, but GM and Chrysler were especially hard hit and their credit lines evaporated. A few years before, Ford had been in the worst shape of the three, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it prompted Ford to offer its major assets to secure credit lines when credit was still available. GM and Chrysler were hemorrhaging red ink so profusely that both would be bled dry by year’s end without government assistance. The lame duck Bush administration punted the mess forward by using some of the first Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to fund GM and Chrysler far enough into 2009 to give the new administration time to come up with something.
This was the backdrop for the 2009 NAIAS in Detroit. Grim. Several manufacturers pulled out completely. GM and Chrysler, on government life support and their executives having just been raked over the coals in Washington, were in no mood for extravagance. I’ve attended this show for many years and and it has always had an ebb and flow with some manufacturers up, some down. But in January 2009, none had anything to celebrate.
As 2009 wore on, first Chrysler then GM were ushered through prepackaged bankruptcies with GM emerging on June 1st. GM CEO Rick Wagoner was shown the door. His right-hand-man, Fritz Henderson, took over. In time, he too was forced out by GM’s newly constituted Board of Directors. The Board put its own new Director, Ed Whitacre, into the CEO position. Mr. Whitacre, though not a “car guy,” had retired from AT&T which he’d led with much success.
Pontiac and Saturn bit the dust. Hummer was sold to a Chinese company. Saab was in limbo. Opel was sold, then unsold, as GM ’s new Board decided to try to make a go of it. Too much cutting-edge technology to lose at bargain-basement prices.
It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Corvette as its 2009 sales took a 48% whack, making 2009 production lowest since 1997. And 1997 didn’t suffer from lack of demand, but from the late and slow production rampup of that all-new model. Take out 1997 and one has to go back to 1962 for lower volume than 2009’s 16,956 units. But Corvette’s still here. In fact, the Corvette team added interim 2009 models, the Competition Sport and Championship GT1. And for 2010, along came the Grand Sports.
So that’s where we stood for this year’s January 2010 NAIAS. And the verdict is…
Much improved. Still a far cry from the good old days, but substantially better than last year. GM is on its own again…sort of. The government loaned GM about $6-billion which GM plans to repay this year. But it, meaning we the taxpayers, also took a roughly $50-billion equity stake in the company. The idea is that once GM is on its feet and making money again, it will have a public stock offering. Once the stock value is high enough to recover the equity stake, the government sells, puts the loot back into the treasury, and GM is genuinely independent again. As someone who joined GM’s student co-op engineering program in 1965, I’m planning to hoist a tall one that day. It can’t come too soon.
So GM still isn’t in a position to try to out-sizzle the competition at shows with fancy displays, wild concepts or gourmet media munchies. It had a nice, simple floor layout showing its current and near-future offerings. Unfortunately, the Corvette impact was minimal. A 2010 ZR1 was shown alongside a 2010 Grand Sport convertible. Next to these were two 2010 Camaros, all four cars with gray exteriors. Gray and silver are popular show colors, I guess because they photograph well under the lights. But I’d have opted for some livelier hues.
Though GM has some strong new product, it missed on awards. I figured the Chevy Equinox would take North American Truck of the Year, but it lost in a close vote to the Ford Transit Connect, a nifty little Turkish-built utility van. The North American Car of the Year went to the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Haven’t driven one, but reviews rave about it, so Ford appears to have a winner there, too.
AutoWeek liked Ford as well, its editors voting the 2012 Focus as NAIAS Most Significant. I agree and will be shocked if this car doesn’t do well. Chevy’s Cobalt replacement, the Cruise, should also compete strongly in this segment, but I think the Focus has the styling edge.
Audi and Volkswagen led this show with brightly lit, exquisitely presented displays. Their cars were cutting edge as well. AutoWeek voted the Audi E-tron Best of Show, and the VW New Compact Coupe Best Concept, both good choices. I especially liked the VW which is rumored be a dead-ringer for a production Jetta coupe planned for production in Mexico and sales here. It is a beautifully proportioned, elegant design with less of the interior claustrophobia than my personal show favorite. And that is?
The Cadillac CTS coupe. The standard version with the same direct-injection V6 as the Camaro was unveiled earlier this year at the Los Angeles show. The CTS-V variant, with its 556-hp, Corvette-derived supercharged power plant, made its first public appearance at the 2010 NAIAS.
Either one will do fine. Make mine Torch Red with six-speed manual and the Recaro seat option.