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New York International Auto Show

The surprise return of the Camaro Z/28 and other New York moments Add to ...

I walked the floors of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Centre in the week before Easter looking for a theme, an over-arching idea, a mission, an notion to tie together all the car companies that were showing their wares at the New York International Auto Show. I trudged in vain.

Big and colourful and alive with often-disconnected ideas and initiatives, the new models and flashy, celebrity-fueled extravagances – James Bond actor Daniel Craig drove a Land Rover Range Rover Sport into the spring night – seemed more a collection of random vehicle launches. Entertaining as always, but from the look of it, the car business is going in many different directions.

And that’s something new. In recent years, big shows like New York’s have been thematic. We’ve seen the “green” craze, for instance. This has meant car companies have collectively pushed gasoline-electric hybrids and plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars and aerodynamic designs and “clean” diesels and vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Stand after stand, the green message has been a common theme at many auto shows these past few years. Not much of that was in display in New York, though.

Other shows of the past few years have been all about the rebound from the near financial collapse of 2008-2009. The story lines often focused on how the world’s biggest business has been coping and coming back from the devastation of the Great Recession. In particular, the Detroit Revival has been an ongoing theme at auto shows from Detroit to Geneva to Shanghai.

But the Detroit Three – Ford, General Motors and the Chrysler Group in its alliance with Italy’s Fiat – are all profitable and well-financed. They have the money to rebuild their lineups and are moving fast to do so. In New York, Chrysler, for instance, unveiled the 2014 Jeep Cherokee – reviving a nameplate that was foolishly abandoned during the DaimlerChrysler era.

The 2014 Cherokee has the look of a winner and a profitable one. Based on a Fiat-sourced platform that also underpins the Dodge Dart and Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Cherokee is a compact SUV that replaces the overweight, underpowered, unpleasantly cramped Jeep Liberty.

Reid Bigland, CEO of Chrysler Canada who also heads the Dodge brand and all of Chrysler’s sales operations in the United States, pointed out that since the demise of the Liberty, Chrysler hasn’t had a vehicle to compete in a segment that accounts for sales of two million units every year.

This new Cherokee will be built at Jeep’s Toledo, Ohio, factory. The design is from Chrysler’s studio in Auburn Hills, Mich., and will have a nine-speed automatic transmission. Engine choices: a four-cylinder supplied by Fiat and a 3.2-litre V-6 that is essentially a downsized version of the 3.6-litre V-6 in the Grand Cherokee and several other Chrysler models.

Over at General Motors, well, the General surprised the hordes of journalists with the return of the Z/28 Camaro. We all knew Chevrolet would show a reinvented 2014 Camaro line here, but the return of the most iconic model in Camaro history? Unexpected.

Mark Reuss, engineer, president of GM North America and a known gearhead (I say that in the most respectful way possible), could barely contain himself as he waxed on about the Z/28: “The build sheet is the wish list of any racer: lightweight, high-revving, dry-sump LS7 engine; carbon-ceramic brakes; integrated coolers for track use; true aerodynamic downforce, and a significant reduction in curb weight. This car could only come from Chevrolet, and could only be called the Z/28.”

Of course, the regular 2014 Camaro was a story in New York, too. It has a revised aerodynamic design and all sorts of improvements in terms of both performance and cabin comfort. But almost everyone wanted to talk about the return of the Z/28, a car introduced in 1967 when GM was a fearsome force in the industry.

Ford’s push came from Jim Farley, who heads the company’s marketing around the world, as well as overseeing the Lincoln brand – the Lincoln Motor Co. – that is in the early stages of a revival. A work-in-progress revival, that is. Farley’s keynote address underscored the lack of a theme here in New York.

That is, he said, the auto industry does not need to react to an economy in crisis this year. The economy is okay and consumer confidence is fine, too, he said. So it’s time for the car business to focus on the changing face of the consumer. Yes, baby boomers are still a powerful force, but the millennials – twenty- and thirtysomethings – who are becoming a force to be reckoned with. Women, too, are no longer willing to be denied a voice in this male-dominated industry – and in the United States, Hispanics are emerging as a consumer group with its own collection of needs, wants and demands.

Farley did talk about evolving changes in the luxury segment. Luxury cars are no longer about price or size. No, it’s about styling, features, connectivity, fuel economy and even ride quality. Millennials, he said, say they aspire to own a luxury vehicle, but that doesn’t mean an expensive one.

Today’s luxury customer mostly expects to spend $60,000 or less. Think Audi Q5 or BMW 3-Series. Those are the kinds of vehicles the mass of today’s luxury buyer is most interested in owning. And whatever the make and model, it must address the revolution in smartphones. That is, today’s buyer wants to seamlessly integrate a smartphone into a cars. No muss, no fuss.

One of every 6.7 people owns a smartphone today, he said. “Mobile phones are more important than your wallet,” he said, noting that car companies face the challenge of making their human-machine interfaces simple and easily understood.

Naturally, the imports had their place in New York, also.

Honda’s Acura brand showed a new MDX SUV, Honda highlighted an updated Odyssey minivan and Toyota used the show to introduce the reinvented 2014 Highlander SUV. Kia, the South Korean brand, unveiled an update of its Soul runabout, a car that really speaks to what Kia is all about. Its styling has been updated, the interior is all-new and the powertrain promises both performance and fuel economy. Hyundai ended one press day with a talk-show style presentation from John Krafcik, the company’s U.S. president. It was chatty and informal, though the Equus luxury sedan got its due.

And then there was Nissan. The story here is interesting if only because Nissan is one of the few global car companies with the courage to go public, to share its big goals, goals stretching right to 2016.

Andy Palmer, Nissan’s executive vice-president in charge of product development and a long list of other things – including the Infiniti luxury brand – said his company plans to juice sales from 4.8 million in 2012 to 7.6 million by 2016/2017. Infiniti alone will go from 150,000 in sales now to 500,000 by 2016, he said.

Nissan, he added, believes the Leaf electric vehicle has been a huge success, even though sales did not hit targets last year. Since it was launched, he said, Nissan has sold 55,000 Leafs worldwide. More importantly, the Leaf has put Nissan squarely in the middle of any conversation about vehicles and the environment – in a good way. Nissan will lower the price of the Leaf and plans three more EVs in the near future: a small commercial vehicle, the Infiniti LE and a city car.

Palmer also talked about his company’s strengths versus other global car companies. His argument went like this: Nissan is certainly the most international of the Japanese car companies, but even compared to European and North American auto makers, Nissan’s diversity and its outward-looking management team give the company an edge over rivals.

Consider the nine-man top management team: the CEO, Carlos Ghosn, is Portuguese and raised in South America, but educated in France. The company’s chief financial officer is an American. Three Britons sit among the top nine and the rest of the group is comprised of four Japanese. All the different languages and cultures make for a complex and lively leadership team, but one that is not dominated by any one world view. It was a fascinating look into a car company’s inner workings and ambitions.

Perhaps, then, if there were a theme in New York, it was diversity and Nissan represented that idea and ideal well. Here in the spring of 2013, the car business looks robust and creative, but one thing is certain: the world’s car companies are not marching in lockstep, not as they have been for the past few years. How long will that last? Perhaps only until the next environmental or economic crisis – two triggers of the past few years that had been the big auto industry drivers. Or some other unanticipated calamity.

But for now, there is peace in this industry. Seems appropriate at Easter, I suppose.

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