|Prior Year Coverage|
First held in 1902, the Philadelphia International Auto Show is no newcomer to the car show business. That said, the relatively small Philly event is not structured in the same way as the largest of international auto shows. Detroit, for instance, features cars and displays supplied directly by the manufacturers, while Philly features a network of local dealers that come in with their cars to produce the show. That local network, called the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia (ADAGP), has been fueling the event since 1997.
The Philly show's reliance on car dealers has consistently limited its size and prevented the event from featuring debuts or brand new concept cars. But calling Philly a second-rate show because of this would be missing the point. At the Philadelphia Auto Show, there are no distracting displays, no scantily clad models, no dramatic lights or ostentatious presentations. There are just cars. What could be better than that for a real car enthusiast?
Philadelphia's show is a practical one. Last year, 60% of the attendees were in the market for a new car. Of that majority, a full 90% said that the show influenced their car-buying decision. Numbers like these are due to the straight-shooting, no nonsense approach that Philly has been taking for years. This is not a show to come to for sensationalized entertainment. Even with frills like the DUB showcase's DJ and a black-tie gala, Philly is a purpose-built show with an honest demeanor and a character that's plenty endearing in its own right.
This year's event started up with an address by chairman and CEO of AutoNation, Mike Jackson. AutoNation is the largest retailer of new and used vehicles in the United States, making Jackson an appropriate speaker for an event pieced together by car dealers. AutoNation includes 313 new car franchises in 15 states with 23,000 people employed and $18 billion dollars in annual revenue. Heading a business of such success put Jackson in a good position to address the current woes of the auto industry. He spoke with a concise voice on how the industry's economic downturn came to be, as well as on how to get rid of it. Included with his speech was an outline of all current, major green technologies. Jackson stated clearly his outlook on which technologies had the potential to succeed, and which ones were wasting researchers' time.
Mike Jackson's presentation helped establish the themes of the show, and it answered important questions about the troubled Big Three and the future fuels that everyone had in mind. When speaking about the U.S. auto industry, he made clear many mistakes made by the Big Three in selling their cars over the years. The companies were too focused on pushing for volume to notice they were in the midst of a 'cyclical decline,' one which mirrored that of the housing market. The auto makers should have scaled back production, and worked to drop their break-even points in order to continue to profit with the shorter demand they faced. Instead, the Big Three pushed ahead. No effort was made to scale back production. In an attempt to avoid production cuts, incentives were offered to try to force the sale of cars for which there weren't enough buyers.
Perpetuating the problem was an obese dealer network. Far too many dealerships were pushing for the sale of these cars. Jackson himself, seeing the lack of demand, cut his domestic network greatly. AutoNation altered its offerings in a huge way, dropping the percentage of domestic cars it carried from 70% to just 30%. That strategy worked beautifully, and after a brief period of trouble due to the recession, AutoNation is once again realizing climbing sales. As Jackson mentioned, the industry decline is cyclical in nature. He is confident that national sales will recover to a reasonable level by 2011, and urges dealers to hold on and strive to 'make it to the other side.'
The Big Three's economic troubles were just one aspect of the keynote address. Developments in green technologies were the focus of the remainder of Jackson's speech. Dismissing E-85 as 'a joke' and natural gas as too expensive, Jackson also railed against hydrogen. It's 'in the perpetual future,' said Jackson. He made clear that keeping hydrogen at under -400 degrees Fahrenheit was a near impossibility. What happens if the temperatures rise above that lowly threshold? 'The car goes ka-boom… I mean, think Hindenburg.'
Despite his criticisms of the aforementioned technologies, Jackson was an advocate of several other green developments. He saw a need for more diesels in the U.S., and felt that better diesel engines should have been available to Americans all along. He called plug-in hybrids, as well as electric vehicles with range extenders, the 'logical next step.' Referring to the Chevrolet Volt as the 'poster child' of such electric technology, Jackson exhibited optimism towards an American car industry that could possibly revolutionize the race for practical alternative fuel vehicles.
A final and somewhat solemn point made by Jackson dealt with proposed legislation that would require car dealers to meet a quota of fuel-efficient vehicle sales before it could sell its other cars. While the idea sounds like it could have positive environmental effects, the economic consequences of suddenly introducing such laws could be disastrous.
American car dealers simply haven't developed the right knack for selling fuel economy. Ours is a culture that has always valued, and placed premiums on, big-displacement V8s and rolling land yachts. We have traditionally derided fuel-efficient cars as cheap, and we now must change our way of thinking if these cars are to sell. Most importantly, we must train ourselves to avoid the 'bigger is better' mantra, and trade it in for a philosophy that values efficiency over brute force.
Europe has been like this for years. Overseas, many high end cars have smaller engines than their cheaper counterparts. Those engines are enhanced with turbochargers or direct injection or other technologies to give them great efficiency as well as the great power that nobody seems to be able to live without anymore. Teaching ourselves as buyers to value such efficient traits would encourage U.S. auto builders to produce the cars that we want and that the environment needs.
Of course, that mindset can't be adopted overnight. The economic dangers of this green quota system, therefore, still stand. Jackson likened the situation to a doughnut salesperson forced to sell broccoli. If the doughnut seller can't sell all of the broccoli, than there's no chance left to sell the profitable doughnuts. The business would go under and the doughnut stand would be no more. A quota system has the potential to devastate the automotive business further. Nothing is certain, though, and even such drastic legislation could result in only minor losses which would be outweighed by the environmental benefit. Car dealers will have to wait it out and hope for the best. Mike Jackson's final words demonstrated this uncertainty with hopeful light-heartedness. 'The die has been cast. We have to sell broccoli.'
The themes established in the show's keynote address were recognized by most manufacturers. Any reasonably well-designed display highlighted the manufacturer's environmental technology of choice. Toyota showed off its hybrids and BMW flaunted its new diesels, while companies like Hummer sat quietly in sad displays devoid of anything close to flashy.
Impressively, the Philly Auto Show was not forced to scale-back in the way many had feared. All 40 manufacturers were back from last year and, though companies without their environmental priorities straight had dull displays of reduced size, environmentally-conscious car companies like Smart featured displays of substantially higher size and quality than before.
A representative from Ford contended that the company is 'positioned to do well in this market.' A new car from Lincoln, Ford's flagship brand, proved the statement. The Lincoln MKT looks a bit odd at first glance. Its overall proportions suggest a modernistic crossover vehicle, but its subtle curves and details feature classic Lincoln design cues. The combination is an acquired taste, but there can be no doubt that the car looks different. And different is just what Lincoln needs.
The MKT is important because it shows the departure needing to be made even by staunchly traditional companies like Lincoln in order to survive. The MKT offers not just a new look, but also a new philosophy for the company. Its base engine is a 3.7L V6 with 268hp. Its optional engine is a 3.5L V6. Such a move would have been unheard of for Lincoln just a few years ago. This 'EcoBoost' engine actually produces more power than the bigger engine, offering 355hp thanks to direct injection and twin-turbochargers. This is clearly a step in the right direction, and hopefully can help pull traditional customers away from the big-engine craze.
Ford's pleasantly evolving design language and greatly improved interiors further proved the company's drive to better its cars. Vehicles like the Fusion Hybrid showed that Ford is willing to play the environmental game just as hard as the other leaders.
General Motors countered the example set by Ford with some impressive cars of its own. GM's most notably improved company is Chevrolet, which now offers several hybrids as well as quality interiors that put older GM products to shame. Surprisingly, the Chevy Volt was nowhere to be found at the Philly show. A representative there was well-versed in its features, but even a knowledgeable explanation of the vehicle is no replacement for the physical car.
The internal combustion engine onboard the Chevy Volt never powers the wheels. Instead, it is used as a range extender to keep a charge to power the electric motor that actually propels the car. The Volt can be plugged in, charged and driven as solely electric, but with a range of only 40 miles. For as short as that range sounds, the fact that 70% of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day to and from work means most people could operate the Volt as a strictly electric commuter. Even more impressively, the Volt uses less energy per year than your fridge.
Clearly, the Volt is an important car. Its prominence in recent media coverage makes it difficult to forgive Chevy for brining a few Corvettes and not one but four new Camaros into Philly instead of the Volt. Further, no other GM company seemed to make much progress on the green front. Saturn is now offering a VUE hybrid, but aside from that the efforts of GM's other companies to produce green cars have remained stagnant. Even Saab, a turbocharging pioneer that was environmentally-conscious long before environmental consciousness was fashionable, seems left for the vultures as it struggles to move its aging products.
Chrysler presented itself as the most sickly of the Big Three. Hopefully small car-savvy Fiat will be able to alter Chrysler's product line to suit the current car buying climate, because Chrysler clearly can't do it alone. All of Chrysler's products were stale and not at all in line with the current market, a truth that extended to Dodge and Jeep.
The Jeep display featured the Renegade concept, a hybrid biodiesel-electric vehicle. But with its exotic styling and impractical features, the Renegade will never see production. Though its powertrain possibly could have made it into production cars, Jeep's lack of promotion for the engine suggests it's only a pipe dream. The Renegade sat as a lonely reminder of what Chrysler could be doing if it understood the market.
Dodge was just as bad. Signs advertising new dealer incentives like employee pricing proved that Dodge has learned nothing about how to deal with tough times, and is still pushing for sheer volume. The new Viper ACR was shown. That car's lap time of 7:22.1 at the Nurburgring was advertised more loudly than the gas mileage of any Dodge products. That about sums up the tastefulness of the company's display.
Most other brands at the show had similar presences to prior years. A few companies really shined, though. Mercedes-Benz, a manufacturer that is always well-represented at Philly, brought several diesel-powered vehicles with them. The BlueTEC diesel used by Mercedes-Benz features a chemical that is aspirated into the car's exhaust to further clean up emissions. BMW is now offering a diesel in its 3-series and X5. The engine produces 265hp and a mammoth 425lb-ft of torque out of just 3.0 liters. That's an incredible 130lb-ft of torque above the M3's V8. The 335d, the 3-series using BMW's diesel, gets 36mpg on the highway.
Volkswagen, which has a great history of brining diesel-powered cars to the U.S., offers only the Jetta with its TDI diesel as of now. They plan on offering a V6 TDI for the Touareg this Summer, though. No TDI's are currently provided by Volkswagen-owned Audi, but a product specialist ensured that they're on their way. March will see the introduction of the Q7 TDI, followed by an A3 TDI and a Q5 TDI. By 2011, Audi hopes to offer all of its vehicles with a TDI option.
Toyota and Lexus continued to lead the way with hybrid technology. Toyota's display featured the Highlander and Camry hybrids, as well as the Prius. Still a leader in EPA-estimated gas mileage figures, the Prius is rated at 48mpg in the city and 45mpg on the highway. Lexus brought its hybrid versions of the RX, Ls, and GS lines. A representative stated that Lexus will be introducing a dedicated hybrid model in late Summer. Proving its willingness to battle on multiple fronts, Lexus also displayed its high-performance take on the well designed IS, called the IS-F.
There were a wide array of companies offering varied approaches to greener powertrains in Philadelphia, but putting revolutionary engines in traditional cars does not solve any problems on its own. Advances in hybrid and diesel technologies are very important, but the fact remains that these impressive new engines are too often dropped into cars that have no other innovative values.
BMW's diesel makes 425lb-ft of torque while getting very good gas mileage. Why can't we live with, say, 150lb-ft of toque if it means achieving positively great gas mileage? Toyota's Prius is a good role model in that it sacrifices unnecessary performance for frugality. A Prius is still fast enough to keep up with any traffic and still handles well enough to be safe on any road, but it gives up racetrack reflexes for a good set of real-world priorities. Unfortunately, many other hybrids, even those from Toyota-owned Lexus, use the electric motor as little more than a performance boost by turning quick cars with average gas mileage into quicker cars with average gas mileage.
What is needed is a shift in philosophy. Smaller cars featuring just the bare necessities need to be valued more highly in our society if we're to solve this crisis. Companies like Smart, Mini, and Scion all did a respectable job of trying to convey this philosophy. These companies had improved displays over last year's, and were willing to prove that sometimes less really is more.
Smart, Mini, and Scion each offer buyers a unique car with a distinct sense of style and quality. These are not the traditional cheap-looking, cheap-feeling small cars that have long been derided by Americans. They remind that character as interesting and engaging as that of a Porsche can be can be purchased for a fraction of the cost while sipping a fraction of the fuel.
One of the biggest attractions of the Philadelphia Auto Show is its diverse blend of cars. New car manufacturers are well represented, while collections of classics and heavily modified vehicles are also displayed. The folks from DUB were back once again with an impressive display of tuned cars. Highlighting their display was an orange Lamborghini Murcielago with tasteful modifications. A Ferrari 355 tuned with the same mindset was also present. These cars, with their flashy colors and large rims, were presented to the loud beats of a live DJ, proving that even in a recession there will always be a place for the ostentatious auto.
A lone 'K-1 Attack' hybrid vehicle was displayed at the show. Built by a hard-working team of inner city high school students, the stunning car hits 60mph in just 5 seconds. It also gets an incredible 60mpg. It was the winner of the 2005 and 2006 Tour de Sol. A repeat from prior years, the presence of the hybrid K-1 Attack at this year's show was decidedly appropriate.
A company called Gotham Dream Cars brought a Saleen S7 to Philly. Gotham has a collection of exotics that are rented out to paying customers. Lamborghini, Bentley, Ferrari, and others can all be had… for a price. The Saleen goes for about four grand a day. Despite the imposing price tag on Gotham's rentals, the company has been very charitable in the past. They have provided their services to brighten the final days of children with terminal illnesses through charities like the Make a Wish Foundation.
As always, many impressive classics were featured at Philly this year. The most notable old cars to show up were first-timers from a museum called the Simeone Foundation. Located in Philadelphia, the Simeone Foundation houses an awe-inspiring collection of the world's best racing sports cars. The collection includes multi-million dollar Alfa Romeos, as well as cars from Bugatti, Ferrari, Maserati, and others. Among the cars brought to the Philly Auto Show were a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, a Jaguar D-Type, and a BMW 328. All three of these sculptures represent what could arguably be described as the single best cars of their respective brands.
Large auto dealer F.C. Kerbeck was back with its impressive showcase of exotics, which included drophead coupe versions of both the Rolls-Royce Phantom and Bentley Arnage. Also included in Kerbeck's display were a Maserati GranTurismo, Lamborghini Murcielago, and an Aston Martin DBS among some other examples of those famed marques.
As in other years, the evening before the public opening of the Philly Auto Show held an upscale black-tie gala. The inclusion of this event suggested that the show has continued to prosper despite the recession and auto industry difficulties. Even in tough times, the Philadelphia International Auto Show has proved itself capable of offering a unique blend of cars in a pleasant, unfettered environment.
By: Evan Acuña
|Prior Year Coverage|