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One of the most distinct characteristics of the Philadelphia International Auto Show has long been its consistency. For years, the show has featured the same makes of cars, the same displays of custom and vintage autos, and the same family-friendly atmosphere that makes the event a joy even for people with only a modest interest in cars. But over the years, the show began to seem too consistent. Each show became too much like the last, leaving many spectators wishing for a more dynamic and exciting event.
The old shortcomings of the Philly Auto Show were difficult to avoid. Many of them were due to the show being put together by the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, instead of by actual carmakers. The ADAGP is a large group, with the 2010 show involving over 500 dealerships from southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware. The group, though, has never had the means to sponsor a show with the advanced concept cars and glitzy new vehicle debuts that are found at more prestigious shows like Detroit, where manufactures themselves spend big money to ensure the public's positive reception of new cars. The dealers would do their best to bring the most exciting cars they could, but too often the main portion of the show wound up feeling like little more than a large, multi-make, new car showroom in the Philadelphia Convention Center.
Luckily, the 2010 event managed to shake off much of that old oversized showroom feeling. The cars were fresher, the displays were more impressive, and the domestic brands as a whole put on a better show than they have in years. The changes made to the Philly Auto Show for 2010 were reflections of a changing auto industry and the changing attitudes of consumers.
Those adjustments to the Philly show's theme came no too soon. With continued recession-induced slow sales and an American auto industry still recovering from a collective near-death experience, a great show was necessary to boost buyer confidence and prove the worth of Detroit's latest offerings. Some emotional opening remarks by General Motors Vice President of Global Design Ed Welburn set the stage for a showcase of renewed American ambition.
'I've been looking forward to this day,' said Welburn as he addressed the crowd, standing between two vehicles that were a lot more than just cars to him. One was a symbol of the grand past of a company he had always loved, the other living proof that, by putting forth good effort, GM can still build world class vehicles. To Mr. Welburn's right was a sleek 1960 Cadillac Cyclone. To his left, the upcoming Cadillac CTS-V Coupe.
One of the Cadillacs was particularly close to Welburn's heart. It was the Cyclone, a one-off concept penned by renowned General Motors designer Harley Earl. Welburn, a Philadelphia native, got the chance to see the Cyclone in 1960 at that year's very own Philly Auto Show, and it left an indelible impression.
'Every time I see it I really get fired-up and excited,' explained Welburn, who felt that the advanced automobile, with its bullet-shaped front fenders, rocket thruster taillights, and all glass retractable roof, was everything a concept car should be. It was innovative and unique, with radical styling and high-tech features. It was a 'breakthrough,' he said. 'That's what concept cars do—it was a real breakthrough for the Cadillac brand.' That Caddy changed his life. It was 'the car that inspired me to become a car designer.' After Welburn's first correspondence with GM, through a letter he wrote the company at the age of 11, the budding designer never looked back.
In a company as big as GM, it's too easy to forget that there are real people with real stories behind all those products. For the last few decades, General Motors seems to have suppressed all creativity within its range of vehicles. With few exceptions, GM cars were bland, cheaply built, and unoriginal. The company may have needed a taste of death before it came to its senses, but GM finally appears poised to return to its old ways as a maker of stylish and exciting cars of lasting influence. And it will take passionate individuals like Ed Welburn to lead the way in restoring GM's vivid personality.
The CTS-V Coupe made its East Coast debut at Philadelphia, and was a pleasant glimpse of what GM hopes to accomplish in the near future. An attractive car with an aggressive stance, the Coupe will offer the M5-fighting performance of its sedan counterpart but with a sportier body that represents what may be Cadillac's most well-executed design since the Allanté of 1987, which was styled by legendary Italian design firm Pininfarina. To prove the Coupe's sporting intent, the Cadillac came equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. This was a bold and welcome move at a show where exactly zero out of twelve BMW cars displayed was equipped with a three-pedal purist's proper gearbox.
The changes being made at GM are not limited to premium models. The company is working hard to rebuild Chevrolet's image, and the cars displayed at Philadelphia showed good progress. The Volt was present at the Philly show for the first time, and the 2011 Cruze made its East Coast debut. The Cruze is no revolutionary car. On the contrary, it is a largely conventional compact sedan. The Cruze, though, exhibits a level of quality and attention to detail beyond that of any prior compact from GM. Since the introduction of the Cobalt five years ago, Chevrolet has become a maker of truly competitive small cars—a claim that the company never could have made when it was producing tepid econoboxes like the Cavalier.
Corvettes and Camaros could be seen at the Philly show, but their presence did not overwhelm the impressive display of small cars. The Corvette Stingray concept was also at Philadelphia, and it was one of the most striking designs of the whole show. Looking quite like a modern interpretation of the third-generation Corvette, the Stingray concept had a sleek but decidedly powerful look, with hood and fender bulges like clenched muscles beneath a taut skin. With a distinct athleticism that was at once refined and raw, the Stingray was hopefully a hint at the direction to be pursued by the next Corvette.
GM's much-improved product lines came at a severe price to the company. Four brands had to be relinquished by General Motors before the company could work on rebuilding its damaged core of Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC. These surrendered brands were Hummer, Saturn, Pontiac, and Saab. None of them had displays at the show this year, though Saab may return in the future as the brand has just been purchased by Spyker, a builder of Dutch supercars.
Chrysler's displays seemed out of touch compared with those of GM. The Chryslers being shown at Philadelphia were stale and could not hope to garner much attention. Chrysler's Jeep brand had a somewhat humble display, understandable for a company that exclusively produces SUVs (and a half-hearted crossover) at a time when fuel mileage is at the forefront of many buyers' minds.
Dodge's display, though, was the most inappropriate of Chrysler and its subsidiaries. That's not to say it was bad—actually, it was quite impressive. Several examples of the mean new Ram were there, as well as an orange and black Viper. The Challenger was present, as was a Charger in police trim. All of these cars had one trait in common—muscle. It's good that Dodge has established a concrete brand identity, but is this the right identity for the times? Gas guzzling Rams and Vipers, while impressive to behold, are not set to be hot sellers in this market.
The Ford Motor Company, at least, had displays of similar quality to GM's. Lincoln and Mercury generated little excitement, but both companies seem conscious of the market and are moving in a progressive direction. The Lincoln MKS and MKT are proof. Though both vehicles are too understated to create much buzz, they are very good cars with contemporary personalities.
The Ford brand itself was where the Ford Motor Company understandably focused its efforts, and the results were great. The Taurus SHO, which makes 365hp out of just 3.5-liters and still manages 25mpg on the highway, was shown proudly. The SVT Raptor was shown as well, though Ford wisely chose not to be too loud about this fuel-chugging, off-road-ready truck.
Another East Coast debut at Philadelphia, the Ford Fiesta was presented by Brand Manager Sam De La Garza and a couple of guests. These guests were two of the 'Fiesta Agents' who helped use social media devices to create an innovative marketing strategy for the car's U.S. launch. Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr were all exploited effectively and aggressively, to increase awareness of the Fiesta.
De La Garza called the stateside launch of the Fiesta 'a really exciting moment for Ford Motor Company.' He described the model as the first necessary step to furthering Ford's image as a builder of high-quality cars, saying that 'having a credible product in the B-segment is where we have to start.' The Fiesta, with its seven airbags (including one for the driver's knees) and available Powershift 6-speed automatic transmission, will provide great feature content for a base price south of $14,000. The show car, in cheerful Bright Magenta Metallic paint, was a 5-door hatchback with tidy, European lines—appropriate given that the Fiesta had already become Ford of Europe's best-selling small car. The car will also be available as a 4-door sedan.
Though most critical eyes at the show seemed directed towards the Big Three, there was plenty of news from the other brands as well. Volkswagen proved itself as one of the most forward-thinking foreign makes. The German brand's display was modern and youthful, with clever design touches and even driving simulator games for show goers. The clean and fresh look to their setup suited the brand perfectly.
Volkswagen now offers two diesel engines in the U.S., one variety of which was powering a Jetta TDI sedan at Philadelphia. A 2.0L turbodiesel four, the mill generates 140hp and 236lb-ft of torque. In addition to the Jetta sedan and wagon, that engine is now offered in the Golf. Volkswagen also offers a TDI engine for its Touareg, a 3.0L V6 with 225hp and a hearty 406lb-ft of torque. EPA estimated fuel mileage ratings for the Jetta TDI sedan are 30mpg city and 42mpg highway, but higher mileage is often reported according to Volkswagen. An Australian couple recently set a Guinness World Record by averaging 58.82mpg in their stock Jetta TDI. The record was set on a 9,419-mile trip that took them through the 48 contiguous states of the U.S.
Audi displayed two turbodiesel vehicles, each using one of the Volkswagen TDI engines mentioned above. The Audi A3 TDI was powered by the 2.0L, while the Q7 TDI was equipped with the 3.0L. Also shown at the Audi stand were the S5 Cabriolet and the R8 Spyder, the latter of which will be powered by Audi's manic, Lamborghini-derived, direct-injected 5.2L V10 engine with 525hp. The drop-top R8 will have a top speed of 195mph. The S5 Cabriolet is powered by a supercharged 3.0L V8 with 333hp instead of the V8 that had been used in the standard S5. Both convertibles use cloth tops. With many new convertible models featuring retractable hardtops that compromise styling and top-down luggage space, it's a relief that Audi continues to offer buyers the ragtop choice.
BMW returned for 2010 with the same diesel engine it brought in 2009. A 3.0L straight six diesel with twin turbos, the mill makes 265hp and an earth-spinning 425lb-ft of torque. It can be ordered in the X5 xDrive35d SUV and the 335d sports sedan, both of which shatter the V8-powered M3's torque rating by 130lb-ft.
Mercedes-Benz displayed a GL350 Bluetec diesel, but the real news came in the form of an S400 Hybrid variant of the S-class sedan. The S400 Hybrid, with a base price of just under $88,000, uses a 3.5L V6 and an electric motor to deliver a combined power rating of 295hp, enough to move the car from zero to sixty in 7.2 seconds. Other hybrid vehicles at the show included the successful Toyota Prius and its close competitor the Honda Insight, as well as the new Lexus HS250h. Though diesel technology is catching up, hybrids are still the most successful 'green' vehicles in the U.S. market. Even Porsche is trying to get involved. The fabled sports car maker of Stuttgart will be releasing a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its Cayenne SUV this summer.
The FC Kerbeck dealerships were back with their exotic car display featuring Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Maserati, and Lamborghini products. The Algar Ferrari Maserati dealership brought a Ferrari California and 599, as well as a Maser Quattroporte and GranTurismo. These exotic cars represented the only new vehicle brands at Philadelphia that were not actively working to create more environmentally friendly autos. Every other mainstream brand involved with the show seemed to be pushing green technology, and the many diesel and hybrid models offered at the Philly Auto Show this year provided a perfect context for the arrival of a new kind of exotic at the show, from an exciting new company that has fused the sporting values of high-end supercars with the responsibility of a mainstream brand. That company is Tesla.
The Tesla Roadster, built on the platform of the Lotus Elise and thus inheriting much of that car's grace and charm, is an all-electric sports car. With its high price and short range it's certainly not perfect, but the Tesla Roadster is a wonderful figurehead for the electric car movement. The Roadster has generated interest that could not have been created by a less exotic electric car, and for that reason it is an important automobile. The two Tesla Roadsters that made it to Philadelphia for display were encouraging in their insistence that green can be fun, too.
Despite the event's close association with the ADAGP, the Philadelphia International Auto Show did not only showcase new cars. As in prior years, it showcased a superb collection of vintage autos as well as some heavily modified customs presented by DUB Magazine. The wild creations of DUB's display were the antithesis to the environmentally-responsible themes supported by most new models at Philadelphia.
Lifted trucks, lowered sports cars, muscle cars with fat drag slicks—nothing about DUB's cars was particularly 'green.' Except, of course, for the cash it took to build the things. Stacy Andrews, Juqua Parker, and Mike Patterson—all of Philadelphia Eagles fame—had their modified cars on display with DUB. The cars were excessive and expensive in equal measure, and provided a perfect distraction for the non-car enthusiast…because everyone can appreciate an Audi A3 with rear gull wing doors opening to reveal eight speakers and a TV screen where a backseat might have been.
If the blaring hip-hop music coming from the DUB display grew tiring, spectators could take a few steps and find themselves in a much quieter world of wool and tweed where vintage cars sit in states of regal repose. Select automobiles from the Buckingham Concours and the Eastern Concours of the United States were available to see, including a stunning 1928 Minerva and 1941 Cadillac Series 62 convertible coupe from the Eastern Concours and a pristine 1955 Pontiac Safari from Buckingham.
The Simeone Foundation of Philadelphia, an excellent museum dedicated to the rich history of auto racing, also displayed several cars. These included a 1938 SS 100 Jaguar and a 1954 Austin-Healey 100/4. A 1935 Auburn 851 Supercharged Speedster, one of the most iconic designs of all time, was also shown.
The Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles brought a 1907 Dragon, which was built in Philadelphia. The museum specializes in early automobiles from eastern Pennsylvania, and has a collection of about 50 cars from that region.
The vintage and custom cars of the Philly Auto Show once again added much to the event, but it shouldn't be forgotten that this ADAGP-run event is, above all else, about selling new cars. There are no pushy salespeople, though, and no pressure to do anything but take your time. The show has become an invaluable shopping experience for untold numbers of Philadelphia locals. By offering show goers the chance to experience the entire mainstream auto market in one day and at one location, the Philly Auto Show has helped potential customers prepare to make carefully educated purchases. For 2010, though, with the East Coast debuts of several models and key players at Ford and GM brought in to speak about their respective companies, the Philadelphia International Auto Show has gone far beyond its traditional roll as an indispensible shopping tool.
Text and photos courtesy of Evan Acuna
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