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Sunday, October 13, 2019

2019 Detroit Auto Show Hits, Misses, and Revelations

DETROIT, Michigan—Thirty years after Toyota launched Lexus and Nissan introduced Infiniti here, and 27 years after Chrysler smashed Cobo Hall’s front windows with the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the North American International Auto Show is done with January. The reviews from jaded auto journos are mixed, and the press-day crowds were down despite Toyota and China’s GAC flying in press from overseas. We’re pretty confident, though, in saying what Detroit lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality this year. There is more to like than there is to avoid, even if the Japanese and Chinese automakers are the only ones left who still build concepts, and even though Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mini, Audi, and Volvo this year joined a bunch of other automakers who had followed Aston Martin’s decision to leave town after its Zen display of a decade ago. Herewith, our regular compendium of criticism, the good, the bad, and the philosophical, this time about what there is to see at the 2019 NAIAS:

HIT: Toyota Supra

Too many are getting stuck on the BMW partnership and the long gestation process, nitpicking the design, and decrying the lack of a manual transmission (which by the way Supra chief engineer Tetsuya Tada has not ruled out, so call your favorite dealer and demand it). Can we all just agree that what Toyota has done is give the world what by all accounts should be a nimble, kick-ass, rear-drive sports car that’s relatively attainable, price-wise? Call it whatever the hell you want, the fact that this car exists at all is pretty remarkable in this day and age. And it’s all but assured that hard-core variants will be in the offing. Yeah, what a terrible thing Toyota has done . . . not. —Mike Floyd

Automotive journalists can be a funny group. After wishing for a new Supra for years, some of them were overheard describing the final production car as less than thrilling, with others going so far as to call it “ugly.” “Look at all those fake plastic vents and intakes,” they decried. But as Supra designer Nobua Nakamura told editor-in-chief Mike Floyd, those nonfunctional pieces could become functional on future variants of the car. I don’t think the new Supra is perfect in the appearance department, and its roofline does look proportionally odd from some angles. But for the love of Suzuka, I’m excited to get a chance to drive it once test vehicles become available. If it lights up twisting roads as I expect it will, any niggling quibbles I have with its styling will go right off the nearest cliffside. —Mac Morrison

The biggest, most anticipated thing at this show is not an SUV, or even an autonomous tall electric sedan, but a sports car. Yes, it’s essentially a BMW Z4built in Austria by Magna, but at least it has its own sheetmetal, which is more than you can say for the 86. And I’d take that Toyota 86 over most of the cars on the market today. Since the beginning of time, sports cars have relied on sharing some components to make development costs work out. In his introduction of the car, Akio Toyoda said he hopes Toyota will build more new sports cars in the future. Here’s to seeing him fulfill that wish. —Todd Lassa

MISS: Toyota Supra

This was easily the most anticipated car of the show, and I have no doubt it will be a blast to drive. But what is with Toyota outsourcing its performance cars? Sure, it’s great that Toyota will be selling a re-skinned BMW. But right in the same room as the BMW Supra is the Lexus LC, a 2018 Automobile All-Star and proof positive that Toyota knows how to design scintillating cars. With all the emphasis on making Camrys and RAV4s better to drive—which they are, by the way—what does it say when you outsource your halo sports car? I can’t imagine the effect this must have had on the morale of their engineering corps. “Nice job on the new Camrys, and oh, by the way, that new Supra? We’re getting BMW to do it.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have the Supra back—but I’d prefer a ToyotaSupra. —Aaron Gold

REVELATION: The Supra almost wasn’t a Supra

In a chat at the Detroit show with Supra chief designer Nobua Nakamura, he told us that in July of 2013 that he and his team started sketching out ideas for a model that was at first billed as a nameless sports-car project. It was only after seeing the positive reception given to the FT-1 concept—created by Toyota’s Calty design house in California—at the 2014 Detroit show that the FT-1 would become the primary design inspiration for the sports-car project that would eventually be dubbed Supra. And the rest, as they say, is history. —MF

HIT: Akio Toyoda

For giving the best speech I’ve seen at an auto show in years, if not ever. No boring sales numbers. No bits of badly faked enthusiasm. Toyoda-san’s speech was funny, it was too the point, and though it was scripted—I was reading it on the teleprompter along with him—it’s obvious he’s seriously jazzed about this car (even if it is an automatic BMW). —AG

HIT: Fernando Alonso

My wife thinks so, anyway. Alonso appeared briefly on stage with Akio Toyoda for the Toyota Supra launch. Toyoda was gracious in acknowledging that the two-time Formula 1 champion (for Ferrari) and one-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner (for Toyota) is driving another marque at the 24 Hours of Daytona later this month (a Cadillac). —TL

HIT: Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

For the jaded, it might be easy to look at the new GT500 and see just another jacked-up performance variant of Ford’s pony car. I get that . . . but whatever. More than 700 horsepower (what’s the final number, Ford?!) from the 5.2-liter supercharged V-8, a dual-clutch gearbox, zero to 60 mph in the mid-three-second range, a sub-11-second quarter-mile, magnetic dampers, and an optional Carbon-Fiber Track package with carbon wheels, rear-seat delete, and more? Find me a challenging road course and let’s get it on. Now. —MM

RELEVATION: Mahindra

This plucky Indian company is showing off its not-road-legal CJ-5 clone right in Jeep’s back yard. That takes cojones!—AG

HIT: Lexus LC Convertible concept

Rare is the car that gets scalped and doesn’t look great, but even rarer is a car as stunning to behold as the LC droptop. For all the coupe’s beauty—okay, some folks don’t like the spindle grille, but I think it works there—its overall attitude and stance strike me more as coming from a place of aggression. This concept elevates the LC to true elegance. I wouldn’t be shocked to see examples of the eventual production version at various concours d’élégance in the coming decades. —Erik Johnson

Yes, please. We love the LC hardtop, which was a 2018 All-Star, and with the top down, it takes the LC’s delightful GT style to another level. —MF

And here I thought it couldn’t get better than the LC coupe. Built it, Lexus! Build it, build it, build it!—AG

MISS: Cadillac XT6

It’s a damn shame what’s happened to Cadillac. Yes, I get it, its sedan sales are cratering and OMG it needs crossovers ASAP. I’m sure the XT6 and XT4 will be sales salve, but they come off as old GM badge-engineered exercises, and beyond the expressive grilles look uninspired. While they may put the brand back in the black, it’s sad to see really capable cars like the CT6 be minimized. At least Cadillac gave that car some serious attention in the form of the 550-hp CT6-V (which already is sold out). There is some hope in the form of the emerging EV strategy. Maybe those cars won’t have alphanumeric names. —MF

As another grizzled veteran told me, this three-row luxury SUV would have been a hit in 2012, or even 2016. While there’s nothing wrong with the new XT6 other than the Honda Pilot-esque side surfacing and the too-familiar GM interior plastics and switchgear, there’s nothing about it that pops. While I once believed that rear-wheel-drive proportions don’t matter on a tall SUV, the new Lincoln Aviator and even the 2020 Ford Explorer (gasp) have proved otherwise. —TL

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