GM executive Bob Lutz mobbed at Saturn stand
GM executive Bob Lutz mobbed at Saturn stand. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Paul Williams

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While attending the media preview of the 2006 New York Auto Show, several journalists were heard commenting that, “there’s not much here this year.” What that means in journo-speak is that there weren’t a deluge of world premieres, or dozens of brand new vehicles for the North American market.

But some journalists forget that for the general public, a huge event like the New York Auto Show is an orgy of automotive dazzle and flash, world premieres or not. You can be sure everyone will go home thrilled with the show, carrying bags full of brochures, making mental lists of vehicles they’d like to own.

Believe me, there’s plenty to see.

Check out the Lexus LS600hL for instance. Here’s a luxury car that can parallel park itself! Yes, you read that right. Find a parking space, press a button on the dash, and the Lexus sensor system detects the position of the car next to it, calculates the steering and throttle inputs necessary to move the LS600hL into the space behind that car, and parks it there.

Lexus LS600hL
Lexus LS600hL. Click image to enlarge

While it’s doing that, the rear seat passengers can enjoy a soothing foot massage while reclining in the cushy Lexus leather seats. In the front, a “Magic Hands” option drops from the ceiling and gently rubs the shoulders of the tired executives waiting for the car to park itself.

Okay, I’m kidding about the “Magic Hands” but the foot massage – It’s real.

The 420-horsepower LS600hL is a hybrid-gasoline car that also comes with accident avoidance technology. A camera is pointed at your face at all times, and detects if your eyes are on the road. If an obstacle is identified ahead of you, and the camera determines you haven’t noticed it, an audible warning sounds. Still too busy to keep your eyes on the road? The system attempts to avoid the obstacle by braking and steering around it.

Scion FUSE Concept Coupe
Scion FUSE Concept Coupe. Click image to enlarge

You’ve got to give Toyota credit, because at the other end of the market, their Scion brand is targeting young people with a line of cool little cars, clothes and accessories that seem to completely resonate with buyers in that segment. Scion engineers, marketers and designers all look to be well under 30, and their people seem to have connected with genuine fashion, technology and music trend leaders. The Scion FUSE Coupe Concept features the personalization potential that Scions are known for, with driving, video and cargo configurations based around social interaction, Wi-Fi connectivity, instant messaging, music and video – and transportation, of course.

Toyota will reap the benefits of this investment over the coming years, as Scion buyers move straight into Toyota and Lexus products. Why don’t we have Scions in Canada? I’m told it’s because young people (early twenties) can’t afford new vehicles (and the insurance) here, but in the U.S., they can.

While Acura debuted its MDX Concept SUV (which will be pretty close to the production design, if Acura is true to form), one thing I noticed at the NY show was a lot of “crossover” utility vehicles (CUVs). At least, that’s what several manufacturers are calling them, but I think consumers in general don’t really see the difference between CUVs and SUVs, as their shape is basically the same. Examples are the Ford Edge, Acura RDX, and Mazda CX-7 which are kind of “urban SUVs” if you will.

Mitsubishi Outlander
Mitsubishi Outlander. Click image to enlarge

You’d think the new Mitsubishi Outlander would be one as well, but Mitsubishi is sticking with the term “SUV” to describe it. The Outlander will be built on the same platform as the Evo sports car, has a 220-hp V6 engine, side curtain airbags, and a range of features that target it squarely at the latest Toyota RAV4. Gone is the somewhat quirky Outlander styling, replaced with a more conventional, sporty exterior. We’ll see the new Outlander in February 2007, although it goes on sale earlier in the U.S.

The CUV/SUV thing may be a storm in a teacup, or maybe it will go somewhere. Compare the new Ford Edge with the Ford Escape, for instance, and to me, the Escape ends up looking old-fashioned. Maybe SUVs are just morphing into something more modern, less truck-like.

Carlos Ghosn, the corporate magician at Nissan/Renault was at the show, personally introducing the new Nissan Altima and Infiniti G35. These, along with the Audi TT, form a group of vehicles that were always going to be difficult to update. Where do you take the Audi TT? From day one it was heralded as an “iconic” design that would defy future development. Likewise the G35 and the Altima. Maybe they’re not as “iconic,” but they have a special look to them that’s very distinctive and also challenges attempts to evolve.

Audi TT
Audi TT. Click image to enlarge

My take is that the new versions of these three vehicles are less impressive than the models they replace. The TT seems an obvious attempt to attract more male buyers, by making the lines sharper and the look more conventional. The G35 and the Altima don’t take their designs forward either, settling for consolidation rather than advancement. Maybe on the road they’ll stand out more.

That’s the problem with “iconic” designs like the TT, new MINI and the New Beetle. Where do you go with them? Take a look at the Ford stand, and you get an idea of where you end up after messing with the “iconic” 1960s Mustang for 40 years.

And indeed that’s exactly what we find from Ford. A Hertz Mustang. Why not? It worked in the ‘sixties, and the black and gold special edition will work again, for sure. Apparently, the production run of 500 Shelby GT-H Mustangs will stay in the Hertz rental fleet for 15,000 miles, and then get farmed out to dealers. Original Hertz Mustangs are worth about $120,000 these days. Expect dealers in the U.S. to charge a premium. Instant classic, right? Notice the revived GT-500 as well.

Saturn Sky Redline
Saturn Sky Redline. Click image to enlarge

Over at the GM stand, Saturn wasn’t buying into all this high-tech and nostalgia, but they like the horsepower idea. The Sky Redline is Saturn’s 260-hp interpretation of the Pontiac Solstice, but the hoopla was around Bob Lutz, rather than the vehicle. Everyone wanted to ask him about the future of GM, presumably not immediately buying into the Saturn brand’s role in that vision. But the Sky looks sharp (even though it has the same glaring inadequacies as the Solstice), the new Aura sedan is way nicer than the old LS1, the new Outlook SUV (GM calls it a CUV) sure is big, and the Preview concept (based on a collaboration with GM’s European division, Opel) attracted lots of photographers, although it’s not slated for production.

Over at Pontiac, the Solstice Weekend Racer concept was interesting because you got to see what the Solstice looks like with a hardtop, and the G6 GTP is a more powerful version of Pontiac’s hardtop convertible.

If you’d like your power in a more conventional package, the Mazdaspeed3 will generate 250-hp through its front wheels, and is sure to be a road rocket if its special differential can keep the torque-steer under control (Mazda says it can and does). Mazda also unveiled its CX-9 – do I call it a CUV or an SUV? – which is a seven-seat version of the five-seat CX-7 (why aren’t these called the CX-5 and the CX-7? Ask Mazda).

Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai Elantra. Click image to enlarge

The 2007 Hyundai Elantra compact car made its world premiere at New York. It’s targeted directly at the Honda Civic, with anti-lock brakes, side-curtain airbags, 138-hp Super Ultra Low Emissions (SULEV) engine and all. Hyundai says it has more interior volume, more luxurious interiors and a better ride than the Civic. The design is all-new, but not as advanced-looking as the Civic, in my view.

From DaimlerChrysler, the Chrylser 300 can be special-ordered in a long wheelbase version that adds 15-centimetres to the car and considerably increases rear seat legroom. Outside, Jeep buried its new Wrangler Unlimited (long wheelbase TJ with full five-passenger seating plus cargo) under a pile of dirt. The idea was that four NY firefighters would take their hoses to it, blast the dirt away and reveal the Jeep. Unfortunately, the dirt turned to clay and the fire guys had a heck of a time moving the muck anyplace at all.

Firefighters reveal Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
Firefighters reveal Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Click image to enlarge

Still, it was dramatic and clever, which is what DC is known for at car shows, and the red Wrangler did eventually become visible. And by the way, it will be called a Wrangler in Canada now; not the TJ anymore.

Speaking of name changes, the 2007 Volkswagen Golf wasn’t at the show, because it’s now called a Rabbit, the name with which it debuted in North America 1975. This seems bizarre to me. It was cute in 1975, I suppose, but do people really want to buy Rabbits? I can’t see it.

Forget Rabbits; I’d rather have a go at the new BMW M Coupe. It looks like it means business and is anything but cute. Exactly what BMW wanted, I’m sure.

The New York Auto Show runs from April 14-23 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on 11th Avenue in New York City.

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