Toned-down auto show for Ford, Toyota in 2016 – Columbus Dispatch

Posted: Sunday, January 17, 2016

DETROIT — Welcome to a parallel universe where the flashiest car is a Buick and a throng of
journalists is jostling to get a clear view of Chrysler’s hot new model — a minivan.

That was the scene last week at the North American International Auto Show press preview. There
were no major redesigns of top-selling models, and no new supercars such as the Ford GT and Acura
NSX. The public show runs through Jan. 24.

Looking at the newly introduced models, some automakers seem to be taking a breather this year,
after record-high sales in 2015 and a breakneck pace of change in vehicle technology. Toyota has no
new models, and Ford has a subdued presence compared with recent years.

Into this breach comes the Buick Avista Concept, a sleek coupe. As a concept vehicle, the Avista
might never be sold in dealerships, but Buick has said it will use some of the Avista’s design
elements in upcoming models.

“That’s a very nice-looking vehicle,” said Jake Fisher, director of automotive testing for
Consumer Reports. “It’s interesting that we’re at a point where the flashiest, sexiest
vehicle is from Buick.”

Buick, a division of General Motors, has made eye-catching concept cars before, but it has a
reputation for playing it safe in the models it sends to dealers.

“It’s drop-dead gorgeous, but I don’t think they’ll build it,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior
analyst for IHS Automotive. She is eager, though, to see some of the Avista’s features in other
Buick models.

Chrysler spent its time onstage trying to drum up interest in a new minivan, the 2017 Pacifica.
And it seems to have worked.

“We’re about to dramatically change the mental image created when you hear the word
minivan,” said Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger-car brands for Fiat Chrysler in North
America.

The 2017 Pacifica is loaded with features aimed at hauling people and cargo. This includes
fold-away seats, an onboard vacuum and doors that can open hands-free.

Chrysler says the model’s design “has a level of style not found in the minivan segment.”

It was a statement that Honda, maker of the segment-leading Odyssey, would quibble with,
considering the resemblance between the models’ looks and features.

“I think it’s got the goods,” said Jack Nerad, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, about the
Pacifica. “It looks good from the outside, and that’s part of the battle.”

He sees the Pacifica in the context of the 30-year history of the minivan segment. Chrysler
essentially invented the segment with the Dodge Caravan and had the leading models for years. Then
the segment faded, and Honda’s Odyssey became the sales leader in a diminished category.

“Honda has started to dominate that, where (minivans) used to be Chrysler’s bailiwick,”

Nerad said.

Ford often has the splashiest news conference of the show, renting out Joe Louis Arena and using
the big stage as an opportunity to make its biggest announcements. This time, the news conference
was in the same arena, but the message was more modest.

The company announced FordPass, a free digital platform that customers would be able to use to
find destinations, reserve parking and perform other tasks. The system, launching in April, also
would be used for car sales and service.

Ford’s other announcements were vehicles that are derivatives of existing models, such as new
hybrid versions of the Fusion sedan, and the F-150 Raptor Supercrew.

Fisher, of
Consumer Reports, was pleased to see a quiet year from Ford because he thinks the company
has been overdoing it with high-profile redesigns. He said he thinks this has contributed to Ford’s
drop in reliability in his magazine’s recent testing.

“They need to just get the quality right of those vehicles and just slow it down,” he said. “
They need to stabilize.”

Many of the big issues affecting the auto industry were discussed more off the stages than on
them. This includes research into self-driving vehicles.

Automakers and analysts expect self-driving features to be a big part of upcoming vehicle
announcements.

There also was a lack of the celebratory mood that might have been expected considering that
U.S. new-car sales set a record last year with 17.5 million units. One reason is that the sales
growth has slowed, and forecasts call for almost none this year.

“The stuff that we have here is really solid,” Brinley said. “But there’s nothing that knocks
you in the head and says, ‘You need to pay attention to me.’  ”

dgearino@dispatch.com

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