RFD visits the 2014 Washington Auto Show – Part I

As a car enthusiast, it’s always fun, yet a touch difficult to attend an auto show.  Those of us that spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet researching cars (that we will never buy) end up with a useless diverse wealth of knowledge about said cars.  In addition to the normal horsepower and torque figures, we go searching for things like curb weight, wheelbase measurements, and other more obscure facts and figures most people don’t care about.  So what happens when you go an auto show that primarly exists to help normal car buyers research cars?

Ideally you find new things to get excited about!  More on that later, but first, some background for our non Metro DC based readers.  If you were not aware, this auto show is not the largest in the country.  Shows like Detroit, LA, and even Chicago and New York bring more new concepts and unveilings than our nation’s capital.  If you look through the press kit for the DC show, you’ll find a lot of references to “green cars” and awards for technology and innovation.  It turns out that “green” actually has something to do with the environment.  Around the RFD offices, “green” is usually preceded by “British” and “Racing” but I digress.   To help kick off this year’s show, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz delivered one of the keynote addresses; apparently we take this green car thing seriously here in DC.

But you came to RFD for the enthusiast perspective.  I assume.  Or you may have been looking for something else and got lost.  Regardless, we are happy you are here.   Sorry, back to the auto show.  The DC Convention center holds the show on two floors.  Upstairs you’ll find the US, the Italians and the Japanese, basically what’s left of the “Big 3” plus Toyota.  This includes the General Motors family (except for Cadillac which is downstairs with the upper crust. Stratification perhaps?), newly acronym-ed Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), Toyota/Scion (one of these things is not like the other), and Ford Motor Company, which had their normal large showcase at the back of the floor.    I had a slight worry in the back of my mind that the Italians and Japanese were letting us get a bit too comfortable while the Germans crept up the back stairwell to flank our rear.  Just me, oh OK?  Downstairs is all imports, with the exception of the aforementioned Cadillac, who‘s forward deployed forces made it a point to put their pretty new ATS across from Acura’s beaks.  More on that in Part II later this week, but for now  we’ll start upstairs first.  Wait, is that a VW scout over there?

Buick
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No better way to kick off an enthusiast write-up of an auto show than to start with Buick, am I right!?  Actually, am I?  I’m not really sure.  This is actually how we started our 2014 show this year, walking straight into the Buick booth.  Buick is sort of the American equivalent of Kia.  For the most part, they share all of their platforms with cars from a sister company (or companies in Buick’s case), have handsome, but not groundbreaking designs, a decent array of engine and option choices, and attainable pricing.  The Lacrosse (fellow Epsilon II platform mate with the Chevy Impala and Cadillac XTS) sells twice as well in China as it does  in the US, but represents a decent looking midsize luxury option.  The Verano comes with a sporty looking, dual exhausted “T” model and fills their entry level option (sharing a platform with the Chevy Cruze).

But the star of Buick’s booth is the Regal GS.  Positioned between the Lacrosse and the Verano, this is the car Buick hopes brings back some “cool” to their showrooms.  Debuting in 2010 in Detroit, the GS version of the Regal is based on an European model Open Insignia.  The 2014 model year brings all-wheel drive and a 6 speed manual.  But you can’t get them together.  Seriously.  The manual is only offered with front wheel drive.    Come on GM, this isn’t that hard.  Give it at least 300 horsepower, all wheel drive (or even better, rear wheel drive) and keep the manual.  Reclaim some of that second generation Regal glory.

Chevrolet
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Prominently displayed on two turntables (and described by a pretty lady with) a microphone was the new C7 Corvette Stingray.  The pretty white seventh generation convertible spun like an animated GIF, giving up her design secrets a bit more on each turn.  The new Corvette has been thoroughly dissected by the internet, so I was looking for more subtle things.  Like the sparse use of chrome accents that actually look good around the grill, that’s not bad.  The taillights sure are different, but I’m not a Corvette purist and I like them.  Oddly the square four light setup seem patterned after the light pattern the latest Camaro just did away with.  So the C7s taillights are more Camaro than the Camaro.  Sadly, chrome wheels were omnipresent across GM’s display however and in no case did they look good.  On the C7 in particular, they looked awful and cheap.

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The blue targa top car on turntable two was sporting the Z51 handling package which can be spotted on the road by noting the higher rear spoiler, some aero bits around the front, bigger brakes and 19-by-8.5-inch front and 20-by-10-inch rear wheels and tires, up from the standard 18-by-8.5- and 19-by-10-inch package.

My favorite of the bunch was the only one that wasn’t spinning slowly like a stoned girl at a Dave Matthews show.  The little red targa coupe was down amongst the people and she likes to be touched.  And touch I did.  Special thanks for the helpful GM staff who let me get a closer look at her $3000 carbon fiber top, which was stowed in the rear.  You can easily remove it by yourself and apparently with it affixed on top of the car, you can fit two golf ba….sorry I dozed off.  You would be surprised at how proud they were of that fact though, and when we commented “know your customer” they came back with “our old customer”.  We’ll see Chevy, we’ll see.  What felt even lighter was the carbon fiber hood, I felt like I was going to rip it off when I lifted it.  If nothing else, this should give buyers incentive to get the Z51 package just to ensure they have upgraded brakes to avoid rear-ending someone.  I doubt replacing a new C7 hood is cheap.  Speaking of replacing things, the exposed fasteners seem cheap at first glance, but then as a gearhead I posited “wow, that looks easy to replace or remove using basic tools”.  A tradeoff perhaps, I’ll take it.

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Inside, the C7 really has improved from the previous generations of Corvette have driven.   Materials are drastically nicer and the seats were one of my favorites in the show.  More on that in a bit, you may be surprised which cars had similarly good, and likely better seats.

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So what else was there in the land of Chevrolet?  Why there was a big yellow ZL-1 Camaro!  But it was a convertible.  Sure it’s no track monster, but it’s pretty cool though!  But it was an automatic.  Oh.  Hmm.   At least they didn’t have to unscrew the shift knob like they do with most manuals so people don’t steal them!  So that’s something.  I did like the big black wheels at least.  Inside, this particular car sported some suede inserts that looked quite nice, the high door sills make cruising down Woodward a little less comfortable, but the lack of a top means you at least have some outward visibility finally!  Assuming you are willing to be seen driving an automatic muscle car.  In yellow.

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Across the rest of Chevyland, there were some sedans called “Impala” and “Malibu”.  I couldn’t have told you which was larger or nicer before the show, and unless there was a sign telling me starting price of each on-site, I’m not sure I could have told you after looking at them in person.  Both are pretty nice looking, have a low starting price, and the fit and finish of the interiors were solid.  But the star of the sedan stable is certainly the SS.  Actually, I walked right by it my first trip through but on my second trip through our founder Josh fell in love with the red V8 sedan.  “Would DD” could be heard being uttered from the driver’s seat.

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245s in the front, 275s in the rear, it’s got some tires on it.  Some nice big tires.  I like that.  However, they were unfortunately wrapped around more chrome wheels.  Stop GM, just stop.  6.2 Liters of V8 fury pump out 420 horsepower and form the heart of the rear wheel drive SS, a North American derivative of the Australian Holden VF Commodore.

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But will the SS succeed?  The fifth generation Pontiac GTO was an imported version of the Holden Monaro and survived from 2004–2006 selling just 40,808 vehicles over those three years.  Pontiac sold more Aztek’s per year (14,965.5 vs. 13,469.3 if you want to see the exact numbers).  In 2008, Pontiac tried again with the G8.  Based on a previous generation of the Holden Commodore, the G8 sadly only lasted through two model years but Pontiac managed to sell almost as many  of them as they did the GTO (38,159) over a shorter time period.  So ironically just as GM and Holden announced that production in Australia would cease by the end of 2017, this will be the third coming of their of their rebadged cars to the US.  Let’s hope that it was just the Pontiac badge that was bad luck, and people actually buy the SS.   At $44,470, it’s not cheap but it’s a good looking RWD V8 option in a sea of vanilla.  You’ll need to get used to paddle shifters though, no manual is available.  You’re killing me GM.  Regardless, let’s hope this is “third time’s the charm” and not “three strikes and you’re out”.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)

There’s a new acronym in the automotive world, and a minimalist boring logo to accompany it.  We are usually all about speed here on RFD, but I have owned a modern Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and it taught me that going slower, over top of shit, can be a lot of fun!  So I did a quick walk through Jeep’s area.  The new Cherokee is growing on me.  A little.  Maybe.  On the other end of the spectrum, and sharing the Cherokee name is the SRT-8 Grand Cherokee.  Always one of my favorites, it’s just bonkers and I love that they even bother to produce it.

Dodge
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I realize that I have all of this under the “Dodge” heading.  Of course Dodge is diversifying, and SRT is a different brand.  But so is Ram.  At some point each of their vehicles will represent a different nameplate.  Eventually you’ll hear “Oh that’s over in the Dart showroom“.  But I digress.  The SRT-10 is growing up.  It didn’t bite me, punch me in the kidneys or anything like that when I went to get into it.  I did feel a bit like I was crawling into a trap of some sort, but that was just the 1+ foot wide door sill that you need to get over.  At least it doesn’t burn your legs anymore.  Inside I was a bit put off by some of the plastic, particularly where the center console horizontal bit meets the vertical part of the dash.  You can push it down with your hand and they separate.  I hate to sound like Jeremy Clarkson, but that’s unacceptable.   But you can’t hate the SRT-10, you really can’t.  It’s huge, it’s wide, it has a nice x-shaped cross brace over top of it’s gigantic V10.  I can’t stay mad at you Viper.

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Across the rest of FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in case you forgot already) the Challenger and Dart represent decent options in their segment, and across the ocean aisle parent company Fiat had their normal offering of cuteness.  Oh and they also had the 500L which looks like a normal 500, but one that is suffering from a food allergy.

Toyota

I almost kept walking.  But I didn’t.  I thought about the newly unveiled FT-1 and thought “Somewhere, deep inside the bowels of Toyota, there is an enthusiast battling the beige”.   Unfortunately the FT-1 did not make it to the District for this show, so I’ll have to settle for looking at the potential successor to the Supra on the internet for now.

The only thing quasi-interesting was the Toyota FCV or “Fuel Cell Vehicle”.  Unveiled at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, this interestingly? styled sedan, somewhere between a Corolla and  Camry in size, features a hydrogen fuel tank, fuel-cell stacks that convert the hydrogen to electricity, and an electric motor for propulsion.  It’s a great concept and ready for production in the next couple years.  The problem will be the availability of refueling stations which may cause the FCV to be a moot point.

 Ford Motor Company
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In a post-bailout world, Ford is kicking ass and selling cars.  After surveying their offerings, I can see why.  Sure the trapezoidal grill is derivative.  But it’s derivative of Aston f*cking Martin!  I’m just saying.  I didn’t see a more attractive family of cars at the show than the ones with the blue oval.

The Fusion is the pioneer of the family face and is still, in my opinion, the best looking midsize sedan on the market.  Sitting at the DC show were several including a nice SE with black wheels.  Other notables are the new Ford Edge concept which has nice proportions and reminds me of a Range Rover Evoque.  The Escape soldiers on with a refined design that looks nicer than the Japanese competition.  The Taurus SHO falls squarely into the “that’s pretty nice” category, but needs a little something (power to the rear wheels?) to get me motivated into buying one.

The stars of the Ford lineup, aside from the Mustang obviously which I’ll get to, end in “ST”.  Sitting over to the right side of the floor was a little tangerine Fiesta ST.  We have already read all the great reviews, this thing is a hoot to drive.  But we were curious what it would be like to live with on a daily basis, so one of us got into the driver’s seat another into the seat directly behind it.  With the driver’s seat adjusted to hoon-appropriate position, I was able to get my 6 foot frame easily into the back seat.  Ford put in a nice indentation in both front seats perfect to stash rear passengers’ knees.   Heck it even held them firmly in place in case spirited driving became imminent (in the convention center however, that was sadly unlikely).    Up front, one word: “Recaros”.  Amazing, bolstery, there aren’t enough creative words to use to describe how much we enjoyed the seats.  Unless you are overweight, these seats are just about perfect and hold you safe and sound through whatever G’s you put your Fiesta through.  These were about the best seats of the show, as good as the Stingray’s or better.

Next door was the bigger brother, the Focus ST.  It’s pretty much the same, just bigger.  More to love I say, as much as I like the little Fiesta, I would have the Focus.  Both have great materials inside, but the Focus seemed to be even a bit more upscale.  The leather on the steering wheel, while looking almost identical to that in the Fiesta, felt better.  And in the back seat, we tried the same rear seat test and I could actually cross my legs behind the driver.  And while he’s shorter than I am, it’s not by much.  And since it has pretty much the same ridiculously great Recaros up front, it wins at driver comfort as well.

But I came here to see the new Mustang, and mercifully they had one of a handful of prototypes on hand.  Thanks to the helpful Ford staff for letting us past the barriers to get a closer look.  Similar to the C7, this car has gotten a lot of press, probably more than any car I have seen in some time.  So I won’t bore you with rambling design thoughts and impressions about pillars and such.  Overall, as a Mustang purist, I’m a fan, it’s as simple as that.  It’s a great looking fastback design and an aggressive stance.  The slope of the rear will take some getting used to and represents my only criticism of the new car.   And thankfully there was almost no chrome to be found across the entire Ford showcase!  That was true with the Mustang as well, this Ecoboost equipped prototype sported some tasteful grey toned wheels wrapped in Pirelli P-Zero tires.

I asked the Ford spokesperson to wow me, to tell me something I didn’t read about.  So she told me about the “Active Grill Shutters” that run across the top section of the Mustang’s grill.  This feature, being rolled across across most other models, helps aerodynamics by closing at speed to reduce drag up to 6%.  That helps fuel economy.  When the vehicle is warming up on a cold morning, they close keeping the engine warmer.  When it’s hot out and you are at lower speeds they open to cool the engine.  Pretty cool.

That about wraps up the upper level of the 2014 Washington Auto Show.  In summation, American automakers are making a lot of progress.  Some did it alone, some needed some help from the Government (and the Italians).  But in the end, we have quite a few domestic options that are legitimate contenders in the World market.  Here’s hoping that, at the 2015 show next year, we see this trend increasing.  Stay tuned for the Part II downstairs, coming up later this week.  You’ll see the new M3/M4 from BMW, the new WRX STi, and a surprise hit from Lexus.  Thanks for reading.

 

Will is an automotive writer and regular contributor to Right Foot Down.  Based in Maryland, he has had a long history of founding failed automotive sites and spending way too much time on car forums.  He has owned “too many Mustangs” according to Josh and has a fetish for RWD V8s.  He spent most of his 20s on tracks in the mid-atlantic and killing cones in parking lots and has even taught at a teen performance driving school.