The Toronto Auto Show 2013 has cars from the future
The fortieth Canadian International Auto Show kicked off Thursday with a media day that, like so many before it, offered glimpses of a technologically stunning automotive future that always seems just around the corner. The major auto makers spent fortunes showcasing a present that almost always falls well short of last year's promises and, ironically, lives in the shadow of a past where cars had an elegance or a simple, brute fun that's mostly missing today.
The stars, as ever, are the concept cars, those lavish marriages of R&D innovation, the marketing department at play and the designers taking a long, hopeful view of where the car will go. Most of the major manufacturers had a concept car or two on show, ranging from humble peeks at next year's models to pie-in-the-sky fantasies.
Nissan kicked off media day by bringing out some Argos to pose with the Grey Cup and their new Versa, then pulling the cover off the Resonance, their new crossover concept. It looked snazzy, with a backlit grille badge, knifelike side mirrors and long, swooping headlamps that will never see production.
Crossover SUVs are one of the few palpable growth markets in the auto industry right now, and several auto makers had concepts on display, from VW's Cross Coupe with its low, Camaro-like roofline to Honda's swoopy Urban SUV concept, sporting those liquid-metal Terminator 2 lines. For the moment, the crossover SUV is to today what the wood-paneled station wagon was to the early '60s, and no suburban driveway or condo parking garage seems to come without one.
The most plausible concept at the auto show was Mercedes-Benz's concept coupe, a glorified whiteboard note for its next generation of model refreshes that looked ready for production now in almost every detail except the grille that looks studded with ball bearings. They also put their Smart Forstars on display, an EV concept that bulks up the cramped love-seat-on-wheels dimensions of the original Smart car and even adds some style in addition to the possibility of actual cargo space.
Acura rolled out yet another concept version of its NSX. It looked amazing, but so did last year's NSX concept, and you'd like to hope that one day soon they'll actually decide to put the thing into production, but when they finally do, it could be one of the longest product roll-outs in auto industry history.
Lexus presented a pair of concepts that showcased its new hourglass grille design - probably one of the nicest fronts on any production line today. The LF-LC and LF-CC both looked lovely, and it's to be hoped that one of them will return some day as a replacement for the brand's halo car, the spectacular LFA whose complex manufacturing lost parent company Toyota money on every vehicle sold. Favorite detail - the winged headlamps on the LF-CC.
Hyundai made a lot of room for the launch of its HCD-14 Genesis, a concept that they admitted will never see production as is, but is meant to serve as a lightning rod for the future shape of its line and their luxury cars in particular. It looked as beefy as a Chrysler 300, with a big, blunt nose and a grille that put me in mind of an electric razor. I especially liked the low ovals of LEDs on the bottom lip of the front and rear bumpers, but can't imagine for a minute that they'll ever appear on a production car.
While kneeling faithfully to the crossover and truck markets that make up their bread and butter, GM also presented a pair of concepts meant to make some future advance on the small city car market aimed at "millenials" - that much-maligned and wholly misunderstood generation in the far stretch of their twenties, who've proved slow to move into car ownership.
Named the Tru and the Code, these two "sports car-inspired" Chevy concepts were parked nose to nose in the GM display with instructions on how to vote for your favorite - the assumption being that GM will actually be listening to the opinion of its potential buyers. You couldn't help but wonder if the results were being cooked a bit; the more conventionally-shaped Code was given an unassuming gray paint job, while the audacious Tru was covered in a rich egg yolk finish close to the shade wryly referred to by gearheads as Lamborghini's "pussy magnet" yellow.
Moving up the improbability ladder, BMW came to town with not one but two futuristic concept cars. Last year's Connected Drive Vision stole the show, and the new i8 coupe and i3 hatchback were its offspring, with sci-fi inspired interiors and wholly improbable glass doors that nonetheless made you long to see cars like this on the street. The nice man from BMW assured me that design details from these cars will start showing up on production vehicles as early as next year, but I'm not holding my breath.
The wildest concept at this years auto show was brought by Toyota, a company not known for audacity or abundant style. The Fun Vii looks about as far from a Camry as you can imagine - an agressive wedge with side panels made from LCD screens in moulded high impact plastic. Those screens can change colour and pattern, but also display graphics, maps and photos to suit your location and destination with cues from social media and handheld devices.
More a smartphone than a car, it showcases features that you probably never imagined having on a car - and many of which you might never want. It might have four wheels, headlamps and indicators, but underneath the LCD screens it's unlikely that the Fun Vii has an engine, transmission, a steering wheel or seats, and for the purposes of Toyota's marketing department they'd probably be entirely beside the point.
There are, of course, plenty of cars you can actually buy on the floor at the auto show. Fiat brought their new 500L, a bulked-up, four-door model that pushes the stylish little subcompact city car into crossover territory, and begins the same process of brand expansion and feature bloat that we've seen in BMW's revival of the Mini.
Infiniti reprised their media launch from last year by bringing Cirque du Soleil performers onstage to help reveal their new Q50, a new sedan that also introduces a new initial into their model lineup. They also put a replica of their F1-winning Red Bull car on the show floor to attract viewers to a marque that, while hardly to be faulted for its quality, is almost whole lacking in brand mystique and definitely needs whatever reflected glory it can get from someone like Sebastian Vettel.
Ford's display is massive, but they really don't have much gearhead excitement to show this year beyond a souped-up version of their Fiesta. While GM and Chrysler both brought new sportscars, Ford only had a quartet of Mustangs to show, plucked from very nearly the end of their retro-inspired fifth generation refresh of the best-selling sports coupe. Ford might bring a Mustang concept to next year's show to build buzz for their subsequent launch of the sixth-generation model, but right now they have to sit tight and let the other two members of the Big Three get all the glory.
Which they were more than happy to do. After launching a behemoth Ram 3500 truck onto the market, Chrysler Canada president Reid Bigland's excitement at unveiling the new Viper managed to creep through the ritual marketing buzzspeak that weighed down almost every executive presentation. The Viper drove onto the display stage in a head-clearing frenzy of revs and came to a halt looking very much like the too-much-car that it will once again prove to be for many of its owners, although Chrysler swears they've refined the latest version to a point where you can take it on the road without piling into a school bus.
GM were just as thrilled to show their new C7 Corvette Stingray, which they inexplicably have been showing in an inappropriately low-key gray. It's a lovely car, to be sure - the everyman's supercar - and their genuine enthusiasm for it can't help but be compared to the by-now ritual talk about EVs and green tech, which sound a bit too much like a guy in a bar trying to convince you that he really doesn't mind the new Tegan and Sara album.
It was all business as usual on the main floors of the convention centre, but real car nuts will always wander away to the side rooms, like the luxury car dealers like Pfaff, Grand Touring Auto and others show their latest models and a few rare birds, like the little field of Ferraris in the Auto Exotica exhibit. Everyone likes to look at Ferraris, of course, but the car that caught my eye was off to the side - an Alfa Romeo Giuletta Sprint Speciale with a magnificent thrusting grille and the sort of chrome treatment that nobody at Chevy or Ford would have tried at the time.
Off in the Cruise National and Hot Rod Builders Showcase the same uneasy feeling got stronger. These are where enthusiasts show off their projects - beautiful period restorations like a Studebaker Dictator, a canary yellow Plymouth Cuda, and Bob Cram's Chevy 1300 pickup. The hot rods are even more extreme, chopped and lowered and refinished in colours that were never factory options, like the 1960 Meteor Montcalm re-dubbed the "Montbomb." Sometimes all that work probably isn't worth it...
...but it's still a testament to the passion of the owners for their jalopies and the beautiful lines that came standard with all of these autos. The cars here aren't concepts; many of them were the Elantras and Tauruses of their day, but they pack more style into a few thousand feet of convention floor than a year of rush hours, and for some reason that makes me sad.
Finally, the GM booth featured what was probably the best marketing stunt in the whole show - a Twitter-connected car-dispensing vending machine. Chevy's latest Camaro has always looked like a Hot Wheels car, and they've released a Hot Wheels edition of the muscle car icon in belated admission to this fact. Working with the toy maker, they've also put out an auto show edition of the Camaro, which is your prize if you tweet a plug for the car with the appropriate hashtag. Yes, I'm exactly that kind of geek, and no, I couldn't resist.
The Canadian International Auto Show is on now and runs through February 24th at the North Building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Adult tickets are $19.80 if purchased online. More ticket prices and info here.