Wednesday, May 7, 2014

2014 New York International Auto Show Recap

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

While the buzz that surrounded the Detroit Auto Show this year was toned down a bit for New York, the Big Apple was still home to some important product introductions. Here are some of our takeaways and thoughts on the show.

Thumbs up:
Jeep Renegade

Photos by Matt Kalish, except where noted.
The ‘baby Jeep’ made its U.S. debut at the New York Auto Show. For those familiar with the auto show circuit, the world premier was at Geneva in March. The Renegade is a truly international Jeep: it was designed in Detroit by Chrysler’s Jeep division, and will be built in Italy. Due to the global sales aspirations for the product, it will be offered in several powertrain configurations. In the U.S., we will see the 1.4L turbocharged inline 4, offered with a 6 speed manual or segment-first 9 speed automatic, shared with the larger Jeep Cherokee and the Chrysler 200. The larger, naturally aspirated 2.4L inline 4 will also be available with 2wd or 4wd. In Europe, diesel engines will be available. It will also be offered with a “Trail Rated” option, known as the Trailhawk.

In all configurations, the Renegade is reported to achieve more than 30mpg highway. Jeep is hoping that it will appeal to audiences worldwide and expand the reach of the Jeep brand, due to its compact size, and since it will be offered at a more affordable entry price than vehicles like the Cherokee and Grand Cherokee. It certainly looks the part, with iconic circular headlights, an upright profile, and well-designed interior, which includes touches such as a “mud-graphic” redline in the tachometer, and center stack vents that resemble the profile of ski goggles.

Alfa Romeo 4C
The 4C marks the long-awaited and triumphant return of Alfa Romeo to the North American stage, a market that was abandoned by Alfa in 1995 (with the exception of the expensive, limited-production 8C sports car). While the Giulietta and MiTo hatchbacks have been on sale in Europe for the last few years, Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne waited until the 4C was ready to re-introduce the brand to the U.S. I think it was worth the wait—the 4C is stunning in-person and from what I’ve read and seen, is quite the driver’s car.

The 4C will come with a 1.75L turbocharged 4-cylinder putting out 240hp and 258lb-ft of torque. That sounds only decent until you realize that the curb weight is a hair under 2,200lbs. For frame of reference, the lightest Ford Fiesta on sale in the U.S. weighs 2537lbs. This means the 4C has a better power-to-weight ratio than the Porsche Cayman S. The claimed 0-60mph time of the 4C is 4.5 seconds—this Alfa will have serious performance to back up its looks. It should hit Maserati dealers (the chosen distribution network) sometime this quarter.

The entire Mazda display
Leave it to Mazda to bring a superb and outside-the-box setup to New York. Not only did their classy black exhibit space feature their current and constantly improving production car lineup, they decided to bring a collection of Miata-based concept cars to celebrate 25 years of the MX-5 Miata. They also chose to showcase the chassis—yes the chassis, not the whole car—of the next-generation Miata, which will be shared with an Alfa Romeo roadster.

With regards to their production lineup, Mazda has figured out that fuel economy is really important to today’s car buyers, and they’ve responded with some of the most efficient vehicles in their respective segments, such as the hot-selling CX-5 that I see everywhere, and the new-for-2014 Mazda6. Hopefully the new Mazda3 will pick up its slow sales out of the gate as well—critics have raved about it, but the public hasn’t quite caught on yet. I give Mazda a lot of credit—they don’t have the big R&D budgets of larger automakers, yet they are putting out some truly eye-catching products with impressive engineering behind them.

Chevy Cruze
The Cruze is not a bad car. In fact, I have three friends who have purchased Cruzes, and all are very happy with them—a testament to the fact that General Motors now takes the segment seriously. Another friend, who is never impressed with GM, rented one and really liked it—this says a lot.

Photo courtesy Chevrolet
The problem here is the 2015 ‘restyling.’ The car looks nearly identical to the 2014 model, which had nothing really wrong at all. The grille/fascia gets some mild tweaks, and a couple new features show up on the interior, such as infotainment updates and a couple additional USB ports. That’s it, as far as I could tell. The Cruze is a solid compact car. With a new model coming in a year or two, I’m not sure why Chevy spent money on the refresh.

Missed opportunities:

Dodge Charger
Photo courtesy Dodge
I was really disappointed when I saw the refreshed 2015 Dodge Charger. I’m a big fan of the 2011 heavy refresh/redesign of the LX-platform Charger, which originally debuted for 2006. The 2011-2014 model is the perfect blend of classic muscle car appearance with modern touches, like menacing-looking projector HID headlights, sculpted side profile, and the ‘racetrack’ LED taillights that can be spotted from half a mile away. The 2015 model gets a less-aggressive looking front fascia/headlight treatment and a softened ‘racetrack’ pattern at the back, more closely resembling that of the Dart. Furthermore, a manual transmission is still nowhere to be found on the Charger’s option sheet—not even on the R/T or SRT models.

To add insult to injury, it was just announced that the 2015 Chevy SS—a direct crosstown competitor from the Bowtie gang, will have a 6-speed manual available, as well as GM’s physics-cheating Magnetic Ride Control. MRC was an option previously restricted to high-spec Cadillacs, the Corvette, and Denali-trimmed SUVS. It’s not like the manual gearbox isn’t in the Chrysler parts bin—the Challenger offers a 6-speed option. While it doesn’t make much sense to offer a manual on the Charger’s corporate cousin, the more luxury-oriented Chrysler 300, it’s baffling to see why the Dodge continues to be automatic only, since it’s positioned as the sportier offering.

Infiniti’s naming scheme
This is not breaking news, but the issue really manifested itself as I walked around the Infiniti display in New York. “What’s this called now?” I found myself saying aloud to our photographer, Matt Kalish, as I climbed into one of their crossover SUVS.

There’s no getting around this—it’s a disaster. I try to pride myself on keeping up with nomenclature across the industry (I can name all the Lincolns), even as alphanumeric badging is getting worse, not better. An initiative spearheaded by new boss Johan de Nysschen, all Infiniti offerings will begin with “Q” for sedans and “QX” for SUVS. This is meant as an homage to the vehicle that launched Infiniti in 1989—the Q45 luxury sedan (45 stood for 4.5L V8…at the time). It seems logical enough from that standpoint—many manufacturers use “X” in some capacity to designate 4-wheel-drive, an SUV, or a CUV.

The problem is two-fold: one, in the numbers that follow the Q and QX, and two, the fact that current models are just getting the badge changes mid-production cycle—the worst possible way to destroy brand and model recognition. The FX35 and FX45, offered with 3.5L and 4.5L engines, respectively? They become the QX70 (I had to look this up). If size designated the '70,' akin to the way other luxury brands use numbers (BMW 3, 5, and 7-series; Audi A4, A6, and A8), this would make sense. But the QX70 is smaller than the QX60, which is based off the Nissan Pathfinder. 
Photo courtesy Infiniti
Even Infiniti’s bread-and-butter, formerly known as the G25/35/37, depending on engine size, gets roped into the circus. This is by far their most important car, and really put them on the map in the U.S. market. The all-new model is called the Q50, though it does not have a 5.0L V8 like the name might suggest. Instead, it has the 3.7L V6, which used to be the G37.

But wait, there's more. The old G37 sedan--which for the record, I really like--is being offered at a discount alongside the Q50, but they changed the name to Q40. The G37 coupe/convertible will be called the Q60.
This is a risky way to destroy brand equity and model recognition. We’ll see how sales respond to the confusing changes.