Twin Cities 2009: The Greater Minneapolis/St. Paul International Auto Show vs. The Recession

2010 Kia Soul
2010 Kia Soul – Minneapolis, Minn. Photo by Randy Stern

Should we continue to excuse the current economic climate for anything pertaining to the automobile industry?

I’m sure we all have an opinion about this. The facts are staggering with auto sales down as high as 50% and more for some manufacturers. Companies are struggling to gain traction as reorganization filings begin to add up on some of the smaller firms. Larger firms are trying to be creative to hedge against the disaster created by the greedy tards running the banks, Ponzi schemes and anything else tied to the economic engines running this planet.

One needed to walk into the Minneapolis Convention Center this weekend to see what’s happening currently to the automotive world.

The Greater Minneapolis/St. Paul International Auto Show used to have more space and more exhibitors. Noticeably absent were Mitsubishi, Maserati, Bentley and Suzuki from the convention hall’s floor. Rooms full of customized vans, SUVs and such from local leaderships, including the significantly reduced Denny Hecker chain, were also absent. For some vendors, you had to go upstairs to find them in years past. Not this year.

When I arrived at the convention center, with downtown Minneapolis teeming from the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball tournament played at the Metrodome and the girl’s high school basketball championship at the Target Center, it would be ideal for the auto show to ignite some attendance and interest in what’s new on the horizon.

If you were like, you would be disappointed by some of the details.

First, they moved the display for the local debut of the 2010 Toyota Prius to the back of the hall. While they had a Fit and a Pilot on stages, Honda puts its new hybrid Insight on the floor with the velvet rope around it in what I consider unceremonious behavior for the carmaker. To add to the absentees, Twin Cities’ automobile enthusiasts (and other gawkers) were not given a chance to check out the Chevrolet Volt, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Fiesta, Kia Forte and the Volkswagen Rabbit/Golf Mk6 viewed in Chicago and elsewhere.

Instead, we were treated to some goodies and some stuff this market needs to see. My picks of the good and interesting are as follows:

2010 NISSAN CUBE: The rush to sell cute compacts continues in this country. Following Toyota’s lead with the Scion brand, the appetites for Gen-Y and younger Gen-X consumers wanting choices for neo-coolness are being whetted. The Cube is in its second generation equipped with the Versa’s 1.8litre engine and drive train. The vehicle is quirky, but it’s going to work. However, don’t expect the younger set to buy the lion’s share of them. Toyota and Honda found out that by selling cool vehicles, such as the Scion xB and the Element respectively, most of the buyers were over 40 years old. The Cube’s price point will help tremendously, even if it meant seeing Versa and Sentra sales cannibalized for each Cube sold.

2010 KIA SOUL: The Japanese aren’t the only ones playing this game. The Koreans added a cute little number, based on the Rio platform. North Americans not only get the same 1.6ltre mill as in the Rio, but the added flavor of the new 2.0litre motor due on the upcoming Kia Forte compact. It is a roomy device up front; through the steering wheel could be a tad larger. I also heard that the new 2.0litre does not match well with the 4-speed automatic gearbox. Still, the price point will win buyers looking for inexpensive cool during a recession. The issue would be sales of the Rio, already a recession hedge in the market. People looking for more room will step up to the Soul. My concern would be that the marketplace would forget about the similarly priced Forte with the Soul grabbing deliveries at the local Kia dealer.

2010 HYUNDAI GENESIS COUPE: My love for the big Genesis sedan is well documented in this blog. However, I need to ask “what about the new rear-drive coupe of the same name?” If I was an honest sports car man and didn’t care about how low my butt would be to the ground, then I’d say “Let’s take this mutha up to the Brainerd International Speedway and make like the Stig in it!” While the rest of the auto show patrons went ga-ga over the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro, I examined Hyundai’s new coupe a bit more closely. Of course, the choices are tough as to which one to go on this power trip. No matter which one I choose, what I do get is a serious coupe with a rear seat that can play dirty with those without a rear seat. Sorry, Nissan, love the Z, but I must tackle BIR in a 3.8litre Track model – with the 6-speed auto-box, of course!

2010 INFINITI G37 CONVERTIBLE and 2010 LEXUS IS350 CONVERTIBLE: If we truly needed another set of drop-tops in today’s economy! However, if I must choose between the latest premium cabriolets, it’ll be the Infiniti. Why? It’s based on the coupe, not a sedan! I cannot understand why Lexus choose to slice the roof off of the IS sedan and remove a door on each side for the sake of playing tag with BMW and Audi. The Infiniti, however, is a better package. It needed an open-air coupe, the first in a very long time for Nissan’s premium brand. The Skyline platform is already versatile enough for the roof-atomy, having been primed for the upcoming Nissan 370Z convertible (the Skyline also serves as the basis for the Fairlady – ehem, Z). Why not, right?

2010 BUICK LaCROSSE: The latest word from the Renaissance Center is that future Buick offerings may be sourced from GM Europe’s products. In China, the new Epsilon II platform has already been translated to the new Buick Regal (i.e. Opel Insignia). The new LaCrosse shares the same platform as the Insignia/Regal, but includes its own nips and tucks for North American consumption. Can you say “further reduction of the average age of Buick’s customers?” I can. This new sedan’s got a lot of promise, but I fear that the traditional Buick customer (i.e. Senior Citizens) will not like the Eurocentric sedan. My concern is that the same doorframe architecture and tight (for my large frame) behind-the-wheels quarters of the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura will prevent me from driving the new LaCrosse. Granted, this may not be the car that will divert GM from Chapter 11, but Buick now has something worth looking at in a very competitive market segment.

2010 LINCOLN MKZ: The hype surrounding the new Ford Fusion Hybrid is infectious at Dearborn. With the midsize models primed for updates, nothing speaks “update” than its luxury triplet, the Lincoln MKZ. The key to the revision is the dual-wing grille design from the MKS, the new design signature for Ford’s luxury brand. The new design signature looks downright scary on the new Ford Flex-based MKT, but it simply looks fabulous on the sedan formerly known as the Zephyr. It needed a styling boost that surpasses the Mercury Milan’s new rhinoplasty for 2010. I even like the MKZ over the Fusion’s new style for 2010. Why? For Ford to justify Mercury’s demise (did I say that out loud?), you have to make further distinctions in the Lincoln lineup than of Ford’s. The design signature up front helps as does some added MKS-inspired touches inside. There’s only problem: Can Ford justify the almost-$36,000 price tag for this thing? Not if I can spend the same money on a Hyundai Genesis V6 sedan.

As a side note, I saw some of my local Bear brethren at the auto show. A couple of them ended up hanging out with me, with one in a serious shopping mode. His situation is that he wants to get rid of his GM mid-size SUV, but wants to keep the towing capacity for his 14-foot boat. His thought: A Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. It was way out of his price range. I showed him the STS sedan. Still a bit more coin than he’s like to spend. Then, I showed him the Hyundai Genesis sedan. He liked it enough to want to test drive one. One thing he will need to ask is towing allowance and warranty backing with towing equipment installed on the car, which is not entirely known for the Genesis sedan.

Don’t let my concerns about the economy and the automotive industry prevent you from going this week or to any auto show remaining on the schedule. New Yorkers may get a lot more shortly as a series of debuts will hit the Javits Center. I am enviously, but, hey, that’s how the industry is playing this recession.

Besides, my fellow Minnesotans may want to check out one of a few running examples of the Hudson Metropolitan on the floor at the Minneapolis Convention Center. What is a Hudson Metropolitan? Just got to show and see for yourself!

NOTE: Photos from the show can be seen here (towards the bottom of the set, BTW)!

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