Thursday, December 09, 2010

Musings on the 2010 Boston Auto Show

I had long ago become bored with the Boston Auto Show. There was rarely anything compelling to see, and the production value of this show has always been a bit meager. I did attend last year, with my only motivation being that I wanted to see the 9-5. I feared that if the Saab sale collapsed, and there was plenty of concern at that time, that it might be my only chance to ever see the car we had heard so much about. I was impressed not only with the car but the entire Saab display, as it was clearly the only bright spot in an otherwise depressing show.

I believe that prior to 2009, the last Boston Auto Show I attended was in 1998 or 1999 at the Bayside Expo Center, when Saab had the area closest to the main entrance, and the focal point of their display was the pair of offset-crashed 9-5 sedans, with a loop of the video running behind the cars. That was an attention-getter.

While I had some curiosity about the 9-4x, I didn’t feel all that compelled to attend the show. However, with a 14 year old car nut at home, I thought it would make a nice outing to take him and my wife, Susan, and we arranged to attend on Saturday. As Saturday approached, we got a calls from sons AndrĂ© and Pascal, who informed us they would drive in from Amherst to see the Auto show, so we had a rare outing where the entire family participated.

First Things First
I made a bee-line to the Saab display. It wasn’t hard to find. The SAAB sign was hanging high enough to be seen from almost everywhere in the convention center. My reactions to the display, which I had heard much about:
It was visually compelling and the most engaging and attractive display, again, at the BAS.
The goofy leaf blower and video wall were good additions to the display.
The illuminated white floor totally transforms the display.
The cars looked fabulous. I’ve always liked white Saabs. Owned several. In this setting, they were brilliant.

The 9-4X in black sounded like a good idea to offset it from the current cars….but I just didn’t like it. I did not like the wheels. They will be fine for a production car, but I think at a show you want to dress your cars in their Sunday-best. I was put off that of all the cars, this one was locked. I know that Luke and others got inside, so I don’t know what the deal was.

The rest of the time in the Saab display was spent eavesdropping. There were a lot of people at the display, crawling in and out of cars. I heard many positive comments, few negatives. People couldn’t help themselves around the white Aero convertible. That car is just plain sexy; we had one in the show room and I never tired of looking at it. I tried taking a rest in one of the poofy swivel chairs they had in front of the video wall. Uncharacteristically, they were miserable to sit in, as squishy comfortable as they looked. It was while I was sitting there, though, that I heard something that gave me more hope than anything else at the show. A child walked up to his parents and proclaimed, “Saabs are REALLY cool.” Kids know when an emperor has no clothes, and are not fooled by masquerade. I agree with that kid. When you stopped and looked at the product, relative to all the other mass production cars at the show, the Saabs did come off as being quite cool.

Back Seats
Youngest son Marcel, though soon to be of driving age, turned his attention to passenger accommodations and managed to climb into the rear seat of seemingly every car at the show. With the peak crowd, it was hard to get seat time at the wheel, so his plan made some sense, and he started to formulate rankings of cars’ rear seats. Marcel’s criteria included the comfort of the seat (he is 5’8”), the comfort of the armrest, the appearance of the door panel, and the equipment provided. I think his choices are surprising, but knowing him and his deliberate and contemplative methodology, I am sure he would easily defend his choices.

The Marcel Awards for Rear Seating are:
Best Overall Rear Seat: Cadillac CTS-V Wagon (9-5 was second—he cared not for the armrest or styling of the door panel)
Most Comfortable Rear Seat: Subaru STi Sedan
Best Rear Seat for a Long Trip: Hyundai Equus

Biggest Gaff
Speaking of the Equus, I was interested to see this car. I have no interest in that sort of car, but along with many others I have been impressed with the meteoric rise of Hyundai and the quality of their portfolio. [Impressed, but not surprised. A few years ago, one of the companies where I do crash prevention training supplemented their fleet of Volvo S40s with four Kia Spectra Sports. The instructors all looked askance at these cars. However, we grew to like these cars a lot. While not quite as nice a place to spend the day as the S40, they were easy fun to drive, and stayed together nicely. That’s when I knew that the Koreans were verging on a break-out, which has now arrived.] As we walked through the Hyundai display, we did not spot the car. How could you miss a car like that, right? I thought I spotted the car, but then noted it was under a large Nissan sign, so that couldn’t be it. Or could it? When we finally walked across the display, in fact, there was the Equus, right under a Nissan sign. Nisaan had set up a wall around their exhibit with pictures and logos all over the exterior. The Hyundai display abutted this wall, and the Hyundai flagship happened to be right under a Nissan logo. Shame on them! That car should have been in the forefront of the display, not stuffed into a corner!

Sexy Cars
I commend the dealerships who brought their exotics to the show. The most gasp-inducing car there was the Aston Martin Rapide. It was across the isle from the Maserati Quattroporte, another of my favorites. The Rapide, though, takes the same concept and cranks it over the top. I did like the R8 convertible. A lot. With so many manufacturers making really boring (if competent) cars these days, it’s nice to see one making the effort to stretch and make interesting and exciting cars, even if they are a dreaded competitor.

Single Best Idea I Wish Saab had Thought of
In the Subaru display, there was a placard announcing their “Badge of Ownership” program. Subaru will provide owners with the badge, which in the center displays how many Subbies you’ve owned, and on the wing displays the lifestyle message you want to share—100k miles, 200k miles, Rally, cycling, etc…and this badge affixes to the rear of the car. Good stuff. Good enough to copy!

Most Over the Top
The Cadillac Escalade, with its folding running boards and FIVE video screens screamed excess like nothing else at the show.

Most Disappointing Manufacturer
Honda. I used to really like Hondas. Last new car I bought was a Honda Wagon in 1987. Then I had kids….Honda never had attractive cars, but there was always something good about the design, and the interiors were intrinsically easy to acclimate too, even if the seats were horrid. But now? Honda, including Acura, seems to have two styling modes: dreadfully boring, and ghastly. Most of the Honda cars fit into the boring category. Civic? Yuk. Accord? Yawn. The Acuras are most ghastly. I thought that perhaps the visual insult would stop if I got inside one of them, so I got behind the wheel of a ZDX. The interior was laughably ugly.

Worst Steering Wheel
I don’t go around grading steering wheels. In fact, most steering wheels, even in boring cars, are rather good, so you usually only notice the exceptionally good ones. The base Chevy Camaro has the single worst steering wheel I have put my hands on in years, especially in light of the car it was in. The wheel is off centered or bulbous on top, so the radius at 12:00 is much greater than at 6:00. The rim of the wheel is thick front to back, but really thin from the inner edge to the outer, almost like grabbing a bicycle rim. The cross bar is too low. The material is of the worst plastic. By contrast, the 6-speed shift knob was wrapped in leather and had a nice tight throw. I hate the whole car anyway, but there is no excuse for such a lousy steering wheel.

Overall the Boston Auto Show is a bit of a snooze. Many of the cars on display were boring—manufacturers could have done a better job in bringing better wares. The show itself lacked any overall charisma, and the Convention Authority was remiss in allowing for such long queues to buy tickets while not having the staff to open all the available ticket windows. Still, our family had an enjoyable outing, and I saw enough to make me think I’ll want to go again next year.


JTMav said...

How about BMW being absent from the show, that surprised me. I thought it was a mistake showing a new 9-5 WITHOUT NAV. The monochrome display just looks awful, especially at this price point. The interior isn't the cars strength, but at least with the NAV it looks modern and up to date.


Iiari said...

Here was my own I posted on SU:

The booth was beautiful, probably the nicest and largest of the show. Kudos to Saab for having an actual Swedish model there talking about the uniquely Swedish aspects of the 9-4X with her beautiful Swedish accent. Nice touch…

* LOTS of traffic in the Saab booth, one of the highest volumes at the show. I listened in on a MANY conversations, and here are the highs and lows of what I heard:
- Lots of people talking excitedly about Saab’s new independence and looking forward to it. You heard lots of “I’m glad GM’s influence is gone…” type of talk of from showgoers…
- 9-5: I sat in the back of the 9-5 for a while and listened to a lot of comments. With rare exceptions, lots of utterings like “beautiful car,” “one of my favorites,” and “gorgeous” in regards to the new 9-5 Aero exterior. Interior utterings, however, were mixed. Everyone thought the seats were comfortable, and there were lots of “very nice” and “sweet” heard. Several people I overheard noted positively that this particular 9-5 had a sunroof, unlike others they had seen or test driven. Several people didn’t like the green info screen on the dash (which indeed is terrible) and were wondering about Nav (why no Nav on the model there when even economy cars have them!?!?) and others didn’t like the blank black panel on the dash (which I myself took to informing people could be corrected ). I know we’ve discussed these issues to death on SU, but people with no prior knowledge ARE sitting in the car and noticing these things in the real world.
- 9-4X: Comments were generally favorable, but interestingly, it wasn’t getting a fraction of the attention from attendees as the 9-5 and even the 9-3 convertible and 9-3X were getting. Interesting…

* I was really expecting to love the 9-4X, so perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was slightly disappointed. Overall, sitting as it was next to the beautiful 9-5 and the rakish 9-3′s, the 9-4X appears a bit under-designed to my eyes. Often, automakers use a CUV’s enlarged canvass to, if anything, exaggerate their brand traits. The 9-4X, if anything, plays down some of Saab’s. The hockey stick, the grille, the spanning rear lamps, the sloping roofline… Sure, they’re all there, but all more subtle than on its lineup mates parked feet away. I would have thought the opposite would have been possible, especially with the Kia Sportage (which is all about exaggeration) sitting within viewing distance of the 9-4X which, by comparison, looks somewhat stoic. Some things didn’t help. Color, for instance. Now, I love Saabs in black (I have a Turbo-X after all), but here, black does the 9-4X no favors, as some of the Saab design cues were lost in blankness under the hall lights. Like Swade, I believe the rims/wheels make a car, period. The ones on this version are somewhat, ah, weak, and also do it no favors. The much discussed rear lamps didn’t bother me at all and evoke the 9-5 more than in photos. The interior looks great (although, again, a bit less rakish than the 9-5′s) but I really like the swoop of the console trim over the instrument cluster, something I don’t think the 9-5 has. Well done.

* 9-3: Still very competitive in its class with everything at the show. I was happy to read Swade said the next version is a bit bigger, as rear room does trail some others, like the Audi A4, but the models they had there looked fantastic inside and out. No base 9-3′s (like last year).

My overall impression, in comparison with other makes, is that Saab is completely competitive with everything else out there and certainly stands out in exterior and interior styling.