The Detroit auto show rolls into town Sunday for a two-week stay that promises something for everyone: futuristic self-driving cars, Detroit classics, the latest sport utilities, state-of-the-art sports cars ... even a life-size version of “Cars 3” star Lightning McQueen.
The McQueen racer will be a lighthearted kickoff to the high-tech AutoMobili-D — a showcase for speakers and startups on the cutting edge of autonomous and ride-sharing technologies, AutoMobili-D will commence Sunday on Cobo Center’s Atrium Stage.
Some 5,000 journalists from around the world will attend over 40 new-car reveals on Sunday and Monday. On Jan. 13, the show will roll out the red carpet for the glitzy Charity Preview ball, which has raised over $41 million for children’s charities in the last decade. While party-goers sleep off hangovers on Jan. 14, the show opens its doors to the general public until Jan. 22. Last year, the Detroit Show recorded its biggest gate since 2003 with 815,575 attendees.
Now in its 28th year, the North American International Auto Show has weathered industry cycles — including the devastating recession of 2008 — to remain one of three premier auto shows on the planet along with Geneva and Frankfurt/Paris.
“Because of the number of press here, this is a great show to launch things,” says Sam Slaughter, NAIAS chairman and CEO of Sellers Subaru and Sellers Buick and GMC dealerships in the metro area.
Now, as the industry faces an “inflection point” (in the words of AutoMobili-D speaker John Krafcik, CEO of Google autonomous car spinoff Waymo), Slaughter says NAIAS organizers recognized the need to make the show a display case for the technologies that are transforming the industry. Automakers this year have used the CES technology show in Las Vegas to introduce high-tech vehicles like Chrysler’s self-driving Portal EV concept and Toyota artificial-intelligence driven Concept-i. Those vehicles — and the creative talent behind them — will also be in Detroit.
“These are the brains behind the behind the autonomous future,” says Slaughter. “We have an amazing story to tell with over 50 startups in Cobo.”
Those startups will join establishment pillars in presenting their visons of a new auto mobility. . The startups , meanwhile, will be among 100 companies to populate nearby Hall E — aka “Cobo’s basement” — that in years past has been outfitted for everything from tree-lined, electric-car demonstration courses to displays for Chinese automakers.
This year, a Chinese company will graduate to the show’s main floor as Guangzhou Automobile Group looks to follow Japanese and Korean companies as a successful, Pacific Rim export to the U.S.
All eyes will be on Japanese giant Toyota as it reveals an all-new Camry sedan, the best-selling car in America. For all the talk of self-aware EVs, the bread-and-butter of American manufacturers remains gas-powered cars and SUVs.
The Camry is promising an extreme makeover as it tries to remain relevant in a market that’s crossed over to crossovers. Camry sales, echoing all sedans, were down 10 percent in 2016. Since the recession, ute sales have exploded to 60 percent of the market and NAIAS offerings continue the trend. SUV reveals from automakers as diverse as Chevrolet (Traverse), Ford (Expedition), Audi (Q8), Infiniti (QX50 concept), and BMW (Concept X2) will debut on the menu.
“This will be a meat and potatoes show,” IHS Automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley says of the core offerings coming from automakers including a new version of Honda’s best-selling Odyssey minivan.
“Auto product is still the most important part of NAIAS,” shrugs Brinley in reference to the tech buzz in the air. “We went through a phase when every show had to be green. Now every show has to be high-tech. Soon tech will just be part of the auto landscape.”
Showgoers will feel, however, the absence of several brands on the show floor. Past exhibitors Porsche, Tesla, Mini Cooper, Jaguar, Land Rover, Bentley, Ferrari and Maserati are AWOL this year.
The reasons are many.
Exclusive brands prefer more intimate venues where wealthy customers can be wooed one-on-one — like The Gallery event at the MGM Grand Casino that officially opens the show on Saturday and where beautiful Ferraris and Lamborghinis will be on display for $500 a ticket. In a multi-media age some automakers also aren’t as dependent on auto shows for attention.
But even some major exhibitors are turning away from press conferences to show new wares — brands like Buick, Cadillac, Dodge, Mazda and Acura.
Brinley blames this dearth of glitz on automakers taking a breath from frantic new car development.
“What we’ve seen since the recession is a big increase in new offerings to meet new product directions,” says Brinley. “A little slowdown in product cadence is natural.”
Show attendees will still be dazzled by auto displays worthy of a place in Times Square — part of a $200 million upgrade last year in which 80 percent of manufacturers remade their displays. The high-def, pixel-pallooza of giant LED screens is a high-tech marvel itself — with more stage tweaks this year from GMC, Subaru and Nissan.
For all the 21stcentury tech, though, the Detroit Show will also honor its roots. Before the reveals, before the speeches, before the champagne ... three vintage cars from the American Car Museum will complete a six-state, 12-day, 2,150-mile winter journey from Boston to Detroit. Friday morning, winter Dream Cruisers can join a 1957 Chevrolet Nomad, 1961 Chrysler 300G and 1966 Ford Mustang as they travel down Woodward to christen the show.
“This is the second annual ‘Drive Home’ and I hope it becomes a tradition,” says NAIAS chairman Slaughter. “With all that’s going on in the industry, it’s a great way to connect to our history.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
Detroit auto show
Friday: “The Drive Home II: The Heritage Run” – final leg of drive from Boston to Detroit by 1957 Chevy Nomad, ’61 Chrysler 300G and ’66 Ford Mustang
■9-10 a.m.: Cars & Coffee at Lincoln of Troy
■10-11:30 a.m.: Drive down Woodward Avenue
■Noon: Press conference, Cadillac Square
Saturday: The Gallery of ultra-luxury cars, MGM Grand Detroit. Tickets: $500.
Sunday-Thursday: Press days/AutoMobili-D
Wednesday-Thursday: Industry preview
Jan. 13: Charity preview, 6-9 p.m. Tickets: $400
Jan. 14-22: Public days, Cobo Center. 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily (no admittance after 9 p.m.), except Jan. 22, when hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (no admittance after 6 p.m.). Tickets: $13 adults, $7 age 65 and older, $7 age 7-12, free for ages 6 and under