Audi latest luxury automaker to skip Detroit auto show

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

The Germans are leaving.

Audi AG is the fourth German automaker to bolt the North American International Auto Show for 2019, following rivals Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche. The move continues an exodus of European luxury automakers from the show, including Sweden’s Volvo Cars; Britain’s Mini, Jaguar and Land Rover; and Italy’s Maserati and Ferrari.

“NAIAS has been informed by Audi that after review of its upcoming product launch cycle, it will not be exhibiting at the upcoming 2019 NAIAS in January,” said Max Muncey, spokesman for NAIAS organizer Detroit Auto Dealers Association, in an emailed statement Thursday. “Plans are well underway to revolutionize our show and provide participating companies a global stage that delivers cost-effective opportunities to audiences that only Detroit can offer.”

Audi’s departure signals a growing existential threat for the Detroit show. It comes as DADA staff and its directors are re-evaluating the timing and presentation of the annual auto show, which next year would mark its 30th year as an “international” auto show. The dealer association is publicly pondering a move to October for 2020 that would allow for more outdoor demonstrations like the CES technology show in Las Vegas.

“Detroit moved too late and too slowly to maintain the show’s position as a must-be-there event,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “You have to hope that it hasn’t moved too late and too slowly to maintain its position as the world’s car capital.”

Audi’s decision was first reported by Automotive News. Parent company Volkswagen AG’s VW brand still plans to attend the show, Muncey said, adding that Germany’s No. 1 automaker promises to have new offerings to showcase.

“Audi has had a long and successful history at NAIAS, debuting countless models that Audi customers enjoy today,” the automaker said in a statement. “For 2019, we have decided that we will not participate in NAIAS. We will continue to evaluate auto shows on a case by case basis relative to the timing of our product introductions and the value the show brings from a media and consumer perspective.”

As the line separating the global auto industry from the tech sector increasingly blurs, Detroit’s annual rite has suffered from comparisons to the technology show in Las Vegas usually scheduled a week earlier in January. The shows have become rivals as automakers and suppliers choose whether to make tech news among the hordes of tech bloggers at CES — or wait for a more traditional audience in Detroit.

In response, the Detroit show has created a technology showcase of its own the past two years: an AutoMobili-D forum that runs during press days and the first few public days of the show. But it’s not just a date change DADA is considering as it chases CES.

The association also is considering a name change that could emphasize Detroit in the branding, 30 years after it shed its regional ambitions, adopted the NAIAS moniker and hosted the launches of the Lexus and Infiniti brands in the U.S.

Meanwhile, General Motors Co. is pushing for a “massive festival of automotive” in June, not October. It’s pushing to re-think the traditional idea of auto shows by putting Detroit at the center of the show. A move to June, GM’s thinking goes, would bring people to the Motor City when its waterfront is at its best, drawing would-be consumers to downtown venues, concerts — maybe even the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle.

And it’s not just a Detroit vs. CES problem. Technology is changing every aspect of the auto industry, including the nature and necessity of auto shows. Automakers are re-evaluating the show circuit — which currently runs from January in Detroit to November in Los Angeles — increasingly opting for stand-alone product reveals or off-site events to optimize media coverage and precious executive time.

DADA benchmarks the Detroit show with media coverage. U.S. media coverage at the 2018 North American International Auto Show was up 46 percent, while the CES share of U.S. media coverage was down 23 percent, according to PRIME research provided by Muncey. The 2018 Detroit auto show hosted more than 5,000 journalists from 60 countries, with international media representing 23 percent of the press pool.

The global media coverage metrics for this year’s Detroit auto show still won’t be available until next month, Muncey said, but in 2017, NAIAS trailed the Shanghai and Geneva shows in its global reach.

The absence of European brands could scratch NAIAS from the global circuit for some foreign media outlets. The last European luxury brand assumed to be returning for next year’s Detroit show is Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV’s Alfa Romeo, which only recently began its reintroduction to the U.S. market.