Detroit auto show consumer guide: Smaller show, big acts

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
People check out the vehicles and other attractions in the Ford Motor Company exhibit space at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit on Wednesday, January 16, 2019.

The 2019 Detroit auto show is diminished this year, a victim of the exodus of foreign luxury-makers and the transition to a new June format 18 months from now.

But though this year's show speaks softly, it carries big sticks. 

From the ferocious Ford Mustang GT500 to the stump-pulling Ram Heavy Duty pickup to the long-awaited return of the Toyota Supra sports car, Cobo Center is full of the good ol' muscle the event has long been known for. It's also a family-fun destination with utes galore and enough rides, rope courses (yes, rope courses) and high-tech to keep the young 'uns stimulated the whole afternoon.

Enter Cobo from the Washington Boulevard Garage/Cobo Roof into Hall A and it's not immediately apparent that anything has changed.

The aisle between the Ford and Chevy exhibits is like a moat between warring armies: Corvettes, Camaros, Mustangs and pickups bristle like heavy artillery. But while GM's stand looks familiar from last year, Ford has a fresh look to go with its new state-of-the-art Mustang and Explorer weapons.

The stand is arranged with "shipping containers" full of product: an F-150 over here, a 'Stang GT500 over there. In the middle of it all is a huge stage that re-creates — twice-an-hour — Ford's media reveal of its all-new GT500 and Explorer. The simulated helicopter drop of the GT500 is not to be missed. 

The second floor of the old Ford exhibit is gone, replaced by the "Ford Scramble Net" ropes course and virtual-reality Explorer drive. The kids will spend hours crisscrossing the roped net dangled high above the floor. Or you can pack the whole family into the Explorer, strap on virtual-reality goggles, and take an 11-minute ride into America's national parks. 

Behind the Ford exhibit is Fiat Chrysler's display, once the envy of the show with its floor-to-ceiling, Times Square-like light displays. This year's exhibit is de-tuned, though the product is not with enough Hellcat, SRT and Ram horsepower to blow the roof off Cobo. 

There are plenty of themes to watch for. Here are my favorites.

The 2019 Ram Power Wagon takes the stage during the Ram heavy duty trucks press event at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 14, 2019.

Muscle Beach

The Dodge display ripples with biceps. Check out the 797-horsepower Challenger Red Eye.

But the new kid on the beach is the Ford Mustang GT500. This isn't your father's snake. Past GT500s were Woodward Avenue dragsters that left track-carving to the GT350. The new generation is an all-around athlete aimed squarely at the hyper-speed Camaro ZL1 1LE across the aisle.

If stump-pulling power is more to your taste, the Ram Heavy Duty 3500 generates 1,000 pound-feet of torque. That magic number bests every pickup in the business, and Ram does it with the stylish design and interior that just won its 1500 sibling the North American Truck of the Year prize. 

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On the other side of Cobo is another tasty morsel. Toyota teased the next-gen of its legendary Supra with the FT-1 concept sports car five years ago. It followed through this year by bringing in Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso and Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda (the funniest CEO in auto today) to introduce the curvaceous, 335-horse, $50,000 Supra hatchback. 

"It's not just fun to drive," the hip 62-year old CEO said. "It's totally lit."

Envy Auto Group is new to the main floor. The exotic-car dealer used to exhibit in the Cobo basement. They were brought upstairs to plug the space left by the exit of BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Porsche, Mini-Cooper, et al.

But what a collection of cars Envy has: McLaren 570S, Ferrari 488, Lamborghini Huracan, Aston Martin Vantage S. It has the exotics usually only seen in the exclusive $500-a-ticket gallery gala at the MGM Grand casino that takes place before the show.

It's a reminder that whatever the show's circumstances, show-goers come to see the hardware.

Media members are given rides in a Kia Telluride, with this model being custom built for this indoor course, Monday at Cobo Center.

Ute nation

We show-goers love glitz, but sport utilities pay the bills. There are new utes everywhere you turn.

The Chevy Blazer is a knockout with Camaro-like, aviation-style climate vents. The rear-wheel drive based Ford Explorer has technology that will embarrass luxury cars costing twice as much. The Kia Telluride beats the Jeep Wagoneer to market as a rock-chewing, three-row SUV. Even China's GAC brings two utes aimed at the U.S. market that it says it intends to enter.

My favorite crossroads in Cobo is between the Cadillac, Lincoln and Buick stands where Detroit's newest three-row luxury-SUV entries can be compared face-to-face-to-face. Each brings seriously competitive vehicles (note the similarities between the new Cadillac XT6 and Buick Enclave). You will be blown away by Lincoln's resurgence, including the Lincoln Aviator that debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November and is being shown in Detroit for the first time.

The Surefly Octocopter on the floor of the Detroit auto show


The merger of technology and autos is moving fast, and the Detroit show abounds with cutting-edge examples. 

Toyota is going to flood the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo with autonomous cars and driverless pods. For a glimpse of what's coming, check out the snow-white, lidar-crowned Lexus LS 500h.

Then there's Nissan's cool, autonomous IMs Concept with suicide doors, a retractable steering wheel and single rear throne for maximum comfort when the car is self-driving.

My favorite tech piece isn't an automobile at all, but a two-seat, eight-rotor, hybrid chopper called the SureFly Octocopter. You'll find it across from Lexus. Each of its eight rotors is controlled by electric motors, giving it drone-like maneuverability — and backup battery-power should the gas engine fail. Market target: 2022.

The kids will love it. Just as soon as you extract them from the Ford Scramble Net.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.