I spent a few hours during the first day at the North American International Autoshow (better known as the Detroit Auto Show), and I really noticed how much it’s changed over the past few years. It used to be said that New York had the luxury show, Detroit was the truck show and Los Angeles was the “Green” show. That’s all done now.
Four years ago, there was a huge economic meltdown, one which the U.S. economy has still not completely recovered from. During this time, no one could escape talks about climate change, sustainability and fuel efficiency. Those issues are still around, but for the most part, they’ve been pushed to the back burners.
To me, it seemed rote, like something that has to be done. It’s like flossing your teeth: We all know it’s important, but nobody looks forward to it. We know fuel economy is important, but damn is it boring to talk about. Affordable cars are needed now more than ever, but who dreams about affordable cars?
This year the Detroit Auto Show was overwhelmingly focused on premium vehicles. There were a few high-volume debuts, like the Nissan Versa, Toyota Corolla concept and Honda’s sub-CRV crossover, but the spotlight, and subsequent excitement, was all on the upper ends of the market.
In a show that was once mainly dominated by trucks, luxury brands stood out. Among the numerous premium automobile manufacturers that were showcased, Audi stood out as the brightest star.
Event attendees are not the only ones with their eyes on Audi. Nearly all the premium brands are watching them now, trying to figure out how they have done it, and how they can steal some of their thunder. It shows in the products announced during the media days.
At the show, BMW debuted the new 4-Series Coupe, which will now be split off from the 3 and will form its own “Series”, much like Audi has done. Mercedes unveiled the all-new E-Class in all its forms. Continuing the strategy attempted with the C-Class, they’re trying to add more passion to the E-Class, much like Audi has done. Infiniti debuted the all-new G-Series (rechristened Q50), and are promising significant enhancements to both technology and performance, much like Audi has done. Same for the Lexus IS, as the brand keeps threatening to add more passion to their designs. (Passion is now the most overused design word).
So what I’m saying is: Audi’s winning. In many ways they’re now the premium brand leader in the United States. Not in sales volumes by any means, as Mercedes and BMW both sold twice as many units in 2012, and Lexus outsold them by over 100,000 units. Even the lost and wandering in the wilderness brand that is Acura topped them last year. But in terms of momentum, design language, buzz, excitement, freshness, or nearly any qualifier you can think of, Audi is winning.
They debuted the RS7 Quattro, which may have been the hit of the show. It causes grown men to covet inanimate objects, and makes the all-new Mercedes E-Class Coupe look gangly and forced. And they continued their stand strategy of elevating their vehicles, then lighting them so intensely that they seemed to glow, like holy, otherworldly objects. (As you can tell from the previous few sentences, I’m more than a bit smitten.)
I find a nice breath of optimism in all this lusting for luxury vehicles. Just a few years ago we were worried about a global economic collapse. Now we’re back to talking about which $125,000 German car is the best.
The general show-going public cares about fuel-economy and affordability vastly more than the people attending the media days. They’ll want to know how the volume makes are tackling the issues that affect their lives. They’ll just dream about the exotics first. That’s a healthy thing.
—Andrew Ortlieb is SVP, Strategic Services for the Brand Strategy Group at Team Detroit.