The 2015 Washington, DC Auto Show: A Parade of Progress

 

GM Futurliner

GM’s Futurliner is the latest  inductee into the Historic Vehicle Register.

That the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, home to Washington, D.C.’s annual auto show, has no provision for parking should be the first warning. Sure, you can park at a nearby hotel – as I did – and watch an estimated parking tab of $30 inflate oh-so-quickly to $50. You can take your chances on the street, timing yourself to the two hours allowable on any meter within a two hour walking distance. Or you can take the Washington-area Metro, which is probably the best idea – but decidedly counterintuitive for one that likes to drive. Regardless, D.C. has an auto show, and we know of few better ways to spend a weekday afternoon when the temp won’t nudge 40-degrees.

Audi R8 Competition

Audi’s R8 Competition is tempting, Teutonic.

If you didn’t know, the Washington Auto Show brands itself as the Public Policy show, which is a creative – and on some level, logical – attempt at differentiation, given the show’s location and – for the most part – government-funded clientele. To that end, its media outreach begins with a Public Policy discussion at the Cannon House Office Building, home to Nancy Pelosi and, in all likelihood, your own representative. And as you might have already guessed, there’s no public parking at the Cannon, either…

Despite Nissan’s regional office importing journalists from New York, the spacious caucus room was still filled largely by policy types rather than media types. (You can easily tell the difference; the policy types are taller, younger and, uh, more attractive. And that’s just the guys…) Given that we’re fully into 2015, autonomous driving predictably raised its ugly head (first on the agenda), as did the ‘dynamic friction between public policy on fuel economy and consumer desire’ (presented by the Editor-in-Chief of Autoblog), a few credible minutes on highway infrastructure, why the GM Futurliner matters (by Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association), a discussion of connectivity and, last but not least, a policy pitch on the benefits of natural gas. It wasn’t a bad way to spend two hours, but to fully appreciate both the messages and the messengers it might have helped if Yrs Truly had been taller, younger and – uh – more attractive.

Fiat 500X DC

Fiat’s 500X is credible, attractive compact CUV.

Day Two for automotive media – and anyone else remotely connected to the industry – began with what was advertised as a keynote address by Johan de Nysschen, president of Cadillac. A keynote, of course, implies a wide-ranging overview of the industry; instead, Mr. de Nysschen gave us a wide-ranging overview of Cadillac. And nothing wrong with that, especially if you had secured a breakfast sandwich while they were still hot. But given Mr. de Nysschen’s previous history managing Audi and Infiniti, along with a childhood spent in South Africa, his wide-ranging overview of global markets would have been (and could have been) more enlightening and more expansive. Also, with no formal Q&A after his presentation I didn’t have a chance to find out why the ATS coupe on display had a window sticker of $55,000. And I still don’t know…

Regrettably, OEM participation during the media day was less than you might have hoped in the nation’s capital, with but five manufacturers participating; there was also VW and BMW, who collaborated on a joint, EV-specific presentation. Ford kicked things off with a discussion of exports (Mustangs selling in China? Who woulda’ guessed that?), Toyota provided an overview of its recently announced Mirai fuel cell project, and Chrysler supplied a blow-by-blow on its lovingly refreshed 300. Volvo had a few words – in heavily accented English – on autonomous driving, and Hyundai closed the morning with a discussion of its plug-in technology and, of course, technology.

Lincoln MKX

Lincoln’s MKX should build on success of the MKC.

The day’s biggest bang was provided by the Historical Vehicle Association’s president, Mark Gessler. There, with a supporting panel of well-connected experts, Mr. Gessler formally inducted GM’s Futurliner into the National Historic Vehicle Register. As an integral part of General Motors’ Parade of Progress, which GM undertook in the ‘50s to get the public excited about the future and – not incidentally – new GM product, the Futurliner is an amazing look back to a time when vehicular design was artistically looking forward. As big as a bus, the Futurliner dwarfed the two vintage GM concepts displayed next to it. And it also dwarfs the two automotive inductees which preceded it, Shelby’s Daytona Coupe and the Meyers Manx.

Although the Washington Auto Show provided no new intros, the following captured my eye – and imagination. In no particular order other than alphabetical, they are:

Audi’s R8 Competition coupe looks to be an absolutely wonderful way to spend $230K. With carbon bits adding both lightness and swiftness, a tuned V10 providing the not-insignificant urge, and an oh-so-Teutonic silver covering the whole shebang, it had us at guten morgen. On the opposite end of the performance spectrum was Fiat’s new 500X, arriving in showrooms this spring. With sheetmetal successfully channeling the 500 2-door, a footprint that closely recalls Audi’s new Q3, and two available powertrains matched with either FWD or AWD, the 500X has an adult appeal completely lacking in its platform stablemate, the Jeep Renegade. The only perceived negative of the 500X is that it will undoubtedly kill any and all interest in Fiat’s 500L; from our standpoint, the death of the 500L – at least in its current guise – wouldn’t be viewed as a negative.

Scion FR-S iCandy

Wanted for long-term test: Scion’s enhanced FR-S.

The Washington show was also our first chance to see Lincoln’s new MKX in, as it were, the metal. And while not fully blown away by this upscale take on Ford’s new Edge, it is fully consistent with the smaller MKC in offering upscale luxury at what we’ll assume is a near-luxury price point. Of course, it’s too early to tell where Matthew McConaughey will go – or won’t go – with it, but I’d take one if I had a need for a right-sized crossover, and less than $50K to spend.

With less than $30K to spend (a more realistic fiscal barrier) I’d grab the Scion’s FR-S, sprinkled – like the show example – with aftermarket fairy dust. Lowered, with a right-sized wheel/tire combo and a graphic package that isn’t too graphic, the Scion coupe remains just the thing for those of us wanting an early 911 but lacking the six figures it now takes to buy an early 911. And if you think that comparison is a stretch, check contemporary specs and performance of Porsche’s late-sixties legend against today’s newest Scion.

Just a few steps – albeit several decades developmentally – from the Scion was Toyota’s new-for-tomorrow Mirai; ‘Mirai’, we’re told, is Japanese for ‘you’ll want to lease it’. Likened by Toyota to its early initiatives in the development of hybrid technology, the Mirai looks and sounds compelling, even to one whose fuel cell tutorial began almost twenty years ago at GM press conferences. If needing to catch some shut-eye I no longer count sheep…I simply recall fuel cell press announcements. With the Mirai to go on sale in the second half of 2015 it looks like we as an automotive society might finally be getting there; most of us reading this will live to see it. A fuel cell-powered vehicle may prove to be the Barack Obama of Interstate 80. And we mean that in a positive, public policy way…

The Washington Auto Show runs through February 1st at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For more info visit the website at www.WashingtonAutoShow.com.