The Detroit Auto Show is considered by many to be the biggest car event of the year. And while we got a handful of interesting new reveals this year, like the Mercedes G-Class and a trio of new trucks from the Big Three, the show was less about the new models on display, and more about what the automakers were (and were not) saying.
If you looked past all the gleaming new trucks and SUVs, you would hear GM announcing its plan to release a self-driving concept car without a steering wheel or pedals in 2019, Ford talking about investing $11 billion in electric car production (more than double its previous commitment), Ferrari promising to build a battery-electric supercar, and many of the big carmakers talking about the hundreds of millions of dollars they expect to lose as a result of investments in smart mobility.
It was a weird year, but there were still a bunch of cars that piqued our interest. Here’s our list of the best, worst, and weirdest of the 2018 North American International Auto Show.
The most hidden car that we’re hankering for: the open-air G Wagen
Literally hiding behind a giant column at the Mercedes-Benz booth was one of the most adorable cars at the Detroit Auto Show: a cabriolet version of the brand-new G Wagen. If there was simply not enough room or time in the German carmaker’s brawny unveiling of the revamped G-Class to show off this open-air sibling, that’s fine, but hiding it behind a giant load-bearing structure felt a little cruel. Yes, the G Wagen is a bit obnoxious and, no, a cabriolet version doesn’t make it any more approachable or affordable. But at least I wouldn’t be able to hear any criticisms over the sound of the wind rushing past my ears. —Sean O’Kane
Most off-message aspect of the auto show: holding a media day on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Blame it on the CES domino effect. Scared of being bested by the fizzy tech buzz of CES, when CES pushed its dates this year, so did the North American International Auto Show. But that decision created another headache. Monday, typically the most important press day, happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday recognized by the automakers and our parent company Vox Media. We were told that some automakers opted to skip out on Monday press conferences for that reason, which may explain why GM held its press conference on Saturday night. Auto show organizers didn’t completely ignore the strange mix of push-heavy business news on a holiday about civil rights: on Monday evening, Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at the auto show honoring Dr. King. —Tamara Warren
Best in-car personal assistant: Nissan Xmotion’s koi fish
Every year, more and more automakers announce plans to integrate voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant. While Nissan has its own proprietary voice recognition system (it has said it would begin use Alexa in some of its models as well), it went a different route with the Xmotion SUV concept that it revealed at the Detroit Auto Show: a koi fish. My impulse to blast Nissan for overdoing it with the screens — there are seven! — was washed away when I saw that beautiful fish swimming from screen to screen. Nissan says the fish will be like your butler, intelligently programming the interior cabin conditions, music, and more based on the destination and user preferences. It will also serve as a bit of a tour guide while the car is in autonomous mode, providing information about the current route and potential stopovers while switching lanes and handling driving duties. It will also tell you stories — which, I mean, come on. The Xmotion is just a “design study,” so there’s no guarantee the fish will be swimming onto the screen of your Altima anytime soon. —Andrew J. Hawkins
The dullest car lots of people will buy: VW Jetta
The most boring car of the show may have actually been the new Kia Forte, which I didn’t even notice until I walked up to the Stinger and saw all the Forte signage on the company’s stand. But the Volkswagen Jetta is perhaps a more significant one. It’s long been VW’s most popular in the US, and it finally got some important tech, including a configurable digital dash like an Audi’s, and a (fingerprint-prone) large touchscreen for the infotainment system. But its shape is square and dull, and its detailing is fussy and awkward. Being based on the very good Golf and A3, it may drive well, but it looks like VW’s interpretation of the dull sedans that Americans buy / rent. So I guess it should do well for their American dealers. —Zac Estrada
Weirdest car that grows on you: Hyundai Veloster N
I was all set to dislike the 2019 Veloster: it still looks awkward, isn’t exactly plush, nor does it do anything remarkably interesting with its tech. Then the more powerful N showed up with its bright blue paint and red lip liner, and I can’t help but fall for this weird hatchback. Please be ridiculously fun to drive, please. —ZE
Worst car to take to the drive-through: GAC’s Enverge
It’s always fun when a little-known company comes to the auto show and makes a big splash. China’s GAC isn’t selling cars in the US yet, but it has plans to launch in 2019. This year, it showed off a couple of concepts: a crossover, and (of course) an electric car. The Enverge isn’t your typical EV, with pilar-to-pilar digital screens, augmented reality for passengers, and headlights that pop out as portable floodlights. You may want to think twice before driving this thing through the Starbucks drive-through, however, because the gull-wing doors don’t have windows. Pro: no trucker’s tan. Con: what if you get pulled over for speeding? —AJH
Most shameless nostalgia pandering: Ford “Bullitt” Mustang
Ford announced what’s probably the biggest news of the auto show when it said it would up its investment in electric car development to $11 billion. And then it promptly stepped on that message by unveiling its new “Bullitt” Mustang. The car, a spin of the classic 1968 Mustang that appeared in the Steve McQueen car-chase classic Bullitt, is undoubtedly cool. But it was a weird move for a company that has been trying to rebrand itself as a smart mobility company. It forces Ford to talk connected cars out of one side of its mouth, and muscle cars out the other. Whatever, can I please drive this now? —AJH
Best escape vehicle for a bitcoin heist: Infiniti Q Inspiration
This year’s show wasn’t exactly overrun with concept vehicles, but the Q Inspiration was the sharpest of the bunch. Smooth and sporty outside, aggressively minimalist inside, it’s a hell of a design exercise for Infiniti to crib from in the coming years as the company tries to refresh the look of its cars. The Q Inspiration oozes Bond villain vibes, so hopefully that means future Infinitis will look and feel a bit more dastardly, too. —SO
Most inescapable trend: TRUCKS!
Our premonitions by looking at the press conference schedule were right. If CES was about the distant future of transportation, the Detroit Auto Show was all about how Americans want big trucks right now. Chevrolet, Ford, and Ram all centered the show around their latest truck offerings — and even the Ford Ranger isn’t exactly a small, efficient vehicle. At least Ram showed it wants to move a traditionally conservative segment forward, though, as it introduced lavish interiors, a large, vertical touchscreen, and even a 48-volt mild hybrid system. Not to be left out, the Mercedes G-Class got a much-needed tech upgrade, and the Jeep Cherokee adds a small turbo four with another 48-volt system. Even most of the concepts were SUVs; things the EPA calls “passenger cars” were scarce this year in Detroit. —ZE
Best use of rose gold: Lexus LF-1 Limitless
A good rule of thumb at auto shows is “see the damn car in person before you judge it.” In the press photos, the Lexus LF-1 Limitless seemed way too similar to last year’s UX Concept, and also way too gold. Up close, however, it’s a totally different story. I spent more time photographing the LF-1 than I did any other car at the show, thanks to the way the orange headlights complement the beautiful gold finish, which all gel nicely with the bluish-purple accents on the inside. The car is like a much less outrageous version of the UX Concept. And even despite its many screens, it feels like something that could hit the road in a matter of months, not years. —SO
Most important company that didn’t show: Waymo
Last year, Google’s self-driving spinoff Waymo stirred up the show when it revealed its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan. This year, the company kept its distance — even though it recently began testing its self-driving cars on Michigan’s icy roads. (CEO John Krafcik did make an unofficial appearance, eager to show off the minivan’s newly frosted look.) It was probably smart for Waymo to keep a low profile. If it had shown up, it likely would have been dodging daggers from the big automakers. After all, a recent scorecard has Waymo surging into second place in the race to build and deploy self-driving cars. It’s not winner-take-all competition, but with billions (if not trillions) of dollars at stake, the industry is watching Waymo closely to see what its next move will be. —AJH