2014 Detroit NAIAS: Corvette Z06 Stunner

This year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit chalked up its highest attendance since 2003.  The 2014 show was open to the public from January 18th through January 26th and 803,451 made the trek to Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit to see what a revitalized industry had to offer. 

As my associate Gary Lisk and I drove into the Detroit’s river front area, I marveled at how nice Detroit looks in the heart of its downtown.  Cobo itself is a first-class facility and everyone associated with the event, from the police directing traffic, to security staff, to baristas working their espresso magic, to lovely ladies lending beauty to already beautiful vehicles, all seem determined to put the city’s best foot forward.  This all flies in the face of the problems faced by the city of the Detroit, culminating with its July 18, 2013 bankruptcy filing, the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history.

As the city works through its financial mess, somehow the folks who put on the NAIAS continue to host a world-class event, arguably the most important auto show in the world.  On that latter statement, I’d like to start my coverage with some stats.  I attend NAIAS during two media days during the week before the show opens to the public.  This has its pros and cons.  The downside is that manufacturers continue setting up their displays right up to the public opening, so some things are going to be missed.  The upside is access to manufacturers’ staff and the opportunity to photograph displays without contending with crowds, though media attendance is said to exceed 5,000.  But the thing I like most about attending during media days is the chance to be at the manufacturers' press conferences, which yield a real sense of where things in the car world are heading.

When I read public attendance figures released by NAIAS for its January 2014 show, I did a little digging to see how it stacked up against other big players in the auto show arena.  NAIAS does not claim to be the biggest show and claims by others bear this out.  The International Motor Show Germany, aka the Frankfurt Show, does lay claim to the world’s largest title, but that’s debatable.  Prior to 1989, the show was an annual event held in Frankfurt.  But it outgrew its space, so it became an every other year event, with a passenger car show in Frankfurt during odd years, and a commercial vehicle show for even years in Hanover.  The passenger car show is bigger and the most recent claimed attendance figure I could find was rounded to 900,000 in 2013.  The Tokyo Auto Show claimed 902,800 for that year, compared to 987,000 for Los Angeles, 1,100,000 for New York, and 1,215,734 for Chicago.  The absolute highest claim was 1,253,513 for the Paris show.  I couldn’t find figures for Geneva which is popular for its smaller, easier-to-navigate venue.  Geneva has been popular for displaying new design exercises where plenty of attention is achieved.  In attendance terms, it is likely a notch below the other majors.    

Call me a skeptic, but I’m not sure if any of these attendance numbers can be believed.  I haven’t attended all of these shows, but I have difficulty believing NAIAS trails other major US shows by these margins, especially Los Angeles.  Reminds me of a huge brouhaha here in Ohio a few decades back.  For years Ohio officials had touted the Ohio State Fair held annually in Columbus as the nation’s largest.  They released numbers to back the claim, such as 3.4-million in 1992.  People suspected the number was a stretch, but few had any idea of how audacious the claim was.  After losing a boatload of money, the fair manager was fired and a 1992 audit revealed actual paid attendance was 460,000, putting Ohio’s fair nineteenth in the nation that year.  

So let’s just say this.  NAIAS enjoys the advantage of being held in the Motor City.  Problems aside, Detroit is still the base of operations for our domestic auto industry, so manufacturers use Detroit for its most important introductions.  Domestic auto companies are front and center in efforts to revive Detroit and maintaining NAIAS as a premier event is one element in the effort.  Detroit in early January is usually bitterly cold.  Over the years I’ve attended, snow has varied from flurries to a full-blown whiteout.  The venue, the displays, the people...I just love the whole shebang.

Now to the Corvette news.  Corvette’s introduction of the new 2014 Stingray at last year’s 2013 NAIAS, was a show-stopper.  In a very strong field, it was hand’s down the show’s runaway star.  Every bit of event coverage in the days and weeks following NAIAS had the Corvette as its headliner.  Realistically, nothing could top that performance.  Debuting the 2015 Z06 model at the 2014 NAIAS was a less significant event for mass media, but was still very important those who follow Corvette and GM closely.  Simply put, the Z06 is highest performance production automobile ever offered for public consumption by General Motors. 

At this year’s NAIAS, Chevrolet displayed six Corvettes, a Blade Silver Stingray convertible, an Arctic White Stingray convertible, a Night Race Blue Stingray coupe, a Cyber Gray Z06 coupe, a C7R racer, and a Z06 rolling cutaway chassis.  That final one showcased GM’s new 8L90 8-speed automatic, the first with the strength to handle the Z06’s 600+ horsepower.  Ever since Corvette resurrected a separate high performance model with the 2001 Z06, manual transmissions have been the only choice for Z06 and ZR1 customers.  In the modern era, manual transmissions have accounted for about a third of overall Corvette production.  It will be interesting to see what the take rate is for the new automatic in the Z06 model.  I applaud Chevrolet for continuing to offer a first rate manual transmission with excellent clutch feel and superb linkage and gating.  The four vehicles I currently own are all manuals, including my five-speed V8 Silverado, a package no longer offered in any full size pickup.  Manuals, especially good ones, are disappearing from the American scene.  I understand the underlying reasons completely, but still hate the trend.    

The Z06’s larger wheel and tire package required wider front and rear fenders and a different rear fascia with unique neutral density tail lamps.  Vents are generally larger for more cooling and airflow management.  This is a wicked looking machine.  

Previously, one distinction of the Z06 (and ZR1) was its aluminum frame.  With an aluminum frame now standard fare for generation seven, that’s no longer a specific Z06 feature.  The new frame's stiffness is so improved that the Z06 coupe’s roof panel is removable.  And for the same reason, a Z06 convertible will be forthcoming.  A removable coupe roof panel and a convertible model are both Z06 firsts.

If you’ve read my previous NAIAS coverage, you know I often devote some space to Cadillac.  Full disclosure:  I’ve owned just one Cadillac.  It was a gorgeous black 1980 Seville bought used from the original owner on pure impulse.  Saw it in the guy's yard with a for-sale sign and bought it on the spot.  I sold it a few days later after discovering to my horror that a reclining driver seat back was an option and this car didn’t have it.  But Cadillac design language and attempts to match or better the performance of premium European brands has intrigued me the past few years. I recently came close to buying a CTS coupe.  Not the V model, but the base V6 with six-speed manual.  In the end, I passed because I couldn’t get past a couple of the car’s shortcomings.  For me, the V model is too much engine with lousy mileage.  The base V6 doesn’t have enough oomph to offset the car’s bulk.  Seating is only so-so.  The dead pedal is a joke.  Like the Camaro, it’s a car designed from the outside in with little consideration of outward visibility.  Plus, I like smaller, more efficient packaging.  That’s why last year’s introduction of the Cadillac ATS caught my attention.  Base turbo four with 6-speed manual in a 3-series size package at just over 3,000 lbs.  Now we’re talking.  But four door sedan?  No thanks.

NAIAS 2014 brought the introduction of the ATS coupe.  Unlike the CTS coupe, the ATS 2-door is very conservatively styled.  Buzz at the show was that GM wants the car to do well in Europe and China and those markets have conservative styling tastes.  Okay, China maybe.  But Europe?  I think the Euros appreciate beauty and going overly conservative seems like over thinking to me.  I’ll admit the CTS coupe was a tad over the top, but ATS designers overcorrected.  

Still, the packaging of the ATS coupe is right and with the right color combination and wheels, I could live with it.  Cadillac showed two ATS coupes at NAIAS, one white and the other a bright blue similar to Corvette’s new Laguna Blue.  The white was better, but I’d like to see it in black or maybe something like Corvette’s Cyber Gray.  I wish it was a hatch, but we all know Americans (and Chinese) prefer sedans, so forget that.  Then again, if Cadillac really wants to move these in Europe, a hatch would do it.  Spice up the rear styling a bit while you’re at it and I’ll guarantee at least one sale here.

For a drop dead gorgeous Cadillac, check out the new ELR.  This is essentially a Chevy Volt dressed to the nines.  Unfortunately, Cadillac made the same initial mistake as Chevy in overpricing the vehicle.  With a base of $75,000, Caddy apparently figured if Tesla can get it, so can we.  Apples to oranges, and the ELR pricing will kill it.  Too bad.  

Summing up, excellent presentation by Chevrolet of its lineup with Corvettes taking center stage at an always superb Detroit NAIAS venue.  The industry is fully back. GM and Chevrolet are fully back.  NAIAS never left.  Can’t wait to see what’s in store for NAIAS 2015.

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