Ten things I learned in Detroit

1. Everyone loves the new Mercedes-Benz C-class

I’ve not heard a bad word said from even the most cynical of hacks about Merc’s new BMW 3-series fighter, and with good reason. It looks great on the outside, but inside it is truly special with a style and quality that would not look out of place on an S-class. You lot seem to agree, too: the C-class has comfortably been the most viewed car on the Autocar website during the show.

2. America still values the manual gearbox

Or at least they do when it comes to sports cars. As our special correspondent Marc Noordeloos wrote in his blog, the Corvette Z06 gets a seven-speed manual gearbox as standard with an auto’ optional, continuing a trend that fellow Detroit firms Chrysler and Ford employ with their respective high-performance SRT and ST models. The Porsche 911 GT3 and Aston Martin V12 Vantage S are certainly no worse for having a manual gearbox, and both are truly epic to drive, but it’s hard not to cast an envious eye across the Atlantic where buyers still have a choice.

3. The Subaru WRX STI is back

Official imports of the last hot Scooby dried up last year after the exchange rate to the yen made it prohibitive and, well, the car didn’t really feel special anymore. It’s coming back to the UK though with the usual recipe of a turbocharged engine, manual gearbox and, of course, all-wheel drive, alongside a much-needed new interior, more yielding road manners, and not a hatchback in sight. Can the Scooby be great again?

4. Infiniti’s not working in Europe

A fairly obvious one this, but was still telling for company vice president Andy Palmer to admit as much, albeit with the caveat that it wasn’t meant to until the end of the decade when products like the Q50 saloon and British-built Q30 hatchback become established. I can’t help but think Infiniti would have been better off waiting until now, or better yet 2015 when the distinctly European Q30 arrives, to have a go at Europe. What reputation it has built up since 2008 isn’t exactly a positive one with big thirsty petrol engines and weird styling being the order of the day. After all, Lexus has never really cracked it in Europe in two and a half decades of trying with a similar recipe.

5. Hyundai is after the BMW 5-series

Fascinating. The new Hyundai Genesis is coming to the UK in right-hand-drive form in small numbers later this year. It looks great, is suitably luxurious and is packed with technology. This will undoubtedly be Hyundai’s biggest challenge yet, but if the Genesis can get on the radar of a few BMW 5-series or Mercedes E-class buyers, then who can tell when the company’s incredible growth will slow down?

6. Detroit is the car industry’s Hollywood

Detroit has the feel of an automotive version of Hollywood to it. Watching the US press pack clamour over the local car executives is quite a sight; they don’t hold back, even climbing over cars to get that shot of Mary Barra or Alan Mulally. And when it comes to a press conference, the folks over the pond know how to put on a show. I’ve heard a nice man from Acura say a lot of big words very passionately for a very long time without actually saying anything at all. It reminds me of a guy from Jeep who once broke down recalling the Jeep ‘daddy used to drive’, or the chap from Chevrolet who was lost for words while he admired the beauty of the ‘game-changing’ Spark city car when it was wheeled out in LA.

7. Aston Martin came to Mercedes for help

Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche is always good value for the media, giving honest and frank answers to questions that might cause controversy if spoken by someone more junior as he’s no-one to answer to. When asked about the tie-up between AMG and Aston, Zetsche revealed it was Aston who came to them to ask for some help. Aston’s realised what we’ve all known for years, that it needs new electronics and some updated engines, so if it’s prepared to ask for help for that, might it eventually ask for access to Mercedes platforms for its next-generation sports cars and an SUV?


8. Tesla has knocked some noses out of joint

Usually, it’s hard to get a car maker to talk about a rival, but not so with Tesla. Everyone is fascinated with what the company has achieved, and how it has managed to crack electric cars in a way no-one else has, and as a start-up company. Audi technical chief Ulrich Hackenberg told me Tesla was “interesting, very interesting”, and the firm was looking to do something to rival them. “They’re a start-up, we’re not,” he said. “We look for sustainable tech. I’m sure they’re one possibility but we’ll find our own way, a sustainable way.”

9. Legislation is the biggest barrier to autonomous cars

Top executives were again discussing the hot topic of autonomous cars in Detroit. One of the most vocal Andy Palmer of Nissan, which plans to have an autonomous car on sale by 2020, believes a test case will probably have to go to court to decide what constitutes whether or not someone is in control of a car, amid general acceptance that legislation will be the big barrier to the introduction of autonomous cars. “But since August, we’ve had several countries come to us wanting us to introduce the technology,” said Palmer. “A machine is less likely to have an accident than a person.”

10. Performance cars are still box office at motor shows

As interesting as electric cars and the like are, you can’t beat a good V8. And Detroit provided in spades. Mercedes C-class aside, each of the show stars was a performance model, with manufacturers from both sides of the Atlantic and further afield getting involved. The Toyota FT-1, Corvette Z06, Kia GT4 Stinger and BMW M4 were just some of several examples of the impact a performance model can have on the rest of the brand.