Gauntlets Are Hurled At Detroit Show

Hyundai threw down the gauntlet with Genesis; Chrysler did the same with its new Pacifica. It’s not accurate to say those were the disruption moments at the Detroit auto show this week, but they were emblematic for much of what happened there during press days: some automakers brought back older, sometimes iconic, names to help define who they are now and where they are going; others revealed new names and divisions to crash some old parties. 

For Fiat Chrysler’s new vehicle, wearing that older, troubled name, I had my doubts, given what happened the first time around. I remember a lot about it, as I reported how pissed off dealers were about the advertising for the Pacifica in 2004, starring Celine Dion, a whole story in itself. I thought it was a really good idea at the time, a new kind of vehicle that wasn’t a minivan, but wasn’t an SUV. It may have been the first real crossover, albeit one that, as industry consultant Jim Sanfilippo points out, came off as kind of a poor man’s Mercedes-Benz R-Class.  

The new Pacifica — the name was also used for Daimler-Chrysler’s Carlsbad, Calif., design studio, which closed in 2008 — is a real “segment buster,” a term used back in 2004 to launch the original. It’s really what the original vehicle was meant to be: a sleek crossover of the future, a living room, a family vehicle that doesn’t scream “soccer practice.” And it comes as a hybrid as well. 

The reasons for pouring money into developing this kind of vehicle are obvious to anyone who has seen where the minivan segment has gone: downhill. It has lost a huge amount of share to crossovers. Minivans are uncool. It’s the ultimate example of the vehicle you don’t want to own because your parents owned one. With the new Pacifica, FCA is clearly aiming to get people who want a minivan but don’t want to be seen in one, which is every parent, potentially. 

Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands at Fiat Chrysler, gave a nod to “age of disruption,” and eluded to the fact that it takes a radical disruption to change a consumers mental image of a product, à la Starbucks versus Folgers, Netflix versus Blockbuster. “We are about to change the mental image created when you hear the word minivan.”

One of the other disrupters at the show was Hyundai, which launched a new brand, Genesis, which is to Hyundai what Lexus is to Toyota, to put it simply. Along with the new sub-brand, the company unveiled its first vehicle (second if you count the actual Genesis sedan, which launched seven years ago), the G90, which is essentially the Equus, evolved.  

Says Sanfilippo, “They did job of convincing the press that they had the right Genesis team at headquarters, and elements to make a believer out of everyone.”  The company made clear at the press event that it is not making Genesis a gilded sidearm for Hyundai. There’s a dedicated design center, the Prestige Design Division, with a dedicated design team to be headed by Luc Donckerwolke, former designer for Audi, Bentley, and Lamborghini, under Peter Schreyer, who is president and Chief Design Officer. And the company hired Albert Biermann, BMW’s former VP of engineering for its M group to head up vehicle tuning and high performance development. And heading the brand will be Lamborghini’s former head of brand and design Manfred Fitzgerald. Over the next four years the company plans to have six models in the lineup. That is serious luxury firepower. 

“You have enough big guns there, a convincing team who can take them two or three levels beyond where they are now,” says Sanfilippo. But he also termed it a “trudge not a run,” as they definitely will need more products and a more complete brand story. “The hope is that the new team they have here has arrived in time to inform the new products. That’s requisite for igniting the brand and doing what Infiniti and Acura are still trying to do.”

Other game-changers at the show are the Chevrolet Bolt, which brings a 200 mile range to an electric vehicle at $30,000 after rebates. And the Honda Civic, which is bigger, more attractive. And then, there’s the Lincoln Continental, a concept version of which was shown just nine months ago. To say the brand needs a home run is probably an understatement. This new vehicle has an iconic name (no alpha numerics, thank God) and is certainly distinctive enough to at least get the brand the attention it needs, whether or not Matthew McConaughey is driving its cars.

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