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2016 Kansas City International Auto Show

I confess my bias.  I even said it out loud as I walked into Bartle Hall where the 2016 Kansas City International Auto Show was taking place March 2-6, hoping admitting I have a problem is the first step to recovery.  But did that make a difference?  Evidently not.            I know crossovers are popular.  In fact, according to market data, compact crossovers have surpassed mid-size sedans as the most popular vehicle type these days.  I intended to pay extra special attention to them.            Then about an hour into my visit to the show, I bumped into a friend of mine, and I mentioned the whole crossover thing.  He excitedly asked me, “Did you see the Jaguar?”            “Jaguar?” I asked.            “Yeah, Jaguar’s new crossover.”            I had spent some amount of time at the Jaguar display looking at the XJ, the XF, the XE, and the F-Type.  But I’d seen no crossover. However, when I returned, there was Jaguar’s soon-to-be-introduced F-Pace Range displayed right in the center ON AN ELEVATED PLATFORM!  I had walked past it several times and taken no notice.            So fair warning, readers: if you’re looking for the latest news on some hot crossover, you’ll have to check elsewhere.  I have a blind spot for these turtle-looking things.  If you’re a fan of them and feel the urge to blast me, think of me as having a medical condition and take pity on me instead.            Before even entering the exhibition hall, I ran a gauntlet of people wanting to remodel my bathroom, add a sunroom to the back of my house, or sell me a gaggle of other products and services that I can’t name only because of my fast gate and ability to avoid eye contact.            Inside I had not even looked at a single car yet when a woman stepped into my path.  “Do you like free stuff?” I said, “Well, it depends upon what it is,” trying not to be rude but also trying my best to continue walking.  Free stuff usually comes with too high a price.  Are we talking gold bars or chlamydia? “NASCAR tickets!” “No, thanks.”  I’ll watch stock car racing when it again becomes racing of stock production models – front-wheel-drive, four cylinder Camrys, Fusions, and Accords going all out around an oval for 500 miles or until the hoods blow off the cars.  That I’d watch. But back to the woman.  I understand sales theory.  You gotta get that first “yes.”  And it’s doubly hard when you’re selling whatever AAA sells that GPS navigation and complemental roadside assistance doesn’t do better.  I wonder how many, and I’m imagining a big Texan in a ten gallon hat, respond, “Why, yes, little lady.  As a matter of fact, I do love free stuff!” What does it mean when so many companies lack confidence that their products alone will attract auto show traffic?  Both Honda and Infiniti had basketball free throw contests.  Hyundai filled bleachers to watch its game-show-in-a-Sonata by afterwards handing out prizes from the car’s trunk.  Volvo had a string quartet playing Brahms. Attention-attracting vehicles were often vehicles not even for sale.  Volkswagen had a 560hp Global Rallycross Champion Beetle that had been driven by Scott Speed.  At the Toyota exhibit, the Club Moose Mobile Land Cruiser celebrated the Royals’ World Series victory. The Independence Fire Department displayed six vintage fire trucks. The Club Moose Mobile Toyota Land Cruiser celebrated the   Royals' championship.   And winning the People’s Choice Award for Best Consumer Experience (though all that was being sold was the concours held each June to raise scholarship money for the Kansas City Art Institute) was The Art of the Car folks.  Their classic car exhibit included fascinating vehicles like a recently restored Ford Model A mail truck, a 1921 Studebaker Big Six which had been parked for over 60 years by a father who feared his daughter would be killed driving such a powerful car, and an immaculate art deco 1939 Zephyr convertible sedan, a reminder that, once upon a time, Lincoln was a leader of style and design in the near-luxury class. The 2016 People's Choice Award winner for Best Consumer   Experience goes to The Art of the Car Concours.            A car that should do more to return Lincoln to that status than Matthew McConaughey ever did could be found elsewhere at the show. With the reintroduction of a model called the Lincoln Continental, I’m glad to see at least one brand returning to names rather than just imitating the German school of seemingly random numbers and letters.  Does anyone think renaming the Acura Legend the RL did anything to improve brand image?  And Infiniti’s recent move from Gs, Qs, and Ms to making everything a Q is baffling?  Once upon a time, I knew that their GT coupe with a 3.7 liter engine was a G37.  But a Q70?  Is that coupe, a sedan, or an SUV? But I know what to expect with a car called the Lincoln Continental.  It borrows just enough from Bentley to no longer leave the impression of being just a gussied-up Ford (though the underpinnings are still borrowed from the Fusion).  The product specialist standing beside a preproduction Continental seemed to grow weary repeating, “Starting just below 50.”  I wasn’t sure if she meant the price in thousands or an optimistically low projection of the average age of buyers.  The hair of those gathered around the car was solidly gray.            Last year when I covered the auto show, I gave Larry Carl, the organizer of the show, a hard time about perceiving a lack of young people at the show.  This year, I joked that Kids Korner, an area where 4 to 9 year olds can be dropped off to enjoy Paradise Park activities and Lego characters and races, didn’t exactly address what I meant.            I meant, of course, young people of driving age, or perhaps drinking-and-driving age.  New this year was a “happy hour” area aimed at millennials called KC’s Garage, featuring wine and craft beers, a wide selection of dishes and desserts from the Food Truck Mafia, and a DJ spinning tunes Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  It wasn’t packed when I was there, but, in fairness, I tour the show on the afternoon of the first full day it’s open, a Thursday, a day and time when most millennials would be at school or jobs or not yet out of bed.            Actually there were young people all over the show, but they were working.  Auto shows used to be heavily staffed by salespeople from area dealerships trying to slip their business cards into your pockets.  But most of the people I met this year were like Andrew, a product specialist who worked for Mazda corporate. I told him that as the former owner of a couple of MX-5s and the current owner of an RX-7 convertible, I was very happy with how the fourth-generation Miata had turned out.            “The third-generation MX-5 looked like a bar of soap,” I volunteered.            “I’ll pass that on.” he assured me.  “They do ask for feedback.”            Feedback that would be about ten years late?  I’m sure Mazda corporate cares deeply about my opinion. I met other product specialists.  Giving me probably the most insight was Chance, a member of the 2016-KC-Auto-Show-Award-winning team for Chevrolet.  Chance brought me up to speed about the Bolt, Chevrolet’s new all-electric vehicle.  But then the conversation turned more to life as a travelling corporate product specialist. Chance did musical theater in New York for 8 years, but now works 40 to 100 days a year at auto shows. “I have friends who are getting ‘adult jobs,’ settling down, and buying houses.  But right now, I’m enjoying this life.  There’s a season of auto shows, and then there’s like a summer vacation.  I got to travel to Africa last year.  That’s something I couldn’t have done with a regular job and a regular year-round work schedule.” Chance compared Kansas City’s show to other cities.  “It’s nowhere as big as Chicago’s.  But we were in Dayton, Ohio, and it was in like a barn.” “Were you displaying cars next to livestock?” I joked. “Yes,” Chance said, without missing a beat, “and everything smelled of manure.”   Another product specialist I assumed, a beautiful woman in a black cocktail dress, stood on the stand in front of the stunning new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifaglo. The Alfa Romeo display - She isn't always holding a   microphone. I walked up.  “Are you about to speak about the Giulia?” I asked. “No,” she said without looking at me. “I just saw that you were holding a microphone…” “No, I’m always holding a microphone.” With no response to that, I just walked away, knowing nothing more about the car or when it would go on sale. Frank Zappa had an album called “Shut Up and Play Guitar.”  I sense a fair number of readers about now are thinking, “Shut up and tell us about the cars.”
  • KC Trends had on hand a couple of Ferraris and a Lamborghini, for people who go to an auto show expecting to see such things.
  • The KC Auto Museum featured an eclectic collection including American muscle (a ‘68 Chevelle SS convertible), British oddballs (an MGC and a TVR), heavy American iron (‘49 and ‘57 Cadillacs), and American military machinery (a WWII amphibious Jeep).
  • Chevrolet had on display the new KCK-built Malibu, which won the auto show’s People’s Choice Award for best vehicle.  It never hurts to be playing in front of the hometown crowd.
  • I saw a bright yellow Corvette and looked through the rear glass, but, alas, no mid-engine yet.
  • Fiat seems to be following Mini’s lead of a thousand variations – four door, five door, six door, SUV, flatbed…
  • I saw what seemed to be the deepest, richest, most luxurious color I’d ever seen on an automobile on a Maserati Ghibli, a hue called “Rosso Ener.”  Five displays down, I saw it again, this time on a Mazda Miata, but there it was just called “Red.”
  • Mercedes-Benz has pretty much universally gone with grilles that resemble that of the 300SL from the 1950s with the giant emblem in the center.  Does anyone miss the old stand up, spring-loaded hood ornament?
  • Is Jaguar styling being inspired by 10-15 year old Honda products?  First I couldn’t help looking at the Jaguar F-Type without thinking Honda S2000.  And now the Jaguar XE makes me think of the first-generation Acura TSX.
  • Meanwhile, at Honda, the new, more-squared-off Ridgeline, from the side, looks more like a pickup, and less like the cut-off minivan it is.  
  • Also at Honda I saw what looked, from the angle I first saw it, like a new stretched sedan.  I wondered if Honda was introducing a competitor to the Avalon, Toyota’s stretched Camry.  Nope.  It was just the ginormous new Civic.
  • What’s with auto maker’s reshaping the styling around the rear side windows of sedans by just using blacked out trim to give the appearance of having more glass area.  It started with companies without the budgets to thoroughly reengineer vehicles, but now Toyota has done it with the new Camry.
  • What’s with the front end shared by all new Toyotas.  It looks like a migraine.  And the grille on every new Lexus looks like it’s being choked.
  • After getting in cars with push buttons or spin dials for transmission selectors, it’s nice to stop in at Mazda, Honda, and Nissan, where a decent chunk of their cars are still available with proper, three pedal, manual transmissions.
           No auto show review is complete without my rant about the size of pickups, which (with irony) I’ll keep to a minimum.  The Nissan Titan pickup is now available with a Cummings diesel.  It seemed like the top of the hood was about the same height as my head.  I borrowed a step ladder and climbed into the cab of the new Ford F-150.  The view from the driver’s seat – inside everything seemed square, every switch, every dial, the steering wheel.  Outward visibility was obscured by clouds.  Not to be outdone, GMC has available on the mountain-themed Sierra double cab an “Elevation” edition, from which can be seen the curvature of the earth.               Ford recently cut about 9% of the curb weight (or about a quarter ton) from the new F-150 through extensive use of aluminum, which Ford prefers be referred to as “military-strength aluminum” so the public’s association is with fighter jets and not beer cans.  Product specialist Michelle also pointed out that commercials by a competitor touting that brand’s superiority in V8 horsepower, fuel economy, and towing capacity was misleading since the majority of F-series trucks are now sold with turbocharged six-cylinder engines.  She also told me to not call them EcoBoost engines anymore, but I didn’t get written down the corporate-approved new name. A crowd of 50 somethings gathered around the Cascada, an Opel convertible built at a GM plant in Poland which will now be available in this country as a Buick model.  Product specialist Jeremy patiently answered questions. How much?  “$34 to 37.” What are these for?  A second set of taillights inside the trunk visible when the decklid was up were for “extra security.” Luckily he wasn’t asked, while the trunk was open, why it appeared unable to hold anything larger than a manila envelope. Jeremy tried to address a man’s concern about cowl shake, pointing out that the area around the A pillars and the small triangular windows was exceptionally sturdy.  However, Jeremy bailed and left me hanging when the guy uttered those words you hate hear from a lonely middle-aged man, “Well, I had a Mustang…” Words continued coming from his mouth, and I tried to appear interested.  There are those who never develop the ability to pick up on social cues.  Thirty years ago, this guy was probably droning on the same way about baseball cards and Dungeons and Dragons.  I have no instant cure for him other than to stand there for a minute or two.  I too appreciate being humored (thank you very much, reader).            “… and the wheels should be smaller and show more tire.” I interrupted.  “Well, that’s the trend these days.”  And with a quick half wave, slipped away.            A gentlemen and I were both taking a long look at the aerodynamic trickery and downforce-generating body sculpturing of a stanchioned-off BMW i8.            The man said, “As I was coming in, a woman asked me if I wanted to test drive a new Toyota.  I thought to myself, ‘It’s lunch time in Downtown Kansas City.  Yeah, let’s go see what it’s like to idle in traffic in a Toyota Camry.’”            “Too bad they weren’t offering test drives of this car,” I said. BMW’s i3 is a tall, short, exceptionally roomy, four passenger vehicle with two full doors and two half doors for rear seat access. That doesn’t really tell you what it is like.  Nor does saying that the i3 is the winner of numerous international awards, that it is the first mass produced car to have most of its internal structure and body made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, or that since its 2014 introduction it is already the third best-selling electric car in history.  This is a car designed for a greener, more sustainable future ripe with renewable energy and renewable resources.  My daughter will finish college around the year 2035, and this is a car I can imagine her driving to her real job.            As I sat behind the wheel taking in the bamboo dash and the hemp door panels, through the open passenger window, I heard a woman going into a rant in reaction to the i3.  “Well, that’s just stupid!  Those doors are stupid!  The whole car is stupid looking!  Just stupid, stupid, stupid!”            If I was a better reporter, I would have learned more – a better articulated reason for her reaction to the i3 and her opinion of what is a smarter car design.  But, alas, poor reader, you had only me there to report back.  And I was only thinking that stupid is one of those words that, the more it is used, the more you begin to attribute that characteristic to the user.            I’ll end on a sad note.  Though in recent years I didn’t tune in to either David Letterman or Garrison Keillor as much as I did when I was younger, I liked knowing that they were still on the air.  In a similar way, though I never needed a competition rally car with torque-vectoring all-wheel drive and a turbocharged engine developing almost 150hp per liter, I appreciated that, for the past 13 years, one was as near as my friendly neighborhood Mitsubishi dealer.            But the company announced that the Lancer Evolution X would be discontinued by the end of March 2016, and no successor was planned.            “Is that an indication of the state of Mitsubishi sales in the U.S. in general?” I asked a not-so-young product specialist.            “No, sales are up more than 300%, led by demand for the vehicle you’re standing in front of, the Outlander crossover.”            “Which vehicle?” I asked, turning my head.  “Sorry, I hadn’t noticed it.”   All pictures used with written permission of the Kansas City International Auto Show  

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