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Review: Winners and losers of the Detroit auto show

Key Points
  • Detroit had fewer debuts than normal, but there were still a few companies that won big.
  • Toyota, Ford and Ram offered the most compelling new products.
  • Infiniti botched its time in the spotlight, with a concept that couldn't make it onto the stage.
The Ford exhibit is shown at the 2018 North American International Auto Show January 16, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. More than 5,100 journalists from 61 countries attend the NAIAS each year.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

This year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit was tamer than usual, with only a handful of big-name debuts making headlines. With less competition, the cars that did launch in Detroit had a better chance of making a splash. Here are the winners and losers from one of the industry's biggest annual shows.

Winner: Toyota Supra

The 2020 Toyota Supra rear-wheel-drive sports coupe is revealed at the 2019 North American International Auto Show during Media preview days on January 14, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

Toyota spent years hyping the Supra. The company had teasers, concept designs and press drives for camouflaged prototypes. There were leaks and renders, showing off almost everything about the Supra before its launch Monday. Supra fatigue was becoming a serious concern, as it's hard to maintain that level of excitement without getting impatient and bored.

Yet Toyota still got the most attention at the show, a testament to the dearth of exciting reveals and the attention-grabbing power of the Supra name. Plus, at a lick under $50,000, it's expected to cost significantly less than the BMW Z4 with which it shares a platform and interior.

Winner: Ford Explorer

The new 2020 Ford Explorer SUV is revealed at Ford Field on January 9, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

The three-row SUV market is deeply competitive and highly important to automakers. Add in the Explorer name — an iconic model that has sold millions since it helped kick off demand for SUVs — and a Police Interceptor model that massively outsells Ford's Taurus Police Interceptor, and it's not a stretch to say this is one of the most important models in Ford's lineup.

But the current Explorer is capital-O Old. It hasn't had a full redesign since the current body style debuted in 2011. Even then, the Explorer wasn't a benchmark for the class. But it's been overdue for a major refresh.

That's what Ford offered last week, during a preshow launch event at Ford Field. Not only is the Explorer getting a top-to-bottom redesign, but it's also switching to a rear-wheel drive architecture shared with the Lincoln Aviator. That allows for more attractive proportions, a clever hybrid option and a more dynamic ST model.

Winner: Ford Mustang Shelby GT500

Members of the media look over the 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 after it was revealed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, January 14, 2019.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Horsepower battles are still being waged in Motor City. A few years after Dodge introduced its insane 707-horsepower Hellcats, Ford is finally firing back with a 700-plus-horsepower rocketship in the form of the Mustang Shelby GT500.

Since the Blue Oval already offers a high-revving, demonic Shelby GT350 for track work, we were expecting to see a brawny straight-line cruiser. But the GT500 isn't some muscle car of yore; its 5.2-liter supercharged V-8 and dual-clutch transmission are built to handle high-intensity driving all day. Plus, it looks fantastic.

Winner: Ram HD

The 2019 Ram Heavy Duty pickup truck unveiled at the Detroit auto show on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Mack Hogan/CNBC

In the war being waged in the heavy-duty truck segment, Ram came out on top in Detroit. Ford, GM and Ram keep one-upping the stratospheric torque levels of the trucks that exist today. After years of climbing from 600 to 700 to 800-plus foot pounds of torque, Ram drops the mic in Detroit with a mind-boggling 1,000 foot pounds.

Torque is the twisting force of an engine, or its ability to pull the truck and any additional weight. It's an important metric in the heavy duty market, as a high torque suggests a truck can handle massive trailers or payloads without getting bogged down.

More than that, though, the Ram HD is a complete redo of one of the big three segment stalwarts. Much like last year's Ram 1500 redesign, it offers more luxury and comfort options without losing out on payload or towing. Also, it has the most advanced suite of active safety gear on any heavy-duty truck. Ram claims the automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control will work with a full 30,000-pound trailer in tow.

Loser: Infiniti QX Inspiration concept

Nissan delayed the deput of its all-electric Infiniti QX concept SUV at the Detroit auto show on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019 after it failed to start and had to be pushed onto the stage.
Mack Hogan/CNBC

The biggest loser of the show is unquestionably Nissan's Infiniti QX Inspiration concept car. Even if the debut had gone off without a hitch, Infiniti has a bad habit of debuting lots of concept cars and few production vehicles at shows. Another all-electric show car without a production variant is tired and uninteresting at this point. Either make an electric car or don't.

The reason it's the biggest loser, though, is that the QX Inspiration failed to drive onto the stage for its debut. We don't know what happened, but we know that some Infiniti company reps were visibly upset the thing wouldn't start. They even had a hard time pushing it onto the show floor.

Loser: Cadillac XT6

Members of the media look at General Motors 2020 Cadillac XT6 SUV after it was revealed on the eve of press days of the North American International Auto show in Detroit, Michigan, January 13, 2019.
Rebecca Cook | Reuters

Cadillac was caught with its pants down when the crossover craze took over. The brand invested heavily in creating a portfolio of sports sedans with class-leading dynamics, but consumers wanted SUVs. Cadillac only offered the Escalade and the XT5, while Mercedes offers seven separate SUV body styles from the boxy G-Class to the fastback GLC Coupe.

To fix that, Cadillac has launched the XT4 and XT6. The XT4 came out last year to decent reviews and solid sales, while the XT6 bowed at Detroit. It's a good product to have, but it seems like too little too late.

Underneath, it's basically a GMC Acadia. It has the same 3.6-liter V6 that's done propulsion duty in countless GM cars and it doesn't offer Super Cruise, the company's class-leading driver assistance technology. Steve Carlisle, in the press conference, referenced GM's goal of creating a future with zero emissions, zero crashes and zero congestion.

A great goal, to be sure, but we don't understand how a middling six-passenger SUV without an electrified powertrain option or the company's flagship driver assistance technology gets them closer to that.

Loser: Volkswagen Passat

The 2020 Volkswagen Passat debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Mack Hogan/CNBC

If it's true that sedans are being killed, warmed-over milquetoast options like the Volkswagen Passat are prime suspects. VW's goal to increase sales in America has resulted in more cost cutting, less interesting products and totally forgettable styling.

VW makes a markedly more refined Passat for the European market, but Americans want cheaper and bigger options. That means we get this, something so uninteresting that I forgot it debuted by the next morning.

Loser: the Auto Show

An attendee looks at a Toyota Motor Corp. Lexus LC convertible concept vehicle is displayed during an event at the 2019 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Michigan, on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.
Sean Proctor | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A loser list for this show would be incomplete without mentioning that Detroit auto show itself was a dud. The show floor was significantly less bustling than last year, with many automakers opting to skip.

The auto show market, in general, seems to be shrinking, but it doesn't help Detroit that the Los Angeles Auto Show and Consumer Electronics Show are sucking up more and more debuts. In 2020, NAIAS is moving to June to help get some exhibitors back and boost attendance. That's a good idea, as it's getting harder to justify trekking to Detroit in January for a show that so many automakers won't attend.

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