DETROIT, MICHIGAN--In terms of sales at least, one of the most significant vehicles to debut at the 2018 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) is the Ford Ranger, the return of a compact pickup truck that lately has been a hit everywhere but the U.S. The Ranger has been off the market here for seven years.
In that time the truck and SUV markets in the U.S. (and everywhere else) have gone nowhere but up—both segments are so hot that Ford is now realizing that compact trucks have new potential here, especially with aggressive, American-centric looks that echo the all-conquering F-150 (still the top-selling vehicle nationwide).
Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett, making his first appearance at NAIAS in that role, described the Ranger as “an icon,” and said, “It was time to bring it back, but interpreted in a way that reflects what we learned with the F-150.”
Ford is investing $11 billion in electric vehicles, but it also wants to be a “mobility” company with a keen interest in developing shared self-driving cars. Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of electric and autonomous vehicles, told me that the company is already addressing one major potential collision—self-driving systems can draw down three kilowatts of power, which means the first vehicles deployed are going to be hybrids, not battery electrics (where every power drain can dramatically affect range).
That said, the new electric, 50-state compact CUV that Ford is deploying circa 2020 will have up to 300 miles of range, so there’s a point in the not-too-distant future where cars will meet the holy trinity—electric, autonomous and shared/connected. Marakby declined to put a date on that.
The Ranger has to have traditional appeal, given its likely buying demographic. Pointing out the Ranger’s boxed-frame-mounted bumper, Ford’s Raj Nair exclaimed, “Real trucks don’t have fascias.” The engine is pretty modern, though, a 2.3-liter turbocharged Ecoboost with a 10-speed automatic.
Hackett wasn’t entirely convincing when he said he loves to rev his GT 350, but there’s no questioning Ford’s muscle car heritage. The drifting Mustang fastback Steve McQueen drove in the movie Bullitt sold more cars than 100 fast-talking salesmen. At its press event, Ford brought out the long-hidden car McQueen drove in the movie (with granddaughter Molly McQueen presiding), complementing a 2019 Mustang Bullitt edition that marks the movie’s 50th anniversary. The latter comes complete with cueball manual shifter, and is capable of 163 mph, leaving the existing GT in the dust.
That old Mustang, hidden for more than four decades and with a worn Warner Brothers sticker on the windshield, looked the way you’d expect it to with McQueen driving it on the roof and putting it away wet (though the bumpers were new). Check out the iconic chase sequence here. Ironically, given the car’s barely there original paint, the Bullitt car is owned by auto paint shop manager Sean Kierman, who inherited it from his late father (who paid just $6,000 via a Road & Track classified ad). The car is now said to be worth $4 million, but back then only Kierman's dad called about it.
The 2019 Bullitt gets a heated steering wheel—clearly, they don’t make real men anymore. Speaking of real men, I met Arnold Schwarzenegger! He was on hand to help roll out the new G-Class Mercedes-Benz. Arnold is apparently a long-time owner, and was not always loyal to the Hummer.
As California governor, he was a big advocate of electric and hydrogen-powered cars, and I was able to buttonhole him about that. “The automakers need to be pressured on electrification,” he told me. And he actually did just that, asking MB chief Dieter Zetsche on stage when he was going to produce a battery Gelandewagen. “I built my own, and it drives fantastic,” he said.
Other highlights included:
- A stand for the $130,000 Karma Revero, a version of the Fisker Karma that retains the original car’s hybrid layout, though with much improved engineering. Since Henrik Fisker himself is selling Corvetter-powered Fiskers, this could get confusing.
- Mobiliti, started by Chance and Amanda Richie, is a subscription service for dealers to hire out (on a monthly basis) their very low-mileage demonstrators. Automakers like Ford are starting their own mobility services, and this concept (launching in the Southwest this year) lets dealers have a piece of the action.
- China’s GAC, with a big stand in Detroit (its fourth), showed a whimsical electric car prototype, the Enverge, with the type of gullwing doors that never make production. But GAC is deadly serious about entering the U.S. market and becoming competitive here. According to GAC’s president, Yu Jun, “Entering the American market is a necessary step for GAC Motor to bring world-class vehicles to world-class cars that fit their needs.” The company now has offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley, so we know it’s not kidding around. In fact, with Fiat Chrysler as a possible partner, it hopes to be selling cars at dealers here as early as 2019. The first vehicle is to be the Trumpchi (we didn't make up that name) GS8, a big SUV with three rows. I don't know that particular car, but GAC will be entering a very competitive market.
- Here's a look at GAC's cars on video:
- A speech by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who said that 78 percent of Americans are scared of riding in autonomous cars. The government’s role, she said, is to make sure these brave new cars are safe. But she also said the department was launching an initiative to identify “barriers to innovation” and, presumably, bring them down. Could those two things be in conflict?
- GM’s announcement that it would field autonomous Chevrolet Bolts with no steering wheel or brake pedal in a sharing fleet by 2019 has the industry buzzing, and that helps explain the pair of panels devoted to the topic in Detroit. According to Jack Weart, chief architect of autonomous driving solutions at Intel, “This is the year it becomes reality. We’re moving from science projects to reality.”
Will autonomous electric cars change everything? You bet. Traditional car culture is a goner. Detroit will take on a whole new look.