The Auto Show That Never Was: The 2011 NAIAS

Judging by the numbers, the North American International Auto Show is one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, auto events in North America, not only because it takes place in Detroit, but also because it witnessed over the years the introduction of a significant amount of local and global premieres. And the history that lies beneath the NAIAS designation is indeed impressive: the first show was organized in 1907 and ever since it took place annually, with a 9-year break between 1943 and 1952.

Of course, an auto event that's being held in Detroit is much more important for Americans than any other show across the United States: Michigan's largest city is also the home of the three top carmakers in the country, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. As a result, these three usually have the largest booths and their launches often concern every single American that has at least a tiny affinity for the motorized industry.

With these being said, the 2011 edition of the show was expected to be a revival, not only for the auto event, but also for the local manufacturers that experienced the most difficult period of their “lives”. Two of them stepped under Chapter 11 protection, but each had to fire thousands of people, shut down factories and kill or sell iconic brands that sold millions of units over their history.

In 2010, a year of recovery for the whole auto sector, the North American show was more like a private meeting between top players in the industry while others, including here big names such as Porsche, Suzuki or Saab, decided to cut costs and concentrate on their fight against the recession rather than to inject money into grandiose displays at the show.

Statistics prove otherwise though. A public report claims the show had an attendance of 714,137 people, with no less than 4,536 media credentials handed to journalists from all over the world. The economic impact to Metro Detroit was estimated at $325 million and numbers were pretty much expected to grow bigger in 2011.

This year however, organizers promised a much more breathtaking experience, although admitting that they expect to do better next year. Companies such as Porsche, Mercedes, Toyota and Audi confirmed their presence at the show and even worked on several goodies to be unveiled there, while the Chinese from BYD decided to use the North American event to get closer to the American public with multiple green solutions.

In the eyes of someone who got the chance to enter the Cobo Center in the first press day at exactly 6.30 am, just in time for the Porsche press conference, the 2011 NAIAS wasn't exactly an amazing experience. Plastic bracelets for all journalists, mints at each entrance and lots of booths still under construction. Of course, seeing 90 percent of the Cobo Center still not prepared to greet the army of journalists who was ready to shoot every thing that had at least one wheel wasn't a pleasant thing, but we actually had the chance to photograph some models before their official unveiling during the show.

The guys over at Chrysler for example were still in the NAIAS preparation frenzy. Their whole booth, which by the way was full of Italian-speaking executives, was gearing up for the launches of the two all-new 200 and 300 models, both of which were on the stage for a rehearsal. Two or three camera flashes and the Chrysler folks rushed to take the two stars out of the stage, yet enough for us to give our readers a view on the future sedans to be launched by the American carmaker.

Near the General Motors booth, employees were still working on the carpet, while at Porsche, the smell of cleaning products seemed much more powerful for our nasal congestion than the mints offered at the Cobo Center entrances. We froze every time we passed through Toyota's stand, while BYD only retained our attention for about a second, until we jumped into the e6 (which by the way smelled like some sort of mosquito repellent spray). Ford had probably the most interactive display at NAIAS, with 75 vehicles shown there, while also allowing us to relax a little bit through a scale replica Laguna Seca slot car track that allowed four people at a time to test their button-pushing skills – the only thing one had to do was to keep a remote control button pressed to accelerate the correspondent vehicle (if by any means you have the chance to visit the Ford booth these days, keep in mind that the BLACK car is the fastest on track!).

Other than that, the 2011 NAIAS was just as regular as any other auto show around the world. Most companies revealed their latest goodies through public press conferences, while Toyota presented the two new Prius models in an unique way: it took the wraps of the vehicles in a private party in a separate hall, while other journalists and those who were visiting the Toyota booth could watch the live streaming on a large screen mounted in a corner of the stand.

In terms of new launches, Toyota was probably the name that received the greatest attention through its Prius family, while other companies, such as smart, Mazda and Maybach attended the show with their well-known vehicles, in some cases with minor modifications or customizations. Volvo unveiled what was called the first crash-tested electric vehicle, Audi came into the spotlights with the A6, Volkswagen revealed the New Midsize Sedan, General Motors unveiled the Sonic, Kia and Honda launched one and two concepts, respectively, while Lexus showed us the orange LFA we were talking about two weeks ago.

Mercedes had the most colorful display at the show, with the help of the striking SLS AMG E-Cell unveiled in Press Day 1. And speaking of the German carmaker, the company also introduced the new C-Klasse but, in what could be very well considered a teasing revealing, executives decided to keep the new model hidden from our cameras in a separate room in the Cobo Center. We did manage to shoot the two Mercs while also learning that both of them will go on sale later this year, with a new revealing to take place in Geneva this March.

In the end, the 2011 NAIAS was nothing more than a regular auto show and the 700,000 sq ft (65,000 m2) of exhibition space seem to be way behind what we've seen in Europe, in Paris for example. Organizers expect to do better in 2012, and we certainly expect the same. After all, it wasn't too hard to move around in such a small hall, although we were full of burgers and fast-food cr*p...

Unfortunately, the North American International Auto Show somehow retains the image of the city that hosts it: Detroit, the home of the largest local carmakers, was severely hit by the crisis, just like the three companies that employ most of its residents, so don't expect to see only milk and honey if you've never been there. Detroit is, after all, the capital of the American automotive industry and, regardless how tolerant you want to be, the economic downturn was as cruel with it as it was with GM and Chrysler.

That being said, on behalf of the autoevolution team, I must thank you for helping us provide one of the best, if not THE best, coverage on the 2011 North American International. See you in Geneva in March!

P.S.: have you visited the North American International Auto Show this year? What's your impression on the show? Express your opinion in the comment box below and in our weekly poll in the left frame of the page.
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About the author: Bogdan Popa
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Bogdan keeps an eye on how technology is taking over the car world. His long-term goals are buying an 18-wheeler because he needs more space for his kid’s toys, and convincing Google and Apple that Android Auto and CarPlay deserve at least as much attention as their phones.
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