At the LA Auto Show: Musings, Surprises and the Best of Design

At the LA Auto Show: Musings, Surprises and the Best of Design

Although the LA Auto Show happens at the geographic epicenter of car culture, it is generally considered of tertiary importance to the upcoming shows in Detroit (ranked #1) and New York (ranked #2). But this isn’t the view through every automotive manufacturer’s windshield, particularly at Porsche, which has long considered the LA Auto Show tops in the United States – largely due to the high concentration of sports car sales in Southern California – and this year chose the venue for the highly anticipated global debut of its new small SUV, the Porsche Macan. Together with the global premiere of the Jaguar F-Type Coupe, which was arguably the brightest star, here’s best of design, musings and pleasant surprises from the recent LA Auto Show. 

Jaguar F-Type Coupe: Like for the band at a rock concert when hecklers request “Freebird,” it must be torture in some ways for Jaguar Design Director Ian Callum, living with the legacy of the 1961 Jaguar E-Type coupe which continues by many to be considered not only the most beautiful Jaguar ever made, but perhaps the most beautiful car ever made, period. But what Callum’s achieved here with his new Jaguar F-Type Coupe (the follow-up to the highly successful Roadster) is a masterful “coup”, too, artfully balancing refined, crisp lines and lightness with the visual grunt and snarl that clearly says it’s no genteel pussycat in terms of performance. Starting at $65,000 this is the best looking sports car to come along from Jaguar in a long, long time. 

Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo: The show’s biggest pleasant surprise was at Mercedes-Benz, where the new AMG Vision Gran Turismo made its global premiere. It’s something of a fiction, built without an engine, opening doors or even an interior, and can be “driven” only in the new Gran Turismo 6 video game (available just in time for the holidays!) for which it was co-created; but in reality, knowing Mercedes, this concept provides some tantalizing hints about the future direction at Mercedes-AMG, which is set to release its new competitor to the Porsche 911 in the coming year as today’s Mercedes-AMG SLS “gullwing” is fazed out. Mercedes’ styling chief Gordon Wagner credits the 1952 Mercedes 300SL Carrera Panamericana for the Vision Gran Turismo’s nose, and many elements of that era’s Mercedes W196 “Streamliner” race car are evident as well, together with dashes of “Speed Racer” for show-stopping measure. Molten and menacing, the Vision Gran Turismo is utterly fantastic, bringing a childlike joy and “oh wow” moment that car shows tend to be woefully lacking. 

Porsche Macan and 911 Turbo Convertible: The two Porsches making their global premieres at the LA Auto show hail from opposite hemispheres of brand’s increasingly polar product spectrum: the latest Porsche 911 Turbo Convertible and the new Porsche Macan SUV. 

The new Macan (pronounced like “pecan,” as in pie) is derived from the Audi Q5 SUV platform, a fact that Porsche executives weren’t shy to offer at the press conference while strategically counterbalancing with the tidbit that the Macan shares the very same steering wheel as the $845,000 Porsche 918 hybrid supercar. How much performance DNA has also made the leap we’ll wait to find out, but upon first impression the Macan appears agile, planted, compact, and premium. Prices begin at $51,000 with deliveries beginning in the Spring. 

The latest Porsche Turbo Convertible is topless heaven to be sure, but perhaps more gorgeous still is the 911 50th Anniversary Edition Coupe displayed here in solid (meaning non-metallic) graphite grey, with subtle styling nods to the 1963 model it celebrates including Fuch’s-style wheels and hound’s-tooth fabric seating inserts. 

BMW i8 and i3: Arriving next June and making its North American debut in Los Angeles, the $135,700, 94 mpg, hybrid BMW i8 is an endlessly fascinating machine to behold. It’s otherworldly, as if plucked from the movie “Tron,” where bytes of computer data move as vehicles through information superhighways: the i8 looks like the manifestation of technology and intellect itself. With jutting surfaces like terraces and negative spaces replacing volume, it’s an exercise in architectural as much as automotive design – and will be a total nightmare to keep clean. 

The i8’s equally intellectual younger brother, the electric i3 (also making its North American debut in Los Angeles) is in some ways more exciting still because at prices starting in the low 40s before federal and applicable state rebates, it will be much more accessible. While some find the exterior design polarizing, it’s hard for anyone to find fault with the stunning interior that’s so good it makes one wonder why nobody has done it like this before. Like the i8, modern architecture and home interiors seemed to play a big part in shaping the i3, which arrives in showrooms in May 2014.

Cadillac: All the way back to the Catera in the 90s (and the Cimarron in the 80s), Cadillac has flirted with updating its brand image to conjure something other than diamond pinky rings and colostomy bags, and now at last with a lineup of performance-focused cars that have become the motoring critic’s darlings, specifically CTS, ATS and upcoming ELR hybrid, Cadillac seems poised to change shoppers’ hearts and minds for good. Cadillac’s Elmiraj concept, which debuted last August at Pebble Beach but is new to Los Angeles, serves as a sort of creative muse for this new aesthetic and mojo at Cadillac.

"Elmiraj" – which conjoins the storied “Eldorado” nameplate while alluding to a heat-shimmered desert mirage – perfectly recaptures American glamour of the 50s and 60s. Think Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Frank Sinatra & Ava Gardner, JFK & Jackie 0. Independent and bold, Elmiraj is a thoroughly modern take on these ideas without falling victim to retro clichés. 

Range Rover Autobiography Black, and Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG 4Matic: If you’re Anna Wintour or otherwise looking for a top-shelf, brand-commensurate limousine conveyance to bring you from appointment to appointment through the harsh, frozen reality of winter in Manhattan, then two new all-wheel-drive cars best fit the bill: the Range Rover Autobiography Black and Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG 4Matic. Both inside and out, they couldn’t be more different and distinct instruments of power.

Ringing the registers at $200,000, the penultimate “Autobiography Black” trim package is available exclusively on the long-wheelbase Range Rover and offers eight inches of additional rear legroom together with a resplendent array of luxury amenities for back seat bliss including (of course) television screens and electrically-deployed aluminum, wood, and leather-surfaced work tables with integrated USB chargers. The Range Rover stands tall and entitled, like a sovereign or barrister, proudly marching down the road as if wearing a monocle; this thoroughly vertical orientation carries through to the cabin, where there’s plenty of room yet the comportment suggests tummies in, chests out, and a stiff upper lip. It’s luxurious yet precise, like a perfectly-tailored Alexander McQueen suit.

Starting at roughly $140,000, the Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG is fabulously nefarious, as if beckoning, “Oh c’mon, just one more (drink, mistress, or donut) isn’t going to kill you.” Where the Range Rover is all about upright decorum, the S63 is decadently louche and horizontal with rear seats that, when equipped with the Executive Rear Seat Package, recline to a nearer-prone position. Whether you’re a Russian oligarch, Donald Trump, or latter-day Auric Goldfinger, the S63 AMG invites you to let it all hang out, knowing you’ve got way too much money to bother keeping up appearances for the world outside. The S63’s more rakish physical attitude reflects its supercar performance capabilities, so if you need to make a quick getaway – assuming Mount Kilimanjaro isn’t the only passage to escape – the S63 AMG rather than the Range Rover is the swifter ticket to freedom. 

Maserati: Press conferences at car shows tend to be beige, cringe-worthy affairs, often featuring executives unwisely attempting teleprompted small-talk about how much they love (for example) coming to LA because it’s “a town which is constantly inventing itself:” which is more or less to say it’s superficial and fake. So for the US premier of its new Ghibli sedan, high marks go to Maserati for a press conference that was, true to the marketing slogan for their new car, the absolute opposite of ordinary. Harald Webster, CEO of Maserati Spa, took to the stage like David with a baseball-sized exhaust clamp (in place of a rock) in his hand, which – together with his presentation’s imagery including an angry dog restrained by a muzzle, an elephant tethered by chains, and sheep glued to their flock – framed the premise that only a Maserati can release you from the humdrum prison that is now your life. If you’re a man not a mouse, then this is your car.

Maserati has similarly aggressive plans for North America, hoping its new product offensive that has miraculously appeared like a rabbit from a hat including the new midsize Ghibli sedan; the latest generation of its larger brother, the Quattroporte, of which a chic, limited-edition by Ermenegildo Zegna debuted in Los Angeles; and upcoming SUV will multiply sales ten-fold over the next few years. If Maserati can manage this coup, it will be the rebirth and reboot of a grand old Italian luxury brand akin to Tom Ford’s transformation of GUCCI in the mid 90s. So far, so good, with products that look sufficiently Italianate and sound great – “at Maserati, exhaust pipes are our trumpets,” said Weber to the press – parlaying the intoxicating cachet of an exotic marque with prices aimed squarely at BMW, Audi, and Mercedes.