2012 Washington Auto Show Report

As you might expect, the 2012 Washington Auto Show was dominated by political speeches and public policy debate. Plenty of cars and trucks were on the show floor, but most of the announcements were clearly targeted at future technology and responsible urban driving. Naturally, none of this was nourishing to any attendee who actually likes cars and pickups, but it is what it is.

Much of the underlying mood at the 2012 show was colored by the recent discussions on Capitol Hill, where various representatives asked GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson about the investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration into the Chevy Volt and fire that started as a result of some improper storage of a crash tested vehicle. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spent much of his time on the show floor complimenting manufacturers for doing a great job “getting back to work,” and he defended his agency’s taking almost six months to investigate why the batteries in the Volt they crash-tested caught fire. 

If you’ve never been to Washington, D.C., it is an amazing place to visit, but there is a strong sense that this is a very insulated town with some unusual priorities. In the several days we spent moving around town, we saw only one Ford SVT Raptor, no Ram Power Wagons, and more eight-lug Chevy Suburbans (big black ones with private drivers behind the wheel) around this town than we’ve ever seen in one place. Finally, for a town with a lot of great public transportation, there is always a lot of traffic. 

Still, we noticed a few interesting things at the show floor. There was no real truck news, as most of the emphasis in Washington is squarely focused on electric and hybrid cars. It was nice to see quite a few full-size pickups on the show floor during the media preview (even Detroit waited until the public days to roll out most of the full-size pickups), but as far as announcements and commentary were concerned, it was like anything with a bed was invisible. 

Below are some of our observations and quick news items we gleaned form walking the show floor. As more full-electric and hybrid-drive technologies get into pickup trucks, we’re pretty sure politicians will try to jump on the bandwagon and take some kind of credit for it and, as a result, make a speech about it.  

Washington is a great place to get manufacturers, politicians and government agency officials together on one stage. This panel included representatives from NHTSA, J.D. Power and Associates, the EPA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Natural Resources Defense Council, auto manufacturers and the White House. But without a unified energy policy (with understandable goals), you needed three hands to count the number of “top priorities” mentioned by the various speakers. 

Jonathan Browning, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, spent some time talking with us about the possibility of the Amarok coming to the U.S. Before you get your hopes up, Browning was quite clear: “Too many issues are conspiring against us. Basically, we have a B-segment vehicle that would have to be priced at C-segment prices, and I can’t see that ever making sense to us,” He said. “We would have to make such a huge investment to get the costs down, and the segment would have to show signs of much more growth before we could put it ahead of our other priorities. It doesn’t fit right now.”

It’s always fun to sticker shop. What stopped us about his one was the familiar fuel economy numbers, which are right around what used to be your average V-8 full-size pickup-truck mileage numbers. Of course, this extended-wheelbase Rolls-Royce Ghost costs well over $300,000 and is equipped with a 6.6-liter V-12 that makes 563 horsepower and about 575 pounds-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm.

This is a fully reconditioned (except with dual tailpipes) 1938 Chevy pickup with a 235-hp inline-six under the hood and a four-speed automatic transmission. The truck stood out like a beautiful sore thumb at the show, stuffed way in back with a bunch of other classic cars and muscle cars all owned by Flemings Ultimate Garage of Rockville, Md. Most of the cars on display were for sale. This one was listed for just under $30,000.

This is called the Greenspeed Truck, and it’s reported to be the world’s fastest truck fueled by vegetable oil. The 1998 Chevrolet S-10 is the brainchild of a Boise State University cub that raised more than $125,000 to build the racetruck. The team shattered the previous speed record of 98 mph, set by the Southern California Timing Association, with a run of 155 mph. A 1993 5.9-liter Cummins powers the truck, and it is reported to make over 700 hp. The team hopes to break the record again this summer by pushing speeds at or above 200 mph. 

Not much was going on at Chevy’s booth. GM North America President Mark Reuss announced a new ecological initiative (learn more about it from our friends at KickingTires here) that will have every GM vehicle sold in the U.S. equipped with a sticker that says where all the building materials came from and how much should be recycled after it has completed its lifecycle. What did catch our eye was a familiar Howie Long video with chief engineer Rick Spina about the Chevy Silverado HD (and Ford Super Duty) frame flex.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon talks about how important it is to get more electric vehicles on the road so that we don’t have to lean on foreign oil. Now if people would just start buying them, half the probem would be solved. Of course, infrastructure would need a big boost, too.

LaHood drew the biggest crowd of the day. Most of his speech was about how proud he was of the various automakers coming back from the brink of destruction to show off so many high-mileage vehicles that would help improve our national security by reducing our dependence on foriegn oil. He also went to great lengths to express his displeasure with some members of Congress who had just hammered the head of NHTSA, David Strictland. Some members of congress believed it was odd that NHTSA waited until it completed its five-month investigation to announce there was a problem at all with the Volt’s battery, whereas other safety issues — such as Toyota’s unintended-acceleration problems and the ensuing investigation — were reported to Congress immediately. In the end, GM improved a structural support around the battery, and LaHood supported Strictland’s position that they are satisfied that the fix helps make Volts quite safe.  

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