Detroit auto show no longer about inflating execs’ egos, Stellantis CEO says

DETROIT — Carlos Tavares saw frugality on display at the first Detroit auto show in more than three years, but he doesn’t view that as a negative.

Automakers, the Stellantis CEO said, are doing what they can to get the best return on their investments. He thinks the savings from a toned-down atmosphere could result in brands returning to future shows, making the event more sustainable in the long run.

An auto show should be centered on consumers, Tavares said, instead of marketing stunts so brash and exorbitant that it makes no sense to come back.

“I think everybody now understands that the show is not made for the egos of the top executives of the automotive industry,” Tavares said during a virtual media roundtable during the auto show last week.

“Everybody is looking at the return on investment in a more business-oriented way, which I think is good because if we are looking for a better return on investment, it makes more sense with a more frugal and more focused way of displaying the products and technology,” he said. A lower cost of entry “means that people will come back because it makes sense to come back — compared to some old days where there was a waste of resources that led to poor return on investment that then opened the door for some people not to come because it was not, from their perspective, a good investment.”

Although just four other automakers participated in this year’s North American International Detroit Auto Show at the corporate level — General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Subaru, with dealers from many of the absentee brands setting up minimalist displays to fill in the void — there is a passion for cars and trucks in Detroit that Tavares says is rewarding for Stellantis.

The automaker, formed by the 2021 merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA Group, attracted long lines at its end of the convention hall for the adventurous test tracks it installed to highlight the capabilities of Rams and Jeeps.

Jeep also drew attention outside the building with a six-story rubber duck that encouraged visitors to promote the brand with photos on social media. It was a nod to a viral phenomenon in which Jeep owners place rubber ducks on other Jeeps they encounter.

But while there were plenty of activities aimed at consumers, the show was much lighter on product news than in previous years. Just a handful of vehicles debuted, vs. 44 in 2019, which was the last Detroit show before the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation in 2020 and 2021.

Stellantis showed off the final iteration of the Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C sedan and two special editions of the plug-in hybrid Jeep Wrangler 4xe and Grand Cherokee 4xe. It talked about two new electric vehicles that will join the lineup in 2024, the Jeep Recon and Grand Wagoneer S, but they weren’t displayed on the show floor. Instead, Jeep unveiled them virtually a week before the event.

“Not a lot of news here,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for Edmunds, said on the Automotive News “Daily Drive” podcast. “I think most automakers are choosing to introduce their vehicles at outside events, and it’s really lacking the pop and the surprise. Because I feel like the Detroit auto show had usually some sort of surprise that you didn’t expect to see.”

Chevrolet introduced a performance edition of the Tahoe RST that’s getting a modest boost to horsepower and torque, but it had already revealed the Equinox EV on CBS’ morning TV show the prior week.

Ford created the biggest spectacle of the week in unveiling the seventh-generation Mustang. Ford took advantage of the show’s shift from January to September, introducing the Mustang under a clear evening sky at a plaza along the Detroit River. The company asked Mustang owners to form a parade that snaked from its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters to downtown Detroit.

“The show is made to showcase what we have best for our consumers, and I think that’s a good thing at the end of the day,” Tavares said. “Let’s do it for the consumers. Let’s do it for the visitors. Let’s not just do it to show that we have a great booth.”

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