Auto Show Dispatch

The US’s biggest infrastructure project—bigger than the New Deal–era dams and the Erie Canal—was the highway system, which destroyed the American city and, arguably but I think not that arguably, American society itself. The country’s midcentury racist spatial self-destruction is a crime that will never be sufficiently atoned for. Whenever a child walking along a four-lane exurban road is killed by a driver who swerves into the shoulder, whenever someone is simply able to drive 98 miles per hour in a 55 zone, whenever a family of seven in an ostensibly safe minivan is killed despite the self-evident technological ability to limit speeds, redesign roads, and enforce existing regulations, it seems reasonable to infer that what car culture is really about aren’t sexy concept cars or futuristic taillights. What car culture is really about is death.

Today, cars are better than they have ever been—and, not unrelatedly, more similar to one another

1995 Ford Contour.

The Buick display at this year’s New York International Auto Show was located in the far back corner of the Jacob Javits Center’s third-floor main exhibit hall, the kind of dim and lonely zone where you would expect to stumble upon unused sound equipment from the 2016 Hillary Clinton victory party. What I saw instead was a solitary, sickly orange Buick Envista, a crossover SUV presumably named to match its sisters Encore, Envision, and Enclave. One problem with this is that Encore, Envision, and Enclave are real words.

An auto show, like any trade show, is an assertion of hierarchy, and it was obvious from the press days I attended late last month that Buick—once a glorious American enterprise, more recently a middling brand with a Tiger Woods endorsement deal—is at the bottom. Like visitors to a car dealership subjected to none of the sales pressure, auto show attendees can take all the time they want examining, entering, photographing, filming, touching, and slamming the doors of the contemporary American automobile. I sat down inside the Envista and considered the market potential of a cheap-feeling crossover with the rear-seat headroom of a coupe, which struck me as limited. Walking around the Javits I got the sense that after a decade of unquestioned SUV dominance we are now in the early days of decrossoverification: small and small-adjacent SUVs seem to be getting lower, more compact, and more sedanlike than their recent antecedents. Unlike the Envista, however, most of them manage this transition without forcing rear-seat occupants to lean forward like they’re in a hospital waiting room waiting to be told the bad news. Buick’s old-school crappy display featured piles of branded cowboy hats and nothing at all in the way of persuasion. “Is this the company’s first compact crossover?” I found myself asking Buick’s lone and passive sales rep. That was a real low point for me.

Everyone has a first convention center and Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center is mine. I attended my first auto show there in 1992 or 1993, and back then I would have seen every major brand and model on the market. This hasn’t been the case at the Javits for some time. Besides an outdoor Jeep test track, at NYIAS there was no presence from Stellantis—no Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, or Maserati. There were no German manufacturers around other than Volkswagen and a handful of Porsches—unimaginable even a few years ago. GM didn’t bother bringing Cadillac, its most interesting brand, and Ford showed up without Lincoln, which in 2016 had a huge stand featuring its brand-new Navigator concept and its then ambassador, Matthew McConaughey. Mazda didn’t show up, which was too bad, and neither did Mitsubishi, which was unsurprising. The last time I saw them there, I think in 2017, their display was desultory and Buick-like.

My sentient life has roughly coincided with an era of unprecedentedly high automotive quality. In the 1990s, during my early auto show–going days, the xenophobic Reagan-era freakout about Japanese imports was giving way to a near-universal great leap forward. American cars were getting better, as were German cars and Korean cars, while the Japanese econoboxes had attained an exalted realm that seemed to surpass mere questions of reliability. Today, cars are better than they have ever been—and, not unrelatedly, more similar to one another. There are fewer major car companies, more shared parts and platforms, a stronger regulatory environment, and far less overall eccentricity. I don’t think any of this is bad per se, but I wonder if the oft-noted decline of auto enthusiasm isn’t in large part a consequence of our high-quality epoch. It seems to me that there is an essential relationship between idiosyncrasy and fandom, that the latter can’t function without the former. Fans of midcentury English cars bonded over their MGs’ and TVRs’ ghastly wiring problems and frequent breakdowns, and turn-of-the-millennium Saturn nerds had whatever it was they had at their annual gatherings in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

The only contemporary brand that encourages this kind of collective intensity is, of course, Tesla. Tesla famously and not unreasonably hates car dealers, so there’s no way they would ever appear at an event organized by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association (GNYADA). It was wonderful not to have to actively think about Tesla, one of the most important car companies in the world, and also one of the hardest to theorize without hype or prejudice. But clearly other people were thinking about it a lot. At a press conference introducing the Prologue, the Honda representative emphasized the model’s retractable panoramic sunroof, throwing shade (and shade) at Tesla’s unyielding, overheating-prone glass version of the same. The sunroof, the guy said, was “one of my favorite things about Prologue,” along with its low roofline (more evidence of decrossoverification) and the fact that it has the biggest wheels and tires in Honda history. At both the Honda event and the Acura press conference I attended beforehand the presenters got very energized by their cars’ logos. The logos haven’t been redesigned or anything—there they were in the middle of the grilles, like always.

Acura is Honda’s luxury vehicle division, a category I’ve always been suspicious of. What’s the point of paying a huge premium for a rebadged Toyota Camry with leather seats and wood paneling? Without BMW, Mercedes, and Stellantis’s numerous brands, the Japanese luxury divisions had way too much space and not enough to fill it with. My main impression of their display areas was that there was a lot of carpeting, which didn’t do much to soften the Javits’s blunt-force concrete hostility. Infiniti, the upmarket Nissan, was a little more impressive than Acura or Lexus, giving over the entirety of its floor space to a semi-interactive experience dedicated to its new QX80, a beastly full-size SUV with air curtains larger than my head. The Infiniti stand featured swelling electronic strings, blue-green lava lamp illumination, elusive hors d’oeuvres, and a weird interactive audio component showcasing the Infiniti’s Klipsch Reference Premiere Audio System—all of which seemed like the appropriate amount of effort needed to sell an SUV that costs $30,000 more than the nearly identical Nissan Armada.

Of course there’s no inherent relationship between display quality and market share. Tesla is no less powerful for failing to show up, and even Matthew McConaughey wouldn’t have helped Buick make its case. But if some of the heavy hitters asserted their presence via absence, a few brands did so via emphatic presence. Toyota had wheelchair basketball and a bouncy castle meant to evoke a swimming pool, in honor of the company’s Paralympic and Olympic partnerships. The row of sneakers at the Nissan stand were there to promote the Kicks compact crossover, a car named after shoes and possibly also designed to resemble them.

I’m not immune to good marketing, and the cup of citrusy beet tea poured from a stone teapot at the Genesis booth was good marketing. Genesis is a luxury brand like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, but it presents itself with swagger and individuation, distinct from both its parent company (Hyundai) and its Japanese and German competitors. The Genesis booth, by far the most elegant at the Javits, had the radiant, unfussy vibe of a French regional bank headquarters from the tail end of the trentes glorieuses. Genesis’s cars are like its beet tea: subtle, refined, ennobling. It used to bother me that the company’s grilles and logos so shamelessly evoked latter-day Bentley models, but then at last year’s auto show I sat down in the back seat of a G70, closed the door behind me, heard the most perfect thunk I’ve ever heard, and realized that in every respect these cars are superior to Bentleys—at a quarter of the price. I will never be in the financial position to purchase a luxury car or a new car, but Genesis is the only brand that makes some minor degree of free-floating longing feel non-humiliating.

Three Genesis cars (Geneses?) on display had the same vivid orange color as the tea. I forget which ones were to the left and right of the X Gran Berlinetta concept because no other car at the show so dominated the visual field. With its impossible wheels, huge haunches, and narrow cockpit it resembled nothing so much as a racecar that has undergone a BBL. Once I got over the pornographic shock of the thing my mind drifted, auto-biographically, to the car racing games in the Need for Speed series, which featured cars like the Berlinetta traveling through pleasant, nighttime European landscapes. In these games driving was easy and frictionless—supercars could travel through moonlit German villages at 300 km/h, bounce off the town square’s guardrails, and keep on cruising. Today the only people who get to drive frictionlessly are billionaire failsons who pilot their Koenigseggs and Paganis through LA and New York at 140 mph. I usually learn about their efforts in graphic news footage of their million-dollar cars crushed against lampposts and storefronts, with pedestrians as collateral damage.

The US’s bestselling automotive brands are Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet. The bestselling models in 2023 were the Ford F-Series, the Chevy Silverado, the Ram Pickup, the Toyota RAV4, and the Tesla Model Y. The VIPs of the New York International Auto Show, however, were the Koreans. While Genesis held it down for the Korean luxury sector, Kia did its best as Hyundai’s somewhat lesser quasi-subsidiary. Introducing its heroically ugly K4, the Kia representative devoted most of his press conference time to the model’s various technological innovations, including its generative AI capability, which allows drivers to hear about their “stocks, sports scores, and owners’ manual content.” Over and over again at the show I heard about the width of various digital instrumental panels, possibly the saddest example of dick-measuring I’ve encountered in an industry permanently committed to the practice. (The K4’s screen is thirty inches wide, if Big Display Energy is the sort of thing that gets you going.)

For all this self-debasement, Kia’s fleet is solid and capable. Anytime I rent a car I’m disappointed if it’s not a Kia. But the star of the show was the parent company. Hyundai’s press conference was the slickest, its product the most appealing. At last year’s show I fell in love with the Ioniq 5, a modern electric car free from Tesla’s obnoxious influence. I suspect that even Tesla superfans have a hard time generating enthusiasm for the company’s current product line—too ubiquitous, too outdated, too vulgar. The Ioniq 5, by contrast, is designed to thrill. Its exterior has a crisply modular quality, as if one could disassemble it and replace the batteries, but it doesn’t look cheap—just user-friendly, a little like a 1980s vacuum cleaner. Its orderly grid of taillights is a creative design detail I haven’t seen anywhere else. Like the car as a whole the grid’s futurism is present-tense, a soothing contrast to both the industry’s retro doom loop and the hegemony of aggressive black fascias and interchangeable rooflines. On the Hyundai test track inside the Javits, the charismatic driver treated me to a few laps in the Ioniq 5 N, which can do zero to sixty in a little over three seconds. The acceleration was startling, effortless, and genuinely fun. I never thought I could enjoy simulated engine sounds, which have always struck me as a terminal gimmick, but the Ioniq 5 N made even this seem playful—the opposite of Tesla’s strained and effortful innovations. Musk famously endowed his cars with a feature that produces fart sounds, an inanity that came to mind as I was looking around a booth that sold faux vanity license plates. I was thinking of getting my daughter a plate with her name on it—maybe New Mexico, with its perfect livery—until I saw, in close succession, an Indiana plate that read BIG TITS and a Georgia plate that read BUST A NUT. Nope! The entire Tesla project feels like a collection of advanced if often undertested technologies with the ethos of these license plates.

The salespersonship at the Hyundai press conference was impressive. Introducing two lesser new models, the CEO of the company’s American division announced Hyundai’s “all-new human-centric technology”: the “return of some of those knobs and dials” that nearly every brand—other than noble anti-flatscreen holdout Mazda—has renounced over the past few years. But these surface-level tweaks weren’t the big story. “We’re meeting customers where they are on the journey to electrification,” Parker said with great pride. If in recent years electric cars had appealed to a smallish number of early adopters, Hyundai is now working toward “what we call the early majority,” a brilliant piece of branding that feels like something Democratic consultants get paid millions of dollars to (fail to) come up with.

I was 11 when GM introduced the EV1, the subject of the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, and the experience of seeing the first real generation of electric cars fail to take flight—thanks to corporate conspiracy, consumer disinterest, or both—was radicalizing. Now, nearly three decades later, a group of executives from the most ambitious car company in the world were discussing electrification with a disorienting sense of inevitability. The Hyundai crew didn’t have much to say about climate change, but then again, why would they? Auto manufacturers are no more likely to “solve” climate change than oil companies or hedge funds. I admire Hyundai’s earnest commitment to electrification and find its belatedness inescapably tragic.

Like the Hyundai CEO, Polestar’s Thomas Ingenlath—a kind of Germanic Tom Cruise—was unreservedly excited about the electric future. While the other manufacturers suppress the political-environmental implications of their electric vehicles, Polestar—a Swedish company owned by Volvo—labels its seats with sans-serif details about the carbon footprint of its fabrics and the assertion that “animal welfare [has been] secured.” This is smug, probably effective, and made me feel like I was sitting inside a bottle of Aesop hand lotion.

“Did it come from the stars?” someone asked in the Polestar promotional video that played before the unveiling of the Polestar 4. “I don’t know, but it has one on it.” OK. I have to say that I was pretty seduced by Polestar’s vision—its beautiful, low-slung 3; its hot CEO; its Scandinavian minimalism—until I started talking to a hedge fund guy also hanging around the booth. He had rented a Polestar 2 recently and found it extremely uncomfortable to get in and out of. He had a pretty bearish view of the state of the electric market (unrelated to his rental experience), though he was bullish on Hyundai. At the moment the problem with electric cars, he said, is that not enough people are buying them. EV credits have receded but the price premium hasn’t, the US regulatory cudgel is weak, and gas is cheap. What will move the needle? I asked. Another war, the hedge fund guy responded, hedge fund guyishly.1

Ingenlath, for his part, devoted most of his time to the Polestar 4’s lack of a “traditional rear window,” which has been replaced by a camera linked to the rearview mirror (now no longer a mirror, but a screen). Over the past few years of upheaval in the car design space I’ve gotten used to the elimination of the grille, the dashboard, and other automotive features I once thought were as essential as wheels or doors. But seeing a sea of white recycled steel where a rear windshield should be felt like a new frontier. After the Polestar presentation I walked over to the Volkswagen stand and discovered that the fake-mirror epidemic was more widespread than I’d thought. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the ID. Buzz microbus I looked at both side mirrors and saw a bright blue LED pattern, clearly staged for the auto show. You could make anything appear on these things! It took me a few too many seconds for me to grasp that what I was looking at was the booth’s LED backdrop, reflected in mirrors that were still blessedly real. For now.

On the morning of the second press day I went down to the basement level to attend the World Traffic Safety Symposium, organized by GNYADA. On the show floor the industry people, finance guys, and vloggers—so many vloggers—were recovering from the party circuit, but down here I was in the realm of the perennial bureaucrats. Most of the bureaucrats were very tall. I shared a table with the tallest person in the room—a poised, captivating man who had the air of a benign Robert Moses. This turned out to be New York State DMV head Mark Schroeder, a celebrity sighting that far exceeded my brief encounter with McConaughey years earlier. During his remarks Schroeder praised Kathy Hochul as not only New York’s first woman governor, but “the only governor in New York State history who has run a DMV.” He told a good David Paterson joke and said the words “diversity, equity, and inclusion” without embarrassment, with none of the hesitation the CEOs upstairs displayed when tiptoeing around the subject of climate change.

Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, delivered the keynote via Zoom from Baltimore, where she was negotiating the aftermath of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse, a topic that everyone at the show seemed to be speaking about in muted whispers. Homendy’s speech was upsetting and frustrating. “In just these next fifteen minutes,” she said, “one person will die on our nation’s roads,” at which point she launched into a horrific discussion of two recent car crashes the NTSB had investigated, both of which, the agency concluded, could have been prevented with existing technology. In Las Vegas, a driver doing 103 in a 35 zone slammed his Dodge Challenger into a Toyota Sienna minivan. In the Sienna was a family with four children, the youngest of whom was 5 years old. Everyone in both cars was killed. In Avenel, California, a drunk driver in a Dodge Journey SUV going 98 in a 55 zone collided with a Ford F-150 carrying eight people, seven of whom were kids between the ages of 6 and 15, all of whom died along with the driver. Homendy’s repeated invocations of these events via their place names—Las Vegas, Avenel—reminded me of the shorthand we use when talking about school shootings. I misheard “hard-braking events” as “heartbreaking events” and don’t think I was wrong to do so.

Homendy’s point was that “crashes can be prevented by life-saving tech in vehicles” that already exists—intelligent speed assistance, passive alcohol detection technology, and so on. Fair enough. But there was a passivity to her remarks, a sense that in the end, all this unspeakable cruelty was up to the car companies to resolve. I was pleased to hear her bring up the weight of electric vehicles—a serious concern—and then troubled to realize that this fact was cited not in defense of pedestrians and bikers, but of the roads themselves.

I’m sure it’s true that heavy vehicles are wearing down roads more quickly than anticipated, but with Las Vegas and Avenel on my mind this didn’t seem like the central problem American government officials needed to contend with. Every morning I walk my daughter to school through two intersections so poorly designed that we have to go to elaborate lengths to avoid the nearly 100 percent of drivers who illegally plow through a few flimsy bollards and always fail to stop at the crosswalk. I’m glad that New York’s intelligent speed assistance program seems to be having a positive effect, just as I’m glad about congestion pricing. But the scale of the safety crisis is vast, radically out of proportion to all the cheerful innovating taking place upstairs.

The US’s biggest infrastructure project—bigger than the New Deal–era dams and the Erie Canal—was the highway system, which destroyed the American city and, arguably but I think not that arguably, American society itself. The country’s midcentury racist spatial self-destruction is a crime that will never be sufficiently atoned for. Whenever a child walking along a four-lane exurban road is killed by a driver who swerves into the shoulder, whenever someone is simply able to drive 98 miles per hour in a 55 zone, whenever a family of seven in an ostensibly safe minivan is killed despite the self-evident technological ability to limit speeds, redesign roads, and enforce existing regulations, it seems reasonable to infer that what car culture is really about aren’t sexy concept cars or futuristic taillights. What car culture is really about is death.

“Actually SO FUCKED that luxury victims have safety options lower trim lines don’t,” I wrote in my notepad during Homendy’s keynote. I meant “vehicles,” not “victims,” but the point stands. It’s obvious that American life is a series of cruel disparities, but the idea that automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning are options only available to a privileged few, despite the absence of any technical constraints to universal adoption, still feels, well, fucked. We are in desperate need of much more stringent safety regulations and we seem unlikely to get them.

During the Hyundai press conference discussion of Hyundai Pay, a technology that places the brand “at the nexus of the auto industry, the payments industry, and the EV charging industry,” I had the thought that the interior of a new car is the only place where one can experience the total tech dream as it’s been conceived of by its proselytizers. While driving you can turn your Klipsch Reference Premiere Audio System all the way up, suppress the outside world, and attain pure, blissful dissociation—unless a bridge collapses under you, or (much more likely) you get distracted by a text and crash your car into the side of a minivan.

“It drives so much smaller than it really is,” I overheard an Infiniti QX80 salesperson tell a couple of potential customers. Immediately this stood out to me as one of the truest and most ambiguous claims anyone could make about life in the 21st century. Electrification is a real if unstable trend, and decrossoverification is probably not nothing, but the story that matters above all others is that cars continue to get bigger, even as that size is mitigated by all kinds of refinements. For a recent trip I needed to rent a car with six seats and was upgraded by Thrifty to an eight-seat Chevy Tahoe, which also drove much smaller than it really is. At nearly six thousand pounds, the thing was smooth and nimble: easy to accelerate, easy to steer through the Taconic State Parkway’s precarious curves, and easy to forget the smaller and more vulnerable cars—and their passengers—in the other lanes. I don’t think that any of this constitutes progress. Size inflation has been normalized to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to appreciate the enormity of American cars. The desire for status, the desire for height, a fragile and increasingly attenuated relationship to masculinity, the global war on terror, the rise of safety-consciousness, a legal regime that has made the production of fuel-inefficient vehicles far more appealing to car manufacturers than smaller and more eco-conscious ones—all these have been held responsible for the rise of the SUV and all these are indeed responsible. But the desire to wall oneself off from the world, to float above degraded infrastructure and the threat of violence even as one contributes to both: this is an explanatory factor that shouldn’t be underrated.

As Kate Aronoff has written in the New Republic, emissions standards are improving (too slowly) but don’t come close to adequately addressing the problem the EPA itself helped create: a two-tiered system by which SUVs and large trucks can keep on trucking with embarrassing gas mileage. Automakers who lobbied for this legal regime in the first place have responded rationally, by making more SUVs and large trucks and fewer regular cars. At the Ford stand I took note of a limited-edition Sydney Sweeney–branded robin’s egg blue Mustang, with Sweeney’s “heart bolt emblem” emblazoned all over the car’s interior and exterior. (Her signature is on the engine.) This struck me as a world-historically smart collaboration (notwithstanding the creepy online freaks obsessed with Sweeney’s breasts as an arbiter of Western civilization’s revival or whatever), but also a sideshow, given that the Mustang is the only remaining passenger car in Ford’s lineup.2

I understand that life goes on in the imperium as people die in a genocide supported and underwritten by the US. I’ve been to movies over the past six months, have attended and even hosted children’s birthday parties. And still the experience of spending two days inside a convention center reflecting on an industry that has done so much to destroy and destabilize this country and our planet and millions of its inhabitants filled me with disgust and despair. Downstairs on the first day, I saw a customized Toyota Land Cruiser with a rear windshield sticker that read SORRY FOR MY SCRATCHES AND DENTS, THESE ARE ACTUAL WAR WOUNDS. The Land Cruiser was, of course, spotless.

It felt right to spend my final minutes at the show with the Hummer. My family had just immigrated to the US when the Hummer went on sale to the general public in the wake of the company’s PR triumph during the Gulf War, and by the time the brand was sold to GM and started to conquer the hearts and minds of American suburbanites in 1999 I was a little more attuned to the market. The gigantic Ford Excursion was launched around the same time, and it was impossible to ignore the public’s lust for size. Positioned not far from the Buick Envista in GM’s Siberian sector of the Javits, the GMC Hummer EV looked and felt massive. Inside, every drawer, compartment, and air vent seemed to be at least three times the size of what was normal and necessary, but then that goes for the Hummer itself. The truck’s most notable feature is a black-on-black American flag embossed at the top of its C-pillar.

The Israeli Defense Force has purchased over two thousand Hummers from the US over the past decade, and three of four military utility vehicles manufactured in Israel are based on American trucks. (The fourth, the MDT David, is based on platforms from the Land Rover Defender and the Land Cruiser.) Sitting inside the EV, with its outrageous scale and terrible sight lines, I had the thought that the last (and sometimes first) US-produced object many victims of wars throughout the world see is probably a Hummer.

  1. Considering the contrast between the hedge fund guy’s analysis and the Hyundai crew’s unstoppable train–like account of technological transition (the train in this account is electric), I recalled how at the Trump-era auto shows I attended, it was automation that had been treated as a fait accompli. That vision always felt impossibly overstated—a product as much of a self-fulfilling tech hype cycle than any sober assessment of technological or infrastructural possibility—so I wasn’t surprised that this time around there was very little rhetoric about our triumphant autonomous future. But I did wonder about the ratio of progress report to snake oil I’d hear about at, say, the 2034 New York International Auto Show. 

  2. Particularly ironic for a brand whose Taurus sedan explicitly launched the American quality revival in the late ’80s. The commercial is an all-time banger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n12lyKTAa50&ab_channel=MrClassicAds1980s

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