Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News
Saturn's Sky gets rave reviews from The Detroit News' Automotive Consumer Panel. "They have changed," says Nancy Helganz of Canton Township. "They aren't grandma's car anymore." The judgment of the hypercritical panel is that Saturn is the star of the 2005 Detroit auto show.
Drivers reach for the Sky
The Saturn roadster and sedan bowl over the consumer panel. Kia, Dodge and VW entries don't impress.
By Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
The buzz about Saturn and its latest cars - the Aura concept sedan and Sky convertible - raced through the ranks of the 2005 Detroit News Automotive Consumer Panel before they even set foot in the Saturn display.
"The Sky is hot," said Paul Tassi, a 17-year-old University of Michigan freshman from Northville. "I've seen the pictures. I really don't like Saturns, but I like this car. I like the concept of an affordable two-seater."
Saturn was one of the last stops on this hypercritical panel's tour. And there were few smiles until they got there.
The dour panel universally panned the retro-inspired Dodge Charger.
They scoffed at the Kia KCD-II Mesa, a Korean sport utility vehicle that was designed in California to be a Ford Explorer fighter.
They laughed at the tiny, fuel-efficient fortwo from smart, a popular European brand that may be coming to the U.S. market.
"Yes, we're harsh," said Viola King, 37, a Detroit lawyer. "We're trying to get the most for our money. We're looking out for the everyday person. Our expectations are high."
The 10 panelists - a group of ordinary consumers who range in age from 17 to 56 - were bored by the Volkswagen New Beetle Ragster concept, yet another riff on what appears to be a well-worn retro theme.
A pair of much-anticipated models - Honda's Ridgeline pickup and Ford's Fusion sedan - drew very different reactions. The Ridgeline's surprise trunk and two-way tailgate (it can be opened using a conventional handle or a hidden button) won kudos, but the Fusion went virtually unnoticed.
And some panelists seemed concerned about the moral implications of the Ford SYN US, a tiny armored concept car that Peter Horbury, Ford's executive director of North American design, described as something of a new twist on the old automotive "passion pit."
All the negativity and constant griping made the panel's assessment of the new Saturns that much more powerful.
The judgment of this group, which includes a special-education teacher, a dentist and a private investigator, is that Saturn is the star of the 2005 Detroit auto show and that the much-maligned General Motors Corp. brand is poised on the brink of greatness.
"Saturn is the most improved player at the auto show," Rob Blakeley, 29, a Ferndale special-education teacher, said after studying the Aura and the Sky.
Lora Leneschmidt, 32, a South Lyon stay-at-home mom and former paralegal, sat in the backseat of the Aura, running her hands over the textured leather trim and bubbling over the improvements she was seeing up close.
"Saturn used to be utilitarian with no style," Leneschmidt said. "This is a lot more luxurious."
After crawling all over the Sky and the Aura, the panelists huddled away from Saturn executives and shouted out adjectives to describe the new vehicles.
"Refreshing" and "luxurious" were repeated again and again. When asked about their previous impressions of Saturn, the panel used words like "boring" and "ugly."
"They have changed," said Nancy Helganz, a 37-year-old private investigator from Canton. "They aren't grandma's car anymore."
The Sky goes on sale in early 2006 and will be priced under $25,000. The production Aura hits the market in fall 2006.
The panel's introduction to the show's array of global automotive products began with the 2006 Dodge Charger, a full-size sedan derived from the popular Chrysler 300 that goes on sale in April and resurrects the iconic Charger name from the 1960s and 1970s. It is expected to be priced from $23,000 to $29,000.
"I'm not digging it," Leneschmidt said. "It's too boxy on the inside and the gauges look cheap."
Reginald Alexander, a 6-foot-4-inch Detroit resident who owns a commercial and residential painting business, couldn't fit in the backseat.
Neither could 6-foot-tall William O. Lee, a data processing program analyst for the City of Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant.
When the panelists conferred after their introduction to the Charger, not one said he or she would buy it.
"Not even me," said Delores Hunter, 56, a retired U.S. Postal Service supervisor from Detroit whose late husband worked as a skilled tradesman for Chrysler for 29 years.
"I'm a Chrysler girl," she said. "But it don't give me no 'oomph.'."
The towering Alexander struggled his way through a number of vehicles, including the chopped-top Volkswagen New Beetle Ragster concept. He couldn't seem to comfortably squeeze himself into much on the show floor.
"I've got to find something I can fit in" was his constant refrain.
When the panel stopped to check out the redesigned 2006 Hyundai Sonata sedan - calculated to undercut the Toyota Camry, America's best-selling car - the panel seemed open to the pitch from Hyundai spokesman Chris Hosford. He told them the Hyundai would feature standard antilock brakes, traction control and six air bags and likely be priced under $20,000.
Six panelists said they would consider buying a Sonata.
But Alexander still wasn't happy with the fit.
Around the corner from the Sonata, in the vibrant smart car display, the panelists were plied with pizza and pop. But they still weren't buying the concept of an under-$15,000 minicar with an 0.7-liter three-cylinder engine, frog-eye-style gauges and modular panels.
"It's just like a Yugo," said Lee, a disparaging reference to the cheap Yugoslavian-built hatchback from the 1980s.
"Just wait until you get in an accident with a (Ford) Excursion," Leneschmidt said.
"I can't take it seriously," Alexander said. "It reminds me of the episode on 'The Simpsons' where Homer made his own car and it didn't sell."
Still, a minor miracle occurred when smart product specialist Danny Pardo convinced Alexander to sit in the fortwo - and he fit.
"I have to eat my words," Alexander said. "Of all the cars I've tried - except for the Maybach - it's the first car I fit in."
At the Kia stand, panelists were initially drawn to the KCD-II Mesa concept SUV.
"The exterior has a rugged, modern look," said Dr. Hamish Carpenter, a 35-year old West Bloomfield Township dentist.
But upon closer examination, the Mesa was declared a bomb.
"It doesn't look American," said Cherish Samuels, 24, an architectural engineer from Detroit. "It's not about comfort. And can you imagine trying to put a kid's car seat in there?"
"It can't compete with the Explorer," Leneschmidt said. "It's not functional enough."
Carpenter and others liked the new look of Lexus, as exemplified by the styling on the LF-A concept, a sleek, 500-horsepower supercar, and the new look of Jaguar, revealed in the lines of the baby blue Advanced Lightweight coupe.
But not one of them could be persuaded to step up on the Subaru stand to have a peek at the B9 Tribeca, an all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger crossover vehicle - the biggest Subaru ever built.
"Not interested," King said.
The panel was only slightly more curious about the Mazda5, kind of a cross between an SUV and a micro minivan with rear sliding doors and seating for six.
"It takes the worst of both," Leneschmidt said.
"It doesn't know if it wants to be an SUV or a minivan," Samuels said.
"It's going through puberty," Tassi said.
"It's confused," Samuels added.
The Ford display provided big highs and big lows for the panel. They seemed awestruck by the polished aluminum Shelby GR-1 coupe, a 605-horsepower concept that hints at the Ford GT's replacement. Samuels said it was the best thing she'd seen all day.
But the Fairlane, which Ford executives told the panel was intended to "rewrite the minivan," got a thumbs-down.
"It looks antiquated and futuristic all at once," Carpenter said. "I wouldn't buy something like this."
Helganz went head-to-head with Ford's Horbury over the design of the tailgate. She pretended to be loading groceries and kept bumping her head, then repeated her actions for Horbury's benefit.
"Why do you want to go in and out like that?" he asked.
"Duh," she replied, "to put my groceries in."
"Oh, well, yes," Horbury responded. "This is a sophisticated people mover. Think of the word Hamptons."
"But there's no place to sit back here," she said, tugging on his sleeve.
"It's not an SUV," he responded.
Helganz blushed, and when Horbury went over to the Ford SYN US display, she said, to nobody in particular, "I don't want to argue with the head designer, but this car is not functional."
Later, up in the media center, panelists such as Viola King said they were worried about a comment Horbury made about the tiny SYN US being a place where young consumers could retreat with friends if they couldn't go back to their parents' house.
"That's not right," King said. "What are they promoting?"
Tassi, the youngest panelist who had worried before the show started that "I won't find anything that I like," summed up the afternoon.
"It's not a blockbuster year," he said, "but some things are worth seeing.
"Just don't sit in the Kia Mesa."