"My First Time at the New York International Auto Show, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Surplus" by The Roman
(This year I decided to get RCR press passes, a hotel room, and hilariously little cash to come do their thing at the NY Auto Show for no other reason than it would be fucking awesome. I gave them no instructions. Here's what they did. — MH)
This was an experience that bordered on spiritual. The Church of Blessed Excess. A synagogue of reflective surfaces that shine our innermost desires back at us. I could have sired a nation with the contents of my BVDs.
The New York International Auto Show seemed designed to disrupt the routine business of living, suspending reality for a handful of belligerent hours while you take inventory of your life and beg for a do-over. This was a shrine to the self-congratulatory opulence of the automotive industry. It's a show floor that's a microcosm of the planet itself, a Pangaea where you could walk from one country to another. And you might even spot the occasional reconnaissance operation, with rival foreign automakers whipping out their measuring tape, eying up each other's wares like stolen glances in a gym locker room.
We ushered our way in among the other gladhanding warriors of self-interest, shoulder-to-shoulder with people who just wanted to look at shiny things with variable valve-timing. And who could blame them? Among us were journalists, car executives, and even some random guy pushing a stroller around in a leather jacket (because Leather Jacket Dad means the kid wasn't planned). These were the conventioneers on Press Day, and we were, perplexingly, among them.
There seemed to be a stratified layout to the convention, with the luxury class automakers on the top floor, while your Subarus and Toyotas chilled downstairs. The retail value of a car seemed to dictate the ease with which you found it on the showroom floor. You had to go on a bit of a walk to find the Challenger, and it was like traveling to Mount Doom if you wanted to see the new Benz, or the gleaming white Lexuses (Lexi?). Around that area, you had your Koenigsegg, and next to it, the Lamborghini, your Lotus, and your Bugatti, all arranged in a row, like an income-exclusionary game of tic-tac-toe. It was a layout that seemed dreamed up by one of those super ambitious hometown types who measures a successful life in terms of how far her grave is from the hospital in which she was born.
And then there were the press conferences. The Subaru Press Conference was a PTA meeting for cool dads, the ones who spout jokes and complaints about the weather to no one in particular, so long as somebody is within earshot. After an introductory speech from CEO Yasuyuki Yoshinaga, the 2015 Outback was lovingly fellated by President/COO Thomas Doll, who read the company boilerplate from a teleprompter, with its slow, methodical scrolling, and its huge, Amber Alert typeface.
In between touting the more spacious cabin, the sleeker design, and the new Eyesight Driver Assist technology, Doll told jokes. I mean, I guess they were jokes? Something about how you should never step on Superman's cape, and you should never mess with success? It was one of those jokes that not only didn't land, but also compelled the speaker to make verbal note of its failure to land. Nice guy, but the teleprompter might as well have been blank for all that was said.
As for the 2015 Outback itself, it was basically softcore car porn, a Skinemax movie on wheels, where it's only hot because it's a clean, sterile, toothless facsimile of dirtiness. It looks like something you'd expect to see in the background of a scenic forest tableaux from a Land's End catalog, because nothing says getting bitten by ticks at Neshaminy State Park with Weekend Dad quite like the Outback.
New features for this year's model include backseat passenger upgrades, which means the kids in the back have heated seats too, so you can all feel nothing together now – as a family. "Are you sure it's on?" is sure to become the new "Are we there yet?" on ill-considered family road trips everywhere.
Okay, yeah, I bust on the Outback, but really, it's not all bad. The interior space has been increased significantly, as has the visibility, thanks to what basically amounts to an IMAX windshield. The new model also sports fog lights that turn on automatically when you're cornering at night, which is a pretty intuitive feature, all things considered. In addition, there's a new electronic collision-warning system which, when coupled with the new "EyeSight" blind spot camera system, makes this a slightly safer vehicle in a time where Lord only knows what kind of shiftless, pillowcase-kissing teenagers are on the road at night, with their Cinderella licenses and stereos cranking Neutral Milk Hotel (or whatever the precious hell kids listen to these days).
But while I suppose it's technically sound under the hood, and I can't really fault anyone if this is what they want, Outbacks just aren't my bag. Never have been, never really will be.
After the press conference, all the journalists got the chance to take part in a walk-around of sorts, approaching the car and pawing it like Japanese venture capitalists at a business meeting in one of those restaurants where you can eat sushi off of a naked girl. And the Outback was that girl. Everyone gets a turn inside as this becomes a sort of unsettling public gangbang, where the Fresh Off the Factory Line smell is replaced by a fetid musk of cheap croissants and fat guy sweat. And yet, I found myself weirdly entranced by the spectacle of it all. It was a feeling that extended to the rest of the convention as well, as every car was prettied up, its innards on full display, prettied up like rescues looking to get adopted.
The Limited Edition SRT Viper looked potent with a hidden power thundering beneath the surface, as if desperate to explode off the showroom floor and out onto the constipated New York roads. But aesthetic doesn't mean a thing in this context, since this was an automotive smorgasbord: for the most part, everything looked good. Which is troubling when you consider that so much of the presentation and display of this vehicle was centered almost entirely around its aesthetic. The metallic matte finish, the Nappa leather and Alcantara-wrapped sports seats, the Satin Black Vapor marks on the exhaust bezels, orange vent accents, carbon fiber trim. It's all slick with the sheen of trying. Ditto the Nismo 370Z, which admittedly has nicer guts than most cars' exteriors. It makes 350 horsepower on super-lightweight alloy wheels, and delivers 276 lb.ft. of torque at 5,200 rpm. These were just two of the cars at the convention to give off the impression that, in a lot of ways, the show was about "The Bourgeoisie Thrillseeker."
For instance, both Alfa Romeo and Koenigsegg made their returns to North America after lengthy absences. The Alfa Romeo 4C sports a mid-engine design that makes 237-horsepower off of its 1.8-liter direct-injection 4-cylinder engine with twin-clutch transmission. Compare this with the Agera R, a rocket ship of Swedish extraction that takes 4,000 hours to build, between its road legal carbon wheels, its compliant suspension, and its upgraded engine that makes an extraterrestrial 1140hp and reaches top speeds of 273mph. It's for the man locked in a passionate, pernicious affair with his vices, addicted to speed and the spending of money. Same with the Elmiraj concept, with its 4.5 liter twin-turbocharged V8, and an aesthetic so ethereal it's as if it had been coated with a glaze of mercury.
Yet the 7-layer burrito of automotive surplus continued: even while parked, the Electric VW Golf looked like it was in the middle of a mail route. Its egg-like shape, soft, reassuring edges, and its comforting, idiotproof Fisher-Price interior seemed designed for the man whose life is dictated by the rhythms of his colonic distress. Meanwhile, the spherical Beetle seemed insistent about its hipness, with its sleek finish, its surround sound, and touch controls, all in service of playing music that sounds like something and nothing all at once. This delivers a pre-programmed idea of hipster success, the automotive representation of an impossibly beautiful man buying vinyl. His jeans are too small and his sunglasses are too big. He drums Neon Trees on the steering wheel and ignores his girlfriend, elevating himself another rung on the douchebag ladder. It's ambition that never risks getting out of control.
Elsewhere, the Ram 3500 Heavy Duty is like a professional wrestler in the steroid era of the 80s, towering over plebes like me, and representing the evolution of vigilantly militant patriotism. The official car of These Colors Don't Run. Conversely, the Kia K900 looked boxy and unthreatening, much like the 2015 Honda Fit, which boasted a new, direct-injected DOHC i-VTEC engine.
Over on the other side of the spectrum, the entire Mazda section was the antithesis of "Hey now, lookin' don't cost a thing." You couldn't really touch or climb inside the Miatas, which made it more or less like a strip club. Then there's the Challenger, which seemed both intimidating but welcoming in its own way. It's a car that wants you to drive it, to get it the hell out of there and onto the open road. It's a lot like seeing a tiger in a zoo. You know this isn't its natural habitat. It yearns to be free.
We saw a lot at the NYIAS, and yet, somehow, it still felt like we didn't see nearly enough. I guess that's the tradeoff of only being there for one day.
Ultimately, attending the New York International Auto Show with press credentials was a bit like returning home for a high school reunion. You know some of the faces, and you might have even convinced yourself you belong, but it's a real test of your sense of personhood all the same. You meet awesome guys like Raphael Orlove, Patrick George, and Matt Hardigree, J.F. Musial, Leo Parente and Mike Spinelli, and you get a little starstruck because these are people you read, people you respect. And "Thank You" never feels like enough. It's getting your Secret Santa a yo-yo when they've gotten you a Rolex. There's an imbalance that can be difficult to reconcile, even as it concerns the show itself.
Maybe it's just that I come from No Money Whatsoever, but there's something alien about even being allowed near a Bugatti, or being able to touch an Agera R, with its 7-layers of lacquer that takes 350 hours to polish, or its wild-ass dihedral synchro-helix actuation door system, which takes the concept of doors and jams a syringe of HGH into its left cheek.
This was sound and fury. Cars that birthed religions unto themselves. And through it all, I found myself in deep thought – and deeper worship.