The Transformation of the North American International Auto Show

Even before COVID this was going to be different. Now it will be really different

When the 2019 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) closed its doors at what was then still known as “Cobo Center,” Rod Alberts, executive director of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association (DADA), the organization that puts on NAIAS, and his team had a idea for what they would do the following year, something that would be significantly different from the cars-on-carpet approach that had long been characteristic of not only the Detroit Show, but auto shows in general.

For one thing, the date would change to June, which is certainly a much more climatically hospitable time of year.

For another, rather than just staging an event at an expo center, the expo center would be an element of something that would take advantage of a wider footprint in downtown Detroit.

Rod Alberts (Image: DADA)

It wouldn’t just be a matter of people looking at vehicles, but having the opportunity to experience them—including autonomous vehicles.

While a map of NAIAS was historically one with the boundaries being formed by the walls of a single building, the new map was one that stretched far beyond Jefferson and Washington Blvd.

But then there was COVID.

On March 28, 2020, NAIAS put out a statement that included a statement from Rod Alberts: “With the more than 100 convention centers and facilities around the country being considered to potentially serve as temporary hospitals, it became clear to us that TCF Center”—the rebranded Cobo Center—”would be an inevitable option to serve as a care facility to satisfy our community’s urgent health needs. 

“One of the hallmarks of NAIAS since the very beginning has been our commitment to being socially responsible. Our thoughts continue to be with those whose lives have been impacted by this devastating virus.  And we support the city and state’s mission to help preserve life in the face of this challenging situation.”

The 2020 NAIAS was canceled.

So Alberts and his team flipped the pages of the calendar to June 2020.

January 11, 2021, with COVID-19 getting worse than it had been in March 2020, Rod Alberts and his colleagues canceled the 2021 NAIAS.

But they announce a new event, one that will be held September 21-26, not at TCF Center and its environs, but at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, which is 87 acres dedicated to motorsports, including a 1.5-mile track.

While the reimagined NAIAS that was going to be held in Detroit would have offered some rides, the nature of those rides would have been nothing like what Alberts says is going to happen at what is named “Motor Bella.”

He’s talking fast.

And not only does the M1 allow fast, there is also an off-road facility, so he’s talking dirty, too.

Fast cars, rock-crawlers and a whole bunch of new sheet metal in a whole different venue.

Alberts talks all about Motor Bella on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Detroit Free Press car critic Mark Phelan, and me.

Alberts, who has probably been to more auto shows in venues around the world than most people have been to auto shows in their home towns, says that the team at NAIAS is completely aware of the what expectations are among especially younger audiences, so they’re going to be staging the Motor Bella event to appeal to not only this younger demographic, but to car enthusiasts of all types.

But while Motor Bella will be an alternative—given that it is outdoors, it can accommodate a COVID environment that, one hopes—will be less onerous—Alberts says the they’ll be back downtown, too.

If you have any interest in the transformation of auto shows, this is something you need to watch.

You can see it here.

Freep’s Phelan’s Picks

Detroit Free Press auto critic Mark Phelan happens to spend more time driving cars than any dozen people you know—a dozen pre-COVID drivers. Somehow, the pandemic hasn’t inhibited Phelan’s seat time.

Each year Phelan picks what he considers to be the best vehicles introduced during the past year.

2021 Cadillac Escalade (Photo by Steve Fecht for Cadillac)

And his list has been revealed:

Cadillac Escalade: Utility of the Year

Ford F-150: Truck of the Year

Hyundai Elantra: Car of the Year

As for place and show?

For utes:

Ford Mustang Mach-E

Ford Bronco Sport

For trucks:


Jeep Gladiator Mojave

For cars:

Nissan Sentra

Genesis G80

Realize that these are vehicles that have been introduced during the past year, so it isn’t a rating of the best companies.

That said, it can’t be overlooked that Ford has not only a first-place win, but a full third of the list.

Hyundai Motor Group—which has Genesis under its awning—has a win and two vehicles on the list.

And FCA—soon to be Stellantis—missed first place, but had two on the list.


How competitive the industry is can be determined by taking a look at the list of the semifinalists that were announced by the jury of the North American Car, Truck and Utility of the Year. (Full disclosure: Mark Phelan and I are both jurors.)


Acura TLX

Cadillac CT4/CT4-V\Genesis G80

Hyundai Elantra family (includes N Line and HEV)

Kia K5

Mercedes-Benz E Class Sedan, All-Terrain, Coupe, Cabriolet

Nissan Sentra

Polestar 2


Cadillac Escalade

Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban

Chevrolet Trailblazer

Ford Bronco Sport

Ford Mustang Mach E

Genesis GV80

Hyundai Santa Fe

Kia Seltos

Kia Sorento

Land Rover Defender

Mazda CX-30

Nissan Rogue

Toyota RAV4 Prime

Toyota Venza

Volvo XC40 P8 Recharge


Ford Super Duty

Ford F-150

Ram 1500 TRX

Jeep Gladiator Mojave

The category finalists that NACTOY picked are not unlike Phelan’s, with a couple of exceptions:


Genesis G80

Hyundai Elantra

Nissan Sentra


Ford F-150

Jeep Gladiator Mojave

Ram 1500 TRX


Ford Mustang Mach-E

Genesis GV80

Land Rover Defender

The results of that will be announced on January 11, 2021.

Here’s one thing that can be said about all of those vehicles:

Tough crowd.