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Future Shock vs. the Familiar at the Detroit Auto Show

DETROIT

IN January, the Motor City is usually more snow globe than crystal ball. But that never keeps thousands of auto executives, journalists, analysts and dealers from an annual rite: consulting the North American International Auto Show for the latest ideas on wheels — and trying to divine the industry’s future.

The 2007 show, which opened to the public yesterday at Cobo Center after a week of previews for the media and dealers, falls at the beginning of what may be a historic year, given that Toyota seems likely to overtake General Motors as the leader in global sales. It will also be a year in which Detroit’s struggling automakers will shut factories and lay off tens of thousands of employees.

As ever, there is a tempting yet often misadvised tendency to use Detroit’s show as a referendum on the industry, or to handicap the race among manufacturers. But while auto shows can be surprisingly unreliable guides to trends, each creates some striking snapshots and parallels.

For many, there was satisfaction in seeing General Motors cast as a green Mr. Wizard with its Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car, while Toyota wore the black hat with its big, bad 381-horsepower Tundra pickup.

The edgy-looking Volt, which G.M. claimed would deliver the energy equivalent of 150 miles a gallon, lived up to its advance billing as the car to watch at the show, which runs through next Sunday. It is just the kind of innovative car that could improve not only the air, but G.M.’s lagging image and sales.

But for G.M., which was accused of killing the electric car in a recent documentary film, the Volt creates a familiar bind: the clock is ticking to bring a car like this to market, yet the lithium-ion batteries it requires aren’t ready, so the company cannot say when it will actually reach showrooms. Thus the Volt becomes another highly public test of G.M.’s environmental sincerity — if the experiment fails, skeptics may charge the company with reviving electric-car dreams, only to snuff them out a second time. The project also seems to contradict G.M.’s previous stance that it would focus its environmental efforts on speedy development of hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

But G.M. got some other upbeat news, sweeping the awards for North American Car of the Year, with the Saturn Aura midsize sedan, and the equivalent award for trucks, with the Chevy Silverado pickup. The winners are chosen by auto journalists.

The inherent conflict between green and mean was much in evidence. The ’08 Dodge Viper showed up at the party with a revamped V-10 that develops 600 horsepower.

Other automakers hedged their bets. Mercedes-Benz, for example, presented its latest diesel fuel-sippers alongside deluxe gas guzzlers with 500 and even 600 horsepower. Toyota wrapped muscle and eco-think into a single package, the FT-HS concept, a hybrid sports car whose gasoline V-6 and electric motor provide a 400-horsepower kick.

Ford’s new chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, drove onto a stage in Cobo Arena in Ford’s warmed-over Five Hundred family sedan, arguably not the best choice for a grand entrance.

A Chinese company, Changfeng Motors, showed its Liebao-brand S.U.V.’s and pickups. Changfeng’s vehicles in Detroit were crudely styled and assembled, and lacked safety and pollution-control technology needed to pass muster with American regulators.

Production models introduced at the show included:

CHEVROLET MALIBU A cousin to the Saturn Aura, the redesigned 2008 Chevy will battle top family sedans like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in October, starting around $20,000. The new Malibu is a larger, more serious car than before, with either a four-cylinder 2.4-liter Ecotec engine with 162 horsepower, or a 3.6-liter 252-horsepower V-6.

CADILLAC CTS The handsome second-generation CTS has a markedly more luxurious interior and a more refined adaptation of the right-angled styling of recent Cadillacs. A 300-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 features a power-boosting, fuel-saving direct-injection design and is mated to a new six-speed automatic transmission. The ’08 CTS goes on sale in August at prices from roughly $30,000 to well over $40,000.

CHRYSLER TOWN & COUNTRY AND DODGE CARAVAN On sale this fall as 2008 models, Chrysler’s enduringly popular minivans may not turn heads, but the passengers can swing around in second-row seats that swivel to face the rear. The models are equipped with a 3.3-liter ethanol-ready V-6 as well as two larger engines paired with the first six-speed transmission in a minivan.

FORD FOCUS Auto writers and analysts seemed unusually united in their opinion of the Focus: the revised small car was a big disappointment. Most notable about the American-market Focus is what it didn’t have. There was no hatchback (a coupe takes its place); no optional 2.3-liter engine (seen as a slap at the enthusiasts), and worst, no platform from the European Focus, which ranks among the best small cars on the planet.

NISSAN ROGUE While Honda, Ford and others gobble up sales of crossover station wagons based on compact cars, Nissan has gone hungry. Looking a bit like a downsized Murano, the Rogue goes on sale in September, starting around $20,000. It will have a 170-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine.

HYUNDAI VERACRUZ The largest utility wagon yet from South Korea, the Veracruz will compete with the more expensive Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Seven inches longer than a Santa Fe, the Veracruz seats seven passengers in three rows, with either front- or all-wheel-drive. Dealers will have the Veracruz this spring, starting around $27,000.

HONDA ACCORD COUPE Though officially labeled a concept car, this is essentially a sneak preview of the 2008 Accord. Liberally applying design cues from Nissan, Scion, Audi and others, the Accord concept somehow comes together as a sporty alternative to the trusty family sedan. A production model will reach dealerships in the fall.

LEXUS IS-F A Japanese tuner car for affluent grown-ups, this production version of a performance-tweaked sport sedan goes on sale in January against a pair of powerful Germans, the BMW M3 and Audi RS4. The Lexus has a 400-horsepower 5-liter V-8, the world’s first eight-speed sport-shifting automatic, a stiffer suspension and tauter steering than the base IS and aggressive-looking body add-ons.

As always, the Detroit show had a significant number of the design studies that may never see production. Here are some of the more intriguing concept cars:

FORD INTERCEPTOR The blunt, bodacious Interceptor shows that Ford is still tinkering with the idea of making a muscular big sedan in the vein of the Chrysler 300. It is built on a stretched Mustang platform and powered by a 5-liter V-8.

JAGUAR C-XF This sleek concept sedan, a precursor of the next-generation S-Type, signals a bid to move Jaguar from traditionalism to the cutting edge.

LINCOLN MKR The MKR drew steady compliments with its dramatic “four-door coupe” styling, its rich underhood detailing and its TwinForce direct-injection V-6, said to be capable of 415 horsepower.

LEXUS LF-A Reviving a concept it first floated in 2005, Lexus showed a new version of its 200-m.p.h. supercar with 10 cylinders and 500 horsepower.

VOLVO XC60 Sleek and wedgy, Volvo’s concept received wide praise as one of the show’s most compelling.

ROLLS-ROYCE PHANTOM DROPHEAD COUPé Expected to fetch around $400,000, it has coach-type doors that open from the front and a 6.7-liter V-12.

MERCEDES OCEAN DRIVE CONCEPT The Ocean Drive is an unlikely four-door convertible based on the big S600 sedan. A production version might fetch $200,000.

CHEVROLET CAMARO CONVERTIBLE G.M. is expected to bring its convertible Camaro to showrooms by fall 2009, after the hardtop.

FORD AIRSTREAM Ford’s streamlined concept offered spacey styling and party-van appeal, with whimsical elements like a “virtual lava lamp” inside a feverish red cabin.

MAZDA RYUGA The futuristic Ryuga offers a preview of where Mazda design might be heading.

source: nytimes

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