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Detroit Auto Show - Reflections and Wrap-Up

DC Tomahawk
The Author On His Most Favorite - The DaimlerChrysler Tomahawk

CLICK4VIDEO - Tomahawk Intro(2:34)Windows Media 300kps 56kps

By Nicholas Frankl, Senior Editor, The Auto Channel

I don’t know about you but I can think of better things to do - like hang with the family and/or sleep in - on a Sunday morning. However, thousands of car industry professional were dragged (some no doubt ran) out the door on the 5th of January for the launch of the NAIAS 2003. What was all the fuss?…CARS! Oh, and the odd bike, but we’ll get to that later.

Ford Exhibit 2003

For an industry in the doldrums, bribing consumers into buying cars they don’t actually want or need – but can at least afford - the motor manufacturers do spend obscene amounts of money on these annual pageants. Hollywood set directors would weep if they could see how much can be spent to deliver the desired effect for a few lucky attendees. Why spend a few bucks for spray-on chrome paint on an exhibit when you can spend thousands and have the real thing? From water fountains to rivers and a bit of smoke and mirrors in between, Detroit, and particularly the big three, certainly know how to blow a million – or three.

There appears to be a direct correlation between the excitement level of your standard vehicles (say Daimler-Chrysler), the proportions of your stand (2nd largest) and really cool cars that can stand alone on a small stage and attract hordes - hello Maserati, Bentley, Ferrari, Audi. Of course one cannot compare a sprinter van to the Enzo but you do see my point (I hope).

The industry has woken up and realized that 0% financing might just be the death knell for the bean counters and hit upon the novel approach of designing and building stylish, innovative and, dare I say it, exciting automobiles with which to attract interested buyers into showrooms. Unfortunately many of these models won’t be available for another 12 months or more – but one lives in hope.

There are exceptions.

Mini Cooper Car Of The Year

Americans seem to have discovered that small can be fun, sexy and safe – not to mention damn cool – so the Mini Cooper has sold a bus load and also walked off with car of the year – and rightly so. The truck award went to Volvo for the fab XC90. Safe doesn’t have to be boring and the XC90 is far from that. I haven’t driven it – but my sister has (a fellow TACH scribe and now also Motortrend TV producer) and says it’s excellent and will give the X5 a run for its money.

Talking of Germans – there did seem to be rather a lot them about at the show. In fact every time someone got on the microphone it was either awwwhhhsoo – or achtung. But as I mentioned to a British PR chappy, just because all the best stuff is being produced by Wolf and the gang (Rolls, Bentley, Chrysler, MINI, Lamborghini, Bugatti), doesn’t mean we can’t love like it was the good old days of Enzo, Ferruccio, Walter, Alex Issigonis, W.O, and Messrs. Rolls and Royce.

Bentley Continental

The Continental GT, with two doors, four seats and 550bhp, is by far the best design the company has produced since the Bentley boys went racing in the 30’s.

The same cannot be said for the new Rolls Royce. BMW doesn’t normally miscalculate, but they appear to have fallen a little short with their first attempt. The front grill is certainly intimidating, the light cluster is not so good – and neither is the interior. Having surveyed the car with one of the VP’s from Maybach (biased naturally) it must be said that the rear legroom is hardly fitting for such a behemoth. A Renault Espace or Minivan has far more leg and headroom and better general amenities. No TV, DVD, champagne cooler, vanity mirrors – I could go on. Also the packaging isn’t too smart. Aft of the rear seats is about 3 feet of dead space. This is where BMW has fitted the 100 litre gas tank – but that’s 10 liters smaller than the Maybach and it doesn’t suffer the same problem.

Super barges aside, there was plenty of salivating material on offer. The V12 SL from Mercedes- Benz is just soooo right, as is the Subaru Impreza turbo with 300bhp!!!

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

I’ve driven many incarnations of this rallying demi-god over the years, the quickest being the WRX Prodrive special in the UK. That was fab and embarrassed a few Ferrari 355’s around Hyde Park corner – but “only” pushed out 275 from 2 liters. When this car arrives in April I can assure you it will be sensational – and I might even have to borrow one to introduce it to Angels Crest national raceway – ooppps I meant highway.

Suzuki too had something to excite the “spirited” driver with - their little Concept-S - boasting four-wheel drive and a sequential gearbox wrapped in a very classy super-mini body, a design which I believe Issigonis would have been proud.

Hyundai had the least exciting vehicle and by far the most arduous press conference that featured tens of minutes of still pictures followed by interviews of the leader, follower and tea-making assistant of the design team – in Korean – and without subtitles! Most of the journo’s were running for an espresso at Acura by the time the wraps came off.

Cadillac Sixteen Concept

Naturally if you want the real razzamatazz just bring on the Detroit big guns. GM, still equipped with the stealth weaponry of Bob Lutz, (sneaks in the back door and blows everything else out of the water), stole the class awards by taking over the old opera house, serenading us with a violin duet and then unleashing the Cadillac Sixteen to mouth agape applause.

Other GM concepts included the SS – no longer a coupe but a very svelte and sexy 4-door, the Chevy Cheyenne,

Chevy Cheyene Concept

a rounded-off full size pick-up and the GMC Canyon. The follow-up announcements that they would introduce lower emission cars in 2007/8 wasn’t such a highlight especially as Toyota and Honda went all the way and unveiled all manner of low emission hybrid vehicles that are ready to buy. Chevy also had the replacement for the S-10 in the shape of the 2004 Colorado and also the Malibu which uses the same global platform as the new Saab 9-3.

Chrysler’s press conferences seemed to never end as they drove various models onto their hydraulic stages.

The new Neon ST-4 was cute, will hit the showrooms in the 1st quarter and is apparently a good drive.

Chrysler Crosssfire
The Crossfire made its official debut – the first cross-venture between Daimler and Chrysler. The styling is Detroit and the mechanicals Stuttgart – which is probably the best template and a precursor to the future. The Durango replacement - bigger, wider, more aggressive etc etc - made a noisy showing as the Durango R/T hemi concept. It looked good – but what happened to social conscience?

By far the most fun, most innovative and most outrageous concept was the Viper engined V10 Tomahawk. What a piece of kit! A 500 hp, four wheel motorcycle with a potential top speed of 400mph. My sources tell me that they will actually produce a limited number of these quad-monsters. I, for one, cannot wait to ride one down Sunset – it sounds like an earthquake at idle.

Ford did their very best to live up to the excitement of the forthcoming centennial celebrations, despite being in worse financial shape than anyone can recall – didn’t they have $20 billion cash just a few years ago? Fortunately they’ve decided to design their way out of the debt mess and allow Mr. Mays freehand to recreate the magic.

Jay never fails and he delivered a couple of truly exciting cars in the shape of the Mustang GT and convertible concept and the Ford 427 - a “bad ass” performance sedan with a V-10 engine that puts out 590 hp.

New Ford F-150 Series

Vital to Ford’s bottom line the redesigned F-150 was showcased to good reviews. As Ford North American President Jim Padilla noted “nothing is more central or important to us than the F series”. With 5 basic trim levels and a new 300 bhp 5.4 liter V-8, this is the vehicle that will carry the firm back into the black…or dangerously deep into the red.

The German luxury brands had a good show.

Porsche unveiled the Cayenne, the fastest and most street-cred-worthy SUV ever conceived, even if it isn’t the prettiest. BMW had a mildly disguised X3 activity wagon and the new 760 V12.

Audi Pikes Peak

Audi went for a Volvo XC70-on-steroids-look with its Pikes Peak sport wagon, boasting sports car performance, 500 bhp and minivan versatility. Look for it in 2005. And VW had the very stylish and rather handsome Touareg, which is based on the same platform as the Cayenne and much neater. Originally focusing on the V6 engine for the bulk of sales – VW have been amazed at the demand in Europe for the V10 twin-turbo diesel which delivers 313hp and a massive 553lb-ft of torque. The US will have to make do with the V6 and a 4.2 liter V-8.

The Brits were also in good form with Jaguar introducing the new lightweight aluminum XJ series, Aston Martin teasing us with the 2005 AMV8 Vantage and Lotus announcing (in LA) that the Else will finally make its way to these shores in 2004.

Nissan/Infiniti previewed five new models and stole much of the big three’s thunder,

Nissan Quest 2004

launching an excellent-looking Quest with a bright (thanks to Skyview roof panels) and well-equipped interior, a new Maxima and, just to send extra-big shivers down the backs of the big three truck makers, their first ever truck - the Titan. Best of all is still yet to come in 2003 – the 350Z convertible.

Honda introduced the European based TSX and had the best coffee at the show, a much valued and under-rated award.

KIA had the honour of the last manufacturer press conference and they packed them in to see the cute styling concept of the Slice. A slick sports wagon based on the existing Optima platform.

Masaratti Spyder

So a shed load of tin and lots of buzz…what would I have? The Enzo of course for those wild and dangerous moments, the Maserati Spyder for shopping and cruising and the Tomahawk as a daily driver.

You did ask.