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Detroit Down, Not Out

Two-thirds of Detroit's old-time Big Three auto makers are on the ropes by almost any business measure, so much of the media expected a restrained, perhaps even somber mood at this year's North American International Auto show. The reality was decidedly more freewheeling. General Motors Corp., heading many Wall Street analysts' next-to-go-bankrupt list in the weeks leading up to the year's first major

Two-thirds of Detroit's old-time Big Three auto makers are on the ropes by almost any business measure, so much of the media expected a restrained, perhaps even somber mood at this year's North American International Auto show.

The reality was decidedly more freewheeling.

General Motors Corp., heading many Wall Street analysts' next-to-go-bankrupt list in the weeks leading up to the year's first major auto show, underscored the prevailing “we're not out for the count” mood of the hometown auto makers with its fabulous Camaro concept, the indisputable highlight of the show.

The only suspense regards whether GM will build the audacious retro-futurist rendition of the storied pony car nameplate GM mothballed in 2002.

“Right now, it's purely a concept,” Bob Lutz, vice chairman-product development, says of the 4-passenger coupe. But it is production ready, he confirms.

“It was designed over a production architecture using production mechanical units,” he says. “If and when there should be a production car, it would be as close to this as the production Solstice was to the concept car.”

The new-era Camaro would come from GM's pending rear-wheel-drive car platform known as Zeta, an architecture not as dead as once was widely reported. The concept car was powered by a small-block V-8 — the LS2 6L making 400 hp.

The healthier Chrysler Group fired back with its own ebullient entry in the now-raging pony-car wars, the Dodge Challenger concept coupe, riding on a shortened LX rear-drive platform that has yielded the Chrysler 300 Series, Dodge Magnum and Charger.

If Chrysler gives the okay, the Challenger — stylistically, an almost literal remake of the collector-favored 1970 muscle car — could go into production in Brampton, Ont., Canada, as early as 2008. If you need to ask which engine it sported, put down this magazine and call a friend to find out what year it is.

Why all the huff about 2-door coupes, a market both GM and Chrysler recently insisted was DOA? Ford Motor Co. sold 160,975 retro-inspired Mustangs last year, so it's the late '60s all over again, as neither competitor can stand to watch Ford hog the volume.

Chrysler's other heritage-inspired concept car, the Imperial, was less well-received.

The overly designed, heavily chromed Imperial is based on the same LX rear-drive architecture that underpins the hit 300 sedan and its variants. But the Imperial stands 6 ins. (15 cm) taller than the 300 and is a haughty 17 ins. (43 cm) longer, accommodating a 123-in. (312-cm) wheelbase.

At the Ford display, there was no need for a muscle-car concept (although the production version of the Mustang-derived Shelby GT500 broke cover), so the Dearborners instead rolled out multiple concept cars.

In a nod to continuing fuel-economy concerns, Ford showcased the Reflex, a tasty 2-plus-1 sport coupe with a diesel hybrid powertrain that also makes use of solar power. An electric motor at the rear axle provides all-wheel-drive capability, and the vehicle can achieve 65 mpg (3.6 L/100 km), says Ford.

Ultra-mongo concept pickups have become something of a Detroit-show tradition for Ford, and 2006 was no exception. Some wondered how Ford was able to get the hulking Super Chief concept through the Cobo Center doors.

The F-250 Super Chief could be a peek at the styling for Ford's next-generation medium-duty pickups, so the Super Chief was no blowoff.

Ford touts the Super Chief concept as the “world's first vehicle with Tri-Flex fueling,” allowing the monstrous pickup to run on hydrogen, €85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline blend) or standard gasoline. With a 6.8L SOHC V-10 underhood, the Super Chief needs all the economy-enhancing technology it can get.

The Camaro was GM's home run, but it also showed a Buick concept, the Enclave, a crisply styled cross/utility vehicle engorged with so much luxo-material that it appeared a tad overstuffed, inside and out.

The Enclave was the much-anticipated first look at the Lambda platform for CUVs and will go into production in 18 months, says CEO Rick Wagoner. Prior to that, a Saturn version, the Outlook, is due to market in the year's fourth quarter. The GMC Acadia is expected to follow as a third member of the midsize CUV family.

The concept is shown as a 6-seater, but GM says the production model can be configured for as many as eight passengers. The concept has a 3.6L DOHC V-6 with variable valve timing, rated at 270 hp, with a 6-speed automatic transmission, but an optional V-8 is likely — and given Enclave's visual girth, likely necessary.

Asian and Korean auto makers showed up with enticing concepts as well.

One of the most intriguing was Mazda Motor Corp.'s curvy Kabura coupe, sporting an unusual 3-plus-1 seating arrangement. Sized between the MX-5 roadster and the RX-8, Kabura used a conventional 2L DOHC I-4 and rear-wheel drive, but some wonder if the car, if produced, could be a candidate for Mazda's underused Renesis rotary engine.

In a similar vein was Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Urge, a motorcycle-inspired lightweight T-top roadster Nissan says is a run at an affordable sporty car for the X-Box generation. Gimmicks included a center-placed rear jump seat and yes, an X-Box interface.

And Mitsubishi Motors Corp. showed the interesting Concept CT-MIEV, a subcompact HEV that uses a 1L 3-cyl. combined with electric motors placed at each wheel hub, also imparting AWD capability.

As for production-vehicle unveilings, probably the most scrutinized was Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus LS 460. Reporters and rival-company execs took turns poring over the new, more expressively styled and remarkably gadgeted Lexus flagship.

Notable powertrain features included the world's first 8-speed automatic transmission, mated to a new 4.6L DOHC V-8 making 380 hp and 370 lb.-ft. (502 Nm) of torque, thanks in part to the use of both direct and indirect-injection fueling, a concept borrowed from Lexus' new, award-winning 3.5L DOHC V-6. The LS will go on sale this fall in the U.S.

Toyota also spooked its rivals with the unveiling of the all-new Camry midsizer, replete with its own bolder sheetmetal and a raft of improvements. The optional V-6 also is upsized to 3.5L and 268 hp (see review, p.41).

Joining the Toyota/Lexus display was the production version of the highly anticipated FJ Cruiser, Toyota's spin on selling its heritage. The funky FJ is built over the body-on-frame Tacoma architecture and uses its 4L DOHC V-6 with a 5-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission (see review, p.44).

Hyundai Motor America unveiled the '07 Santa Fe, the first production model to come from Hyundai's design center in Irvine, CA. Hyundai says designers benchmarked the Lexus RX series, Acura MDX and Volvo XC90 CUVs, and it shows in the new Santa Fe's crisp sheetmetal and shockingly upscale interior.

New for the second-generation Santa Fe is a purpose-built chassis, which Hyundai says will provide a noticeably more refined, sedan-like ride. Buyers will have the choice between an improved version of the previous Santa Fe's 2.7L V-6 or Hyundai's new Lambda 3.3L V-6 first launched for the new Sonata.

Nissan unveils its all-new Sentra compact as well as the Versa subcompact. Neither is styled with appreciable gusto, but both represent important tools in what is expected to be a fiercely combative U.S. market for more economical cars.

The Sentra will square off against Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s all-new Civic, while the Versa tilts against new tiny fuel-sippers from Honda (the Fit, also unveiled here) and Toyota's Yaris.

For the domestics, Ford's most important production-vehicle unveiling was without doubt the Edge CUV, charged with battling any number of stylish and well-established import CUVs.

The Edge comes to the party with formidable power from an all-new, 250-hp 3.5L DOHC V-6 paired with a 6-speed automatic. Some criticized its slabby styling; others believed it to be effective and modern.

The Chrysler Group unveiled the Jeep Compass, the Jeep brand's first run at the “soft-roader” segment and Jeep's first-ever front-wheel-drive vehicle, although AWD of course is available.

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