Future shock vs the familiar at the Detroit Auto Show

Updated: Jan 21 2007, 05:30am hrs
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.

The 2007 show, which opened to the public Saturday at Cobo Center 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 Detroits struggling automakers will shut factories and lay off thousands of employees.

For many, there was satisfaction in seeing GM 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 GM claimed would deliver the energy equivalent of 150 miles a gallon, lived up to its advance billing as the car to watch. It is just the kind of innovative car that could improve not only the air, but GMs lagging image and sales.

But for GM, which was accused of killing the electric car in a recent documentary film, the Volt puts it in a familiar bind: the clock is ticking to bring a car like this to market, yet the lithium-ion batteries it requires arent ready, so the company cannot say when a plug-in hybrid will actually reach showrooms. But GM 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 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.

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

Production models introduced at the show included Chevrolet Malibu (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 (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); Ford Focus, the revised small car, was a big disappointment, with no hatchback (a coupe takes its place) and no optional 2.3-litre engine.

Lexus IS-F is 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 worlds 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. Like the Lexus LF-A, showed a new version of its 200-mph supercar with 10 cylinders and 500 horsepower; Ford Airstream Fords streamlined concept offered spacey styling and party-van appeal, with whimsical elements like a virtual lava lamp inside a feverish red cabin.

NY Times / Lawrence Ulrich