GM Charged Up
GM Charged Up. Click image to enlarge

By Paul Williams

Photo Gallery:
2009 Detroit Auto Show

Detroit, Michigan – It’s really a tale of two shows at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Along the perimeter of the main show floor, under brilliant white lights, are the German manufacturers: Mercedes Benz, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen. Each is displaying an array of fabulous cars, like the Mercedes-Benz SLR Stirling Moss, the Audi Sportback Concept and R8 5.2 V10, the new BMW Z4 and the Volkswagen Passat CC and BlueSport Concept.

Impossibly beautiful women in clinging gowns attend most of these cars, and seem to hover slightly above the stunning sheet-metal to the delight of the mainly male journalists, even those equipped with the smallest of cameras.

Lamborghini Lp 640
Lamborghini Lp 640 . Click image to enlarge

The Italians, too, have brought their finest models (both cold and warm-bodied) to Detroit. Sensational Lamborghinis and Maseratis are arranged in a fantasy of beguiling shapes and breathtaking surfaces, likewise graced by statuesque maidens of dreamlike contours (but for this crowd, an actual choice between the car and the model would likely require serious thought…).

Also sharing the bright lights are Toyota and Lexus, with big stands flattering the new Prius and Venza from Toyota, and the luxurious RX and HS250 from Lexus. The soft blues and greys of the Toyota environment are soothing and reassuring, while high-tech avatars speak convincingly to you of hybrid technology and your role in sustaining the environment. This could be a nice way to travel, one begins to think.

Happily situated in the central space formerly occupied by Nissan, is Korean maker Hyundai. Its Genesis sedan won North American Car of the Year (and Best Luxury Car under $50,000 in Canada, by the way), and the Hyundai folks look well pleased with themselves about this. Even economy manufacturer Kia is basking in the spotlight created by its new Soul. It’s a funky little thing, sure to appeal to a younger market. And the Soul’ster Concept looks like a winner as well, should the company decide to build it.

2010 Lincoln MKT
2010 Lincoln MKT . Click image to enlarge

Ford is in its usual, very large, area, and is taking another crack of making Lincoln a desirable brand, with the new MKT complementing the MKS and MKX (along with a terrific Concept C). Ford is also firing off a volley of new products, including the new Taurus, Shelby GT500, Fusion Hybrid, and even the Transit van (so popular in Europe). It’s a blitz of new models wearing the blue oval, and following the announcement that the F150 won North American Truck of the Year, executives are upbeat.

2011 Chevy Spark
2011 Chevy Spark. Click image to enlarge

Over at General Motors, they’re pedaling hard, and it shows. GM also has many new models to present, but you can sense the tension among GM workers displaying “We’re here to stay!” signs while defiantly chanting inspirational corporate slogans. But that Cadillac Converj Concept… what a beauty! And I like the Volt, even though its original, eye-catching design has morphed into something more conventional. The diminutive Spark (due in 2011) is a micro-car that should sell big-time, and the latest LaCrosse (Allure in Canada) is a gorgeous piece, even if you’re not into Buicks. And there’s the Canadian-built 2010 Chevrolet Equinox looking very good in its redesigned body, along with the fetching 2011 Orlando, very nice Cadillac CTS Sportwagon, and let’s not forget the Camaro.

General Motors, it should be emphasized, appears dead serious about building high-quality, technologically advanced and appealing vehicles. They’re even, I’m told, going to fix the gas-tank-in-the-trunk issue in the Solstice (next generation), but you’ve got to love that they released the Solstice in the first place, in my opinion.

Dodge Circuit EV
Dodge Circuit EV. Click image to enlarge

At Chrysler there was little new to see, and the tone was subdued. Now we enter uncertain territory. The Dodge Circuit Concept is a nifty sports car, but that’s all from Dodge. The Chrysler 200C Concept has appealing lines, but still no new small car from this company, and such a lot of older product with big engines, big fuel consumption and big discounts. The signature Jeep display was missing, and the official launch event was dimly lit and spare in its execution. There are literally and metaphorically, no bright lights here.

At Mitsubishi… well, there really was no official Mitsubishi, either. Local dealers rented some space and populated it with one of each Mitsubishi vehicle, but that was it. No people. No signage. No real presence.

Porsche, Nissan, Rolls-Royce, Suzuki, Ferrari and Land Rover were all marked absent at Detroit this year. And Honda forewent its official launch of the Insight, saving two-million dollars in the process. Times are tough, even for the maker of Canada’s best-selling car, the Civic.

Brilliance FRV
Brilliance FRV. Click image to enlarge

What fills the vacant space? Cars from BYD and Brilliance; two Chinese makers, up from the basement and now rubbing shoulders with Ford, Chevrolet and Mazda. The BYD (Build Your Dreams) models look like clones of the Toyota Corolla, Opel Astra and previous generation Honda Accord. Even the interiors seem copied. BYD is partially funded by Warren Buffet, the American multi-billionaire, which lends some legitimacy to the brand, however.

Next door is Brilliance, another Chinese automaker, with its M1, M2 and yes, M3 models. The M3 looks like the Hyundai Tiburon and is quite a nice vehicle although Hyundai may beg to differ. But M3? That’s a bit much.

BYD F3DM. Click image to enlarge

Neither of the Chinese companies have vehicles that will be sold in North America yet, but they’ve got plans, and the Chinese are very quick learners, which you can tell from the improving quality of their cars.

Other space has been made available to a college of design, and to minor makers like Tesla, Fisker, Lotus and Morgan (there were no Morgans on the floor, though).

And Jaguar made a lot of noise about its new XFR and XKR models. Bright white on a black background, the cars were striking in the darkness, their new Indian owners (Tata Motors) apparently confident that they can return Jaguar to its former glory. (Actually, there were a lot of white cars again this year. It’s the new black).

2010 Jaguar XFR
2010 Jaguar XFR. Click image to enlarge

Overall, consumers will enjoy the Detroit show, perhaps not noticing the absences and the low-key stands from some manufacturers. They’ll surely be blown away by the gorgeous cars from the luxury automakers; optimistic beacons in a gloomy automotive future, especially in the Detroit area. But they’ll be pleased to see the strong showing from GM and Ford; lots of models, of which many are very appealing.

However, look beyond the flash of the exotics, and consumers may also discern the titanic battle ahead, as the Detroit Three take on the global economic crisis. GM has new battery technology they’ll be building in Michigan, and is committed to hybrid and plug-in hybrids into the future. Ford is bringing many of its European successes to North America, while developing a range of innovative products for the domestic market. And from the “transplants,” Kia’s building a new plant in the U.S., which is an encouraging development.

In conclusion: lots of hybrids, lots of beautiful cars; brightness and light in some areas, fading stars in others. Constant change is here to stay, as they say, and that statement’s made real at the 2009 Detroit auto show.

To see Autos’s complete Detroit auto show coverage and photo gallery, click here

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