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Article and photos by Jil McIntosh

Detroit, Michigan – The North American International Auto Show – or just “Detroit”, as we all know it – is open to the public from January 17 to 25, at Cobo Hall on Detroit’s riverfront.

It may be a smaller and quieter show overall, due to the economic crisis. But it costs no more to design a good-looking car than it does to design an ugly one, and so even the global crunch didn’t deter the stylists from turning out some of the swoopiest, best-looking concept vehicles I’ve seen there in years – as well as some very handsome models destined for the assembly line.

With so many candidates, it wasn’t easy to select just a “Top Ten”, even when I took the liberty of “going to eleven”. And that means that equally deserving models like the Audi Sportback Concept, Fisker Convertible, BMW Z4, Tesla Roadster and many more are missing only because I ran out of space. In no particular order, here are my “must see” models:

2010 Honda Insight
2010 Honda Insight . Click image to enlarge. More photos

Honda Insight – Taking the name of the first hybrid to hit our shores, the all-new Insight uses a system similar to the Civic Hybrid, but with new lighter and smaller components. It can’t start off and run solely on its battery, but it does have electric-only capability when it’s cruising, and it’s estimated to get around 4.7 L/100 km, or 60 mpg. That’s further sweetened by the price, which will slot in under the Civic Hybrid. While you’re there, also have a look at the FCX Clarity Fuel Cell Vehicle, which is now going out to about 200 drivers for real-world use.

2010 Ford Taurus
2010 Ford Taurus. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Ford Taurus – The company’s largest sedan is completely redesigned, and it looks like a winner: smooth styling, nice interior, an upcoming EcoBoost engine, and all sorts of new technologies. If this doesn’t make you forget all those old Taurus rental cars, nothing will. But here’s the trick: send your other half over to check it out. Then step over to the 540-horsepower Shelby GT500, plop yourself down on that leather-and-Alcantara seat, and dream.

Volvo S60 concept
Volvo S60 concept. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Volvo S60 Concept – Definitely on my list of loveliest cars at the show, the S60 is so smooth it looks almost liquid. There’s a hint of the C30’s rear glass hatch and the S80’s stance, but it goes well beyond that, with sculpted hood, curvy taillights and rear doors that swing out and then away from the body when the door handle is touched. A full-length crystal console highlights the interior, which also includes seats attached at the sides, but not the floor. Here’s hoping at least some of it makes it to a production version.

2010 Toyota Prius
2010 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Toyota Prius – The first production hybrid is now into its third generation, and this 2010 model includes an optional solar-panel sunroof that runs an electric fan when the car’s parked, to cool the interior and so reduce the a/c needed when you get in. And it’s expected to get a combined fuel efficiency of 3.8 L/100 km, or 71 mpg. Any better than that, and you’d pretty much be walking – or driving the equally new FT-EV Concept parked alongside. Toyota has promised an all-electric urban vehicle by 2012, and this could well be the start. Then pop over to Lexus, where you can see the HS 250h, the newest Lexus hybrid, which will go on sale this summer.

VW Concept BlueSport
VW Concept BlueSport . Click image to enlarge. More photos

VW Concept BlueSport – My hands-down winner of sexiest car of the show, the Concept BlueSport looks like the love child of a Saturn Sky and a Porsche Boxster, but better than either of those parents. It carries a clean diesel engine that churns out 258 lb-ft of torque, at 1750 rpm – in a car that weighs just 1,200 kg. It also has an auto-stop feature, normally found only in hybrids that shuts off the engine at idle. And considering how great it looks, you’ll want to linger at every red light for maximum effect.

Chrysler 200C EV
Chrysler 200C EV. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Chrysler 200C EV – Chrysler is presenting several of its electric vehicle concepts, but my favourite is the 200C EV, based on the rear-wheel drive platform under the production 300C. It’s an extended-range vehicle, with a small engine that starts up to feed electricity to the wheels once the battery power drains away after about 64 km. It’s a beautiful design, and should Chrysler make good on its promise to build an electric car for 2010, I hope this one is it. And if it isn’t, I’ll gladly settle for the Dodge Circuit EV sports car, also on display.

Subaru Legacy concept
Subaru Legacy concept . Click image to enlarge. More photos

Subaru Legacy Concept – All chilly brushed silver and slinky presence, the Legacy Concept is the epitome of cool. It marks the 20th anniversary of the production Legacy and could be a hint of the direction Subaru will take in its styling in the future. The Legacy naturally contains a horizontally-opposed engine and all-wheel drive, but that’s secondary to its delicious styling, black and white interior with ice-blue lighting, and rearview cameras instead of side mirrors.

Kia Soul'ster
Kia Soul’ster. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Kia Soul’ster – Cute as a bug, the Kia Soul’ster is a concept based on the compact Soul that we’ll be seeing in Canadian showrooms soon. The concept is part roadster, part pickup, and it just begs to be driven down to the beach with a surfboard in the back. Given how much customizers love to play with the hottest new cars, and the fact that the Soul will be a relatively inexpensive canvas, I think the Soul’ster will be the first of many variations that you’ll see once the production Soul makes it into their shops.

Mercedes-Benz BlueZERO Concept
Mercedes-Benz BlueZERO Concept. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Mercedes-Benz BlueZERO Concept – When the B-Class was introduced, we were told about its two-piece “sandwich floor” – but not that, some day, Mercedes would add an electric-drive filling. The BlueZERO models on display include a battery-electric drive model, a fuel cell version, and an extended-range with electric engine to supply electricity. The B’s general shape is there, but enhanced with waving lines, high-tech lighting and interior accents that bring to mind a green giraffe. But don’t stop there; check out the new, very-limited-edition SLR Stirling Moss, the final SLR and proof that, despite all the great models that went before, it’s going out on the highest note.

Cadillac Converj Concept
Cadillac Converj Concept. Click image to enlarge. More photos

Cadillac Converj Concept – If the styling of the upcoming production Volt is too pedestrian for your liking, then head over to the Converj, which also uses the extended-range Voltec system for up to 64 km of fuel-free motoring, and beyond that, electricity supplied through an on-board gasoline engine. The company said it’s a glimpse into future possible uses of the technology, and this sweet design is a good start. GM’s booth also contains several new production models, including the Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, the Chevrolet Cruze, all-new Equinox, and the gone-upscale Buick Allure (called the LaCrosse south of the border), which also premiered at the show.

BYD E6. Click image to enlarge. More photos

BYD E6 – Short for “Build Your Dream”, the Hong Kong-based BYD has three alternative-powertrain vehicles on display, including the all-electric E6 crossover. There’s no word on when – or if – they’ll ever come to North America, but don’t be surprised if one day there’s a showroom on the corner. Build quality is still lacking, but it’s improved even from the models shown last year. As a fellow journalist pointed out, it took the Japanese 15 years to get a foothold, the Koreans 10 years – and expect the Chinese to do it in five. Looking at BYD, and next door at Brilliance, it’s not hard to imagine.

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