As if Detroit in January isn't normally depressing enough, the added pessimism of a weak economy and an even weaker automotive business combined to set an unusual mood for the 2009 North American International Auto Show. Several manufacturer—Land Rover, Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Nissan/Infiniti and Mitsubishi—elected not to even attend the show. Despite the doom and gloom, there were numerous new concept and production cars unveiled, though admittedly under a less glamorous cloud than in years past.
If each year's show seems to carry a common theme, 2009 will certainly go down as the year of electrification. Chevy showed off a production version of the Volt, which also spawned the Cadillac Converj concept. Chrysler showed that it too could build electric cars, perhaps by adding extension cords and golf-cart drivetrains to everything from a minivan to a Jeep Wrangler. In reality, its 200C concept, which included electric drive, was a genuine stunner that should be green-lighted for production ASAP.
The Americans weren't the only ones plugging in though. Mercedes-Benz showed off a funky commuter car concept called the BlueZERO, which is based on existing M-B production car platforms. Smart showed an electric version of the ForTwo that shares technology with the Tesla Roadster, while the BMW group showed off it MINI E, which debuted in Los Angeles at the end of last year. Toyota revealed the tiny iQ electric commuter car as well as a plug-in version of its all-new Prius Hybrid.
Of course, proof that hybrid technology continues to evolve was in abundance at this year's show as well. In addition to the all-new Prius, Toyota debuted a Lexus version of the popular hybrid. Dubbed the HS250h, the sedan looks a bit more conventional than the Prius, with a three-box silhouette and traditional Lexus styling that should certainly appeal to upscale greenies. Rival Honda unveiled its all-new Insight hybrid, which is now a sedan instead of the funky little CRX-like hatch.
At the premium end of the hybrid scale, BMW announced that production versions of both the X6 and 7 Series ActiveHybrids would go on sale before the end of this year. And if those aren't exclusive enough for the country club, you may want to get your hands on a Fisker Sunset, a convertible version of the ultra-luxurious, hand-built Karma hybrid from mad designer Henrik Fisker.
As with the other alternative drive technologies, diesel models were also present on many of the displays, though perhaps the fact that gas is now hovering around two bucks a gallon, there wasn't a lot of hoopla about them. All of the usual German suspects—VW, Audi, BMW and Mercedes—had them on the floor. VW even showed off a roadster concept that could make it to production (please stop teasing us already with little roadster concepts) with a mid-mounted diesel.
BMW's all-new 2009 Z4 made its first official showing as a production model; no concept was apparently needed for the next-generation two-seater, which now features a folding hardtop and will go on sale this spring. MINI also revealed its new convertible, based on the updated sedan that launched last year. If neither of those models put enough wind through your hair, perhaps the over-the-top Mercedes SLR McLaren Stirling Moss Edition will do it for you.
Audi took the wraps off its much-anticipated R8 V-10, boasting a 5.2-liter engine with 525 horsepower. More importantly, its Sportback concept, which is allegedly a mildly-disguised version of its upcoming A7, shows the direction in which future Audi sedans may be headed. The new look includes a six-point grille, extremely "fast" roofline and a less heavy tail end treatment than current Audis.
Ford's new Taurus was shown for the first time, introducing a bolder, cleaner, more distinctly American look than the Euro-influenced model it replaces. The 2010 Mustang was also a hit at the Ford stand, especially the GT500 models in both coupe and convertible form. Other notable introductions included Volvo's S60 sedan concept, Subaru's Impreza sedan, and Jaguar's XF-R.
Because so many manufacturers pulled out of this year's show, there was ample floor space to invite the Chinese manufacturers inside, rather n keeping them out in the lobby like unwanted guests. True, they were tucked away in a remote corner of the main floor, but they were at least there, which is more than some could say. Brilliance and BYD had significant displays, though its debatable whether Brilliance (BMW's Chinese production partner) will be able to bring to market its sporty-looking coupe bearing the M3 model name.
To say that the 2009 Detroit show was a different one goes without saying. The next twelve months should be interesting for everyone in the business, and nothing will bear that out more than the 2010 version of the show. We'll be there.
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