We all love cars of such varying types, shapes and accoutrements that it's hard to generalize what makes a car appealing when new, or to predict whether it will become collectible as it ages. The North American International Auto Show is a litmus test of attitudes, of each car company's ability to achieve that hallmark of success, a production car that excites and delights and could one day be parked in a garage next to a '57 Chevy, a 1964-1/2 Mustang, or a Chrysler 300. For General Motors and Ford, the concept cars they previewed and the production models they revealed marked a recognition that fun and driving should have some relationship to each other. Chrysler thinks so too, but is still struggling to establish a sense of corporate identity under the wing of its German parent.


GM is being awfully clever about how it is using concept cars to energize its brands. Not so long ago, when Cadillac was on the ropes, they authorized the Sixteen show car. Unveiled at the 2003 Detroit show, it was a clear "rule the world" statement about where the Cadillac brand was headed. Today, Cadillac's resurgence in the marketplace is widely regarded as a contemporary success story. The next GM brand to be resuscitated is Pontiac. The Solstice concept was unveiled a year ago, and a production model was shown this year. An affordable convertible sports car at under $20,000, it has the potential to develop a new generation of Pontiac fans. The real test will be how it drives. GM North American Chairman and long-time SCM'er Bob Lutz is an unabashed fan of the driving characteristics of BMWs. If he has managed to put the crisp, responsive feel of the 3-series into the Solstice, we're all winners. The attempt is a noble one, and if executed properly, could go a long way towards reviving the formerly moribund Pontiac nameplate. But if the Solstice turns out to be yet another badly suspended, sloppy-shifting car with a thrashing motor that hates to rev, we enthusiasts will tag it as just one more pretty face that failed its driver's test. It was clear in Detroit that GM's next revitalization targets are Saturn and Chevrolet. The Saturn concept, built on the same Kappa platform as the Solstice, is a controversial, aggressive look into the future. This distinctive design could breathe life into Saturn, offering a sense of purpose to its long-suffering design and marketing teams. The Chevrolet Nomad might just be the American answer to the new Mini, sized right, retro in a contemporary fashion, and referencing the cues of the original product without slavishly adhering to them. Ford vehicles, while not having as focused a relationship between its concept cars and future product, is moving in the right direction. While continuing to lick its wounds from a decade of wandering in a forest of Explorer lawsuits and product misfires, its new Mustang is a safe and steady step in the right direction. It captures and amalgamates the styling cues from the second-generation Mustang in an immensely attractive fashion.


The newly-introduced Shelby Cobra concept can have enormous impact on the brand as well, containing all the right references to the past while clearly looking to the future. Armed with a 390-cid, 605-hp V10, it has the performance potential to make Vipers shed their skin. According to Chris Theodore, vice-president of Ford North America Product Development and SCM'er for more than a decade, the Cobra would be relatively easy to put into production, as it shares the same platform as the Ford GT. He intimated that Ford could profitably sell the car in the $100,000 range, if 4,500 or so were built. The triumvirate of the Ford GT (looking back), the Mustang (about to go on sale) and the Shelby (a glimpse of what is to come) makes a powerful statement about Ford's new understanding of its hard-won heritage, and how it is choosing to mine its own treasures to build and sell product in the future. Chrysler's featured show car, the ME Four-Twelve, generated a lot of buzz. Chrysler claimed they would have a road-ready (and track ready) example of the 850-horsepower, V12-powered supercar ready by this summer. But it's unrelated to any current or projected mainstream product. If Chrysler truly believes the Pacifica can reinvent and dominate the station wagon segment, why not have a concept car that addresses that? How about, as a show car, a 21st century incarnation of the legendary Boss Wagon of the '60s, a lowered and spoiler-bedecked 600-horsepower wagon bristling with state-of the-art electronics?


Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, summed up the attitude of the American automakers at the show when he said, "At the end of the day, the best car wins." The Big Three have done a good job of driving customers away for the past decade, offering uninspired, unreliable, underperforming and poorly built product that could only be sold through massive financial incentives. But the GM and Ford concepts are pointing to a sea change in how American manufacturers deal with product, and if performance follows intentions, enthusiasts and regular buyers alike will be the beneficiaries. In addition, make use to process all the necessary documents such as title registration, mva, etc. Give Americans something stylish, reliable, and solidly built, with snappy performance and reasonable pricing, and to paraphrase the Governator, "They'll be back."

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