The 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit heralded the return of the car. As gas prices soar, customers are looking for-and manufacturers are competing to offer-products that are decidedly European in flavor. Compact size, styling, affordability, efficiency, and performance all seemed equal parts of the equation, and were a welcome respite from the unending deluge of supersized SUVs we enthusiasts have endured for the past decade.
Ford debuted the Reflex, its first notable new model in years. A small 2+1, it has aggressive styling and shows some promise that Ford is capable of doing more than just recycling old ideas. While the Reflex powertrain was a trendy tri-power diesel, electric, and solar hybrid, I say put something conventional under the hood and get the car into production.
Although Carroll Shelby rode onto the Cobo Arena stage in the new Shelby GT500 Mustang, he was briskly and embarrassingly shuffled off into the wings with little more than a cursory wave to the thousands of assembled journalists. Some kind of endorsement of the car would have been appropriate, but quickly sweeping him off the stage created the impression that he wasn't behind the project, and had just exchanged his name for a check.
The four-door Aston Martin Rapide proved that a clever designer can make a striking four-door saloon. According to insiders at Aston, there are no significant challenges to prevent the Rapide from going into production, and it would take just 36 months from green light to showroom floor. Porsche brass circled the Rapide with concern, as it is that very same four-door, high-speed sedan market Stuttgart is after with the Panamera.
Maserati should be nervous as well. Its Quattroporte has had this market all to itself, but that time is coming to an end. (We're not overlooking the Mercedes CLS, but its svelte styling comes at the expense of reasonable rear-seat comfort.)
Jaguar's booth stood next to that of Aston, and the contrast was stark. Once a paragon of style, Jag has floundered during the past decade. While the modern S-type was a visual success, the XK8 was innocuous at best, and its auto-only transmission proved a turnoff to enthusiasts. And the XJ6 was just an archaic design that reeked, unimaginatively, of days gone by.
For me, the new XK is a disappointment. Rather than presenting an alluring, evocative statement for the Leaping Cat, the car takes the lines of the XK8 and simply expands them in all directions. It's no secret Jaguar has struggled in the marketplace. Though Ford ownership has made the cars reliable, the challenge remains to make them sexy and desirable once again. Clearly their next-door neighbors at Aston need to send over a dollop of visual excitement.
Though the Bugatti Veyron was conspicuous by its absence, another made-up brand, Maybach, had a only slight presence in Detroit. Whereas the Maybach was once heralded as the second coming of something, its nondescript styling and lack of true heritage have led to a sales disaster. Thus a sole high-po 57 S sat forlornly off to the side of the main Mercedes display.
Meanwhile, the Maybach's direct competitor, the Rolls Phantom, looks better each year. While I was not initially a fan of its "in-your-face" grille, it wears well with age. Though the Maybach may be a better machine, the Rolls offers what those spending $320,000 for a car are most looking for-an immediately recognizable statement of personal success.
The Chrysler Imperial show car is a stroke of brilliance. It's also a near-direct copy of the Rolls Phantom, complete with suicide doors and its own massive grille, in what would clearly be a much less expensive version. If the green light is given, how many seconds will it take before a Rolls-Royce grille conversion kit is made available?
DaimlerChrysler's CEO Dieter Zetsche, properly regarded as a magician for his turnaround at Chrysler, squandered a big piece of his built-up goodwill by lecturing the assembled journalists on the virtues of diesel engines. Like BMW, Mercedes is an aspirational brand. But like retreads and airhorns, Americans will forever associate diesels with truck stops, not high-performance luxury cars from Germany.
BMW's Z4 coupe is gorgeous, at the very least because its hatchback removes the unnecessary and awkward Bangle Butt that plagues the convertible. BMW should take care. While it blunders about substituting dubious style for performance, and ill-conceived, ineffective ergonomic interfaces for simple controls, Audi is on a roll. Despite the contrived, Joe Camel, overhung nose now common to all Audis, the cars share a crisp, no-nonsense appearance with class-leading performance to match. Perhaps now that parent company VW has stopped squandering resources on the ill-conceived Phaeton, it will actually have the funds to promote Audi in the U.S.
Dodge has made the mistake of styling its new Challenger concept with a slavish adherence to the lines of the original. As a result, it is not nearly as inspired or as interesting as Chevrolet's new Camaro concept car. The Camaro is edgy, aggressive, and thoroughly a car of today. And it's exactly the kind of product Chevy needs on the street to attract new buyers to the fold.
For those who want an SUV with the bulk and presence of a Hummer H3, but not the earth-killing reputation it exudes, Toyota offered up the Land Cruiser FJ. A clever interpretation of the iconic, everlasting FJ40, it should do very well.
For enthusiasts, this turned out to be the best Detroit show ever. It seemed like the manufacturers have realized that the era of mega-trucks is coming to an end. Consumers want cars, sexy cars, and the manufacturers clearly have their ears to the ground. Offering buyers what they want shouldn't be a complicated equation

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