With huge incentives catching up on some automakers—most notably the domestic brands—and sales figures heading into a slump in 2005, why did the show of all shows feel so optimistic? Well, automakers are banking that they can attract more buyers by making cars that people really want, rather than those that they just need.

Over and over again in speeches at the press previews we heard variants of the phrase, “it’s all about product.” That’s true; there’s a continued fragmentation of model lines from a few big sellers into relatively many low-volume specialty models and body styles. Some of my colleagues have begun calling this the “atomization” of the auto industry, predicting that this will continue to happen for the foreseeable future. This is good news for us enthusiasts—less boring genericars, more cool and quirky ones.

Hybrid and fuel cell vehicles are part of this product renaissance. Automakers are finally figuring out that consumers are willing to pay extra for hybrid technology especially if they don’t have to sacrifice performance or luxury, and that it is possible to make money on them. It may have started with hybrid leaders Toyota and Honda, but others are quickly charging up. Ford announced that it will have five hybrid passenger vehicles available within the next three years, Porsche even hinted that it is developing a high-performance hybrid powertrain, and several other automakers are planning hybrid models.

But for those who live for raw horsepower, there were plenty of pulse-quickening sports cars and sexy curves. The new Corvette Z06, the Ford Shelby GR-1, and the Chrysler Firepower brought new thunder to old Detroit rivalries; while the Lexus LF-A surprised the crowds with an exclusive new supercar that, if produced, would compete with Ferraris and Astons. Meanwhile, Ferrari touted its new Superamerica, with a trick automatic flip-around roof, and Jaguar showed that there’s hope yet with a concept preview of an all-new lightweight sports car.

Each year at Detroit, there seems to be one concept that falls into the “utterly ridiculous” category: this time, the positively outrageous Jeep Hurricane. With an open dune-buggy–style design, four-wheel steering, and two Hemi V-8 engines—one in front and one in back—it reminded me of a life-size RC car.

So why is Detroit worth checking out? Regional auto shows around the country might show you the sheetmetal that’s new this year or next, but Detroit is the show where the auto industry comes together, dreams, and makes it happen. You can’t help but be inspired.

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