DETROIT - Maybe some of the press embarked for the first international auto show of the new century expecting to see sleek fuel-efficient transportation modules fit for a new automotive era.
That contingent was only partially disappointed.
The rest of the media got precisely what it expected: hulking truck and sport/utility vehicle (SUV) concepts - and the hedge-bet middle ground, the crossover vehicles that make some attempt at promoting sensible size and utility.
The massive surprise, though, was thatCorp. came loaded for bear and, for the most part, bagged its game. The enormous GM "Experience" exhibit seemed to play well with a press corps that of late hardly can be considered to be in GM's corner. The embattled (or is it embittered?) GM put on its game face and filled the vast Experience area with a variety of concept vehicles, many of which, uncommonly for GM, hit the mark. The GM suits seemed ebullient, and it was a particular achievement considering that just a few years ago, GM wasn't even making concept cars.
Those who worried about GM taking AM General's Hummer brand under its wing got a shock when the GM-made H2 Hummer concept emerged as a winner. The smaller - only somewhat smaller, that is - H2 dutifully remains stylistically loyal to the original Big Daddy of all SUVs yet tidies the proportions by standing on the GMT800 full-size truck platform. It'll be cheaper than the pricey standard Hummer, says GM, which appears itching for a proposed launch in 2002.
The Chevrolet SSR concept also strummed a pleasant chord, invoking a new-generation feel for the old El Camino concept. It is based on the Chevy Blazer, and features a metal roof that folds in two and tucks between the cabin and the truck bed. The shape is provoking, though the 6L Vortec V-8 probably is a little over-the-top.
Good marks for the Buick LaCrosse, a luxury oriented car with a clamshell-opening rear end that offers use as a quasi-pickup. Power comes from a prototype 4.2L V-8 and the hood hinges sideways to reveal that sucker.
And - finally! - the Pontiac Aztek is a production reality. The styling may not reach everyone, but it's based on the redoubtful platform of the current U-van and features solid power from the yeoman 3.4L OHV V-6. Unfortunately, the Versatrak all-wheel-drive version won't be making an appearance at launch this summer, but the system, co-developed with Austria's Steyr--Puch, appears sophisticated; adding to the allure, Versatrak versions get a nifty independent rear suspension.
Crosstown - er, maybe it's cross-ocean - rival DaimlerChrysler AG continued its legacy for jaw-dropping concepts with two powerful entries: the swoopy300 Hemi C and the strangely compelling Dodge MAXXcab. Chrysler engineers all but admit that the drop-top 300 Hemi C will go into production, rear-drive and "hemi" pushrod V-8 inclusive.
The chunky MAXXcab brings the former's "cab-forward" concept to the pickup truck bodyshell, emphasizing passenger-carrying as priority. The 4-door MAXXcab presented genuinely attractive proportions, regardless that its practically vestigial rear cargo area barely deserves description as a truck "bed."
Not to be discounted was DC's silly named but shapely Jeep Varsity, riding on true independent suspension at each corner and presenting a husky but friendly stance, Grand Cherokee-meets-CR-V being the best description. If this is the future of the Grand Cherokee, we're buying one.
Motor Co. admitted that its concepts weren't "about the car," trotting out the inane 24.7 in three iterations, none of which mattered for anything more than their intriguing, high-tech, connect-with-everything-and-the-hell-with-driving interactive dashboards.
Ah, butdidn't totally disappoint: On hand was a production version of the all-new, unibody Escape SUV, which will sell like mad with its optional 200-hp V-6, despite appearing to be little more - inside and out - than a scaled-down Explorer.
Ford left a hunk of Detroit Show fanfare for its "divisions:" Jaguar Cars unwrapped the gorgeous F-type 2-seat roadster, its sinuous flanks shamelessly evoking the image of an updated XKE roadster. AB Volvo, meanwhile, looks like it means business with its safety-laden and rather handsome V70 wagon, including a "Cross Country" SUV-wannabe variant.
More crossover intention was displayed byAG and its all-wheel drive AAC (Advanced Activity Concept), which VW says "combines the functions of a pickup with the luxury of a top-class sedan." Onlookers seemed impressed with the unusual-for-VW "in your face" front end and the truck's sheer bulk. VW isn't yet confirming it will build a pickup, saying instead that AAC presages certain styling and engineering cues for the long-awaited SUV that VW is co-developing with Porsche. The AAC's all-aluminum V-10 turbodiesel (553 lb.-ft. [750Nm] of torque!), with all its ancillaries driven by gears, is an absolute work of art.
Motor Corp.'s playing for keeps, too, unveiling its mongo-sized SUV, the '01 Sequoia. The Sequoia is based on the darn-good Tundra and will be built in Indiana, but for now Toyota isn't raising any domestic hackles by saying the volumes will be small. Joining the Sequoia was upscale division Lexus and its all-new, highly Mercedes S-Class mimicking, LS430. Bigger car, bigger engine, bigger price. Lexus has learned the drill.
Not to be passed by wasMotor Co. Ltd.'s upmarket Acura Div., displaying the MD-X concept that the company openly acknowledges is a peek at the production version of its first foray into pass-car-based SUV territory. The MD-X interior was genuinely special, but the styling looks like the only effort made came in the form of a midnight raid of the Lexus RX300 design studio.
Mercedes-Benz showed up with the funky little SLA roadster, based on the A-Class minicar and looking like the baby brother of last-year's overstyled SLR. Perhaps more than any other vehicle at NAIAS, it polarized. Some thought it to die for. We saw it as darn homely. More promising is the ever-so-slightly facelifted SLK roadster and the potential of its new 3.2L V-6/6-speed manual driveline.
Finally, for those journos who came seeking fuel-economy specials, both GM and Ford touted the soon-to-be-prototypes of their collaborative Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) program. The two diesel/electric hybrids deliver laudable economy - 70 mpg (3.4L/100 Km) in the case of Ford's Prodigy, 90 mpg (2.6L/100 km) for GM's ultra-slippery Precept. The problem is, unless U.S. emissions standards get a thorough workover, their diesel-powered drivelines may be dead on arrival when the prototypes are due in 2003.
Never mind the economy or ecology, though. The best news is that Ford personnel are indicating that the Prodigy presages the styling for the next-generation Taurus. And we all know that great styling beats saving the planet, hands-down.