DETROIT — At first, journalists seemed relieved that almost every auto maker at the 2002 edition of the North American International Auto Show here wanted to talk about something other than SUVs. Then they realized that there still were a helluva lot of SUVs on display.

It's not that the earnest OEMs didn't try. For one thing, Detroit auto makers suddenly seem interested in affordable coupes and roadsters again. And as you've seen from our cover and accompanying story (see p.26), a raft of tall station wagons are being carefully maneuvered to — you're free to take your choice, here:

a) replace those ghastly SUVs if the economy stays sour and/or the Middle East situation causes a realistic pricing of gasoline;

b) replace SUVs if the affluent Baby Boomers who started the silly trend in the first place coyly want to “move on;”

c) replace SUVs as the “default” choice for buyers who want more utility than is available from a standard 4-door sedan but don't really want to pilot something the size of the Astrodome;

d) replace SUVs for any other reason they haven't thought of.

For NAIAS 2002, at least the Chrysler unit of DaimlerChrysler AG was back in the groove. After last year's uncharacteristic field of ill-considered concepts, DC was back in form with tasty nuggets like the Razor coupe, one of several lightly styled, lightly optioned coupes expounding a return to affordability and a renewed focus on capturing that ever-elusive “youth” customer. The bad part is that the rear-drive, 215-hp Razor didn't come off an existing platform, so the minimalist coupe probably won't be built.

And almost everyone was favorably disposed toward the perky M80 concept truck, a Dakota-based winner also espousing the just-the-basics approach. DC design Svengali Trevor Creed says the plastic-fendered M80 (misguidedly named for the powerful, delightfully illegal firecracker that's blown off more than its share of fingers) could be sold for around $12,000.

And DC also showed the production version of the wonderful Crossfire — and raised nary an eyebrow when openly discussing the large percentage of Mercedes-Benz components the rear-drive coupe will boast, including some, ah, rather significant chunks like Mercedes' 3.2L V-6.

Although General Motors Corp. had previewed some of its Detroit-show fodder earlier last year — like the stunning Cien supercar — the reanimated General nonetheless rolled out a few surprises. First was the conveniently timed answer to DC's Crossfire and Razor, the Pontiac Solstice. Although product-development chief Bob Lutz won't disclose the source of the swoopy Solstice's underpinnings, he says the car's 100% off-the-shelf, including its 2.2L DOHC 4-cyl., swung around to drive the rear wheels. Bob says the Solstice is perfect for Pontiac; the press said that two years ago about the Opel Speedster. The car is engagingly styled, though, and hopefully affordable.

Unfortunately, GM didn't hit the mark with the Chevrolet Bel Air concept. Oh, the 4-seat “retro” convertible was harmless enough, but too innocuous and amorphous to earn serious respect. The Bel Air's blobby sheetmetal did cover a promising 3.5L 5-cyl. version of the great new Vortec 4.2L inline 6-cyl. engine, though.

Anyone who believes — or prays — SUVs have had their salad days needed to stay clear of GM's Hummer H2 display, where the ready-for-production, $50,000 “baby” Hummer had 'em slobbering in the aisles.

Ford Motor Co., subdued by the prospect of its painful restructuring (see p.40), seemed content to let promising production versions of the '03 Expedition and Navigator do the talking, but also unveiled the show's most convincing “retro” effort in the guise of the GT40 concept. The car broke no new styling ground, to be sure, but was a brutally effective and emotionally riveting reprise of one of America's most-loved racing cars.

Ford needs to produce this Viper-challenging 2-seater, complete with its ripping supercharged 5.4L DOHC V-8, just to show its corporate gumption hasn't been totally savaged by economic misfortune. And Ford's Mighty F-350 Tonka (see p.63) shows that Dearborn plans to ditch today's flowing F-Series styling to go the in-your-face Dodge Ram route with the next-generation F-truck. Oh well: at this point, one more mistake isn't going to matter.

Biggest disappointment at NAIAS 2002 may go to Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and its half-hearted Pilot SUV. Yes, it faithfully follows the domestic-SUV formula by offering more size, but surely Honda designers didn't have to make this Honda-badged version of the mega-hit Acura MD-X so hopelessly bland. It looks exactly like what it is: a CR-V stretched and pulled in each direction like so much taffy. Gotta admit, though, that a possible $25,000 buy-in for that excellent MD-X 3.5L DOHC V-6 and fancy BorgWarner-made all-wheel-drive system is the attractive enough to make up for the stolid sheetmetal.

Speaking of Honda's upscale division, it unveiled the curious Acura RD-X, which it says is a synthesis of the all-new RS-X sport coupe and the MD-X off-roader. The 2-door concept SUV is pitched at urban-lifestyle users. But wait — when the Ford Explorer was launched in '92, 2-door SUVs were proven to be one of man's sillier ideas. Ten years later, the circle is complete, it appears.

More circumspect was Nissan's Infiniti division and its FX45 concept, a curious but oddly engaging competitor for the likes of Toyota's successful Lexus RX 300 and the BMW X5. The mid-size SUV's big advantage over its Asian rivals: It's packing 4.5L of DOHC V-8 that puts it on a footing with the European premium-SUV efforts. Rival Toyota Motor Corp. fired off with the Lexus GX470, a leather-lined, body-on frame-monstrosity based on the 4Runner and packing the corporate 4.7L DOHC V-8. Nobody seemed convinced.

Lost in the furor, meanwhile, was Toyota's all-new Corolla, appearing remarkably competent but, as usual, not particularly startling. The car is larger, more efficient, and likely to be less expensive.

Although the Europeans played the tall-wagon card for all it was worth, Volkswagen AG teased with the Magellan concept, a stern-looking hint, we believe, into what VW's got planned when it launches its Taureg SUV later this year.