Local dealers are responsible for transforming the Detroit auto show from a regional exhibition into a huge international event.

“The success of the show is due to daring dealers here,” says Robert Thibodeau Jr., a Ford dealer and co-chairman of the Detroit automotive extravaganza now called the North American International Auto Show.

The first Detroit show was in 1907, sponsored by 17 dealers and staged in a beer garden in conjunction with a hunting and fishing expo.

In 1957, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Jaguar were the first import brands with displays. Toyota, Honda and Datsun (Nissan's old nameplate) were displaying by the 1970s.

In the 1980s, members of the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn., which stages the exhibition, thought a regional show was too limiting for the Motor City.

“Detroit dealers were attending the international auto shows of Europe — Paris, Geneva and Frankfurt — and said, ‘Why not do in Detroit what they do over there,’” says Thibodeau.

It's been world-class ever since for the annual event that attracts more than 6,500 journalists from around the world who covered about 60 unveilings this year. For the first time, Geely, a Chinese auto maker, exhibited.

“Twenty years ago there weren't a lot of believers that this could be the show it has become,” says Thibodeau.

The following is a look at what happened last month at the really big show:

Welcome Back, Camaro

Hype is huge for the return of the Chevy Camaro.

The muscle car concept takes its cues from the '69 Camaro but thrusts it into modern day with crisp lines and modern engineering.

“Right now, it's purely a concept,” Bob Lutz, General Motors Corp.'s vice chairman-product development, says of the 2-door, 4-passenger car.

The interior pays homage to the original, with recessed gauges and a 3-spoke steering wheel.

It was Chairman Rick Wagoner who spurred designers back to create a contemporary car that captures the spirit of the '69.

“When we saw it, we knew it was right,” Lutz says.
By Alisa Priddle

Ottomans in This Lexus

The all-new Lexus LS 460 makes its debut at the same show that 17 years ago saw the wraps taken off the first-generation.

It is one of 12 new Toyota, Lexus and Scion models launching this year in the U.S.

Notable features of the Lexus flagship include the world's first 8-speed automatic transmission.

The vehicle also features reclining rear seats complete with ottomans.
By Christie Schweinsberg

On the Edge at Ford

Ford Motor Co. follows through on its commitment to cross/utility vehicles with the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX.

The midsize CUVs ride on a platform that launched the Mazda6 and was modified to produce the Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan and Lincoln Zephyr midsize sedans.

With the sedans off to a strong start in the market, Ford is hoping the '07 Edge will strike a similar chord with consumers.

The Edge's closed-wrap 3-bar grille, fully independent suspension and all-wheel drive scream future trend. The Edge arrives in showrooms in late fall.
By Steve Miller

Honda Seeks Perfect Fit

American Honda Co. Executive Vice President Dick Colliver predicts “another dog fight” in the U.S. auto market this year, and to help its war effort, Honda is bringing in the small guns: the subcompact Fit.

The 5-door vehicle goes on sale in the U.S. in April. The Fit joins a growing number of subcompact vehicles making the North American scene.

“We've been watching the subcompact market for some years,” Colliver says. “It has been a dormant segment until now. We anticipate 300% to 400% growth in the next few years. It is a good time to enter the market.”
By Steve Finlay

Escalade Goes Over the Top

Style and chrome mark the '07 Cadillac Escalade, the long-wheelbase Escalade ESV and the Cadillac EXT pickup.

GM's goal is to stay true to the Cadillac philosophy and offer a new Escalade that takes the fullsize SUV over the top with an opulent interior, 403 hp and 22-in. wheels, says Gary White, fullsize truck vehicle line executive.

The Escalade goes on sale this quarter, with the EXT and ESV due in showrooms in May.
By Alisa Priddle

BMW: Wake Up and Z-Z-Z-Z

BMW AG unveils its Motorsports division-tuned variant of the Z4 roadster, saying the new M Roadster is an example of the auto maker's ambition to continue expanding its model range and sales.

In America, BMW this summer will be offering a refreshed Z4, the M Roadster and a production version of the unveiled Z4 Coupe Concept Study that signals the return of the hardtop variant of the Z4 roadster.

Tom Purves, BMW of North America LLC's CEO, says that popular in the U.S. is the auto maker's unique free-maintenance plan. “In our experience, customers do not like receiving service bills,” Purves says.
By Bill Visnic

New Camry Gets Emotional

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. is trying to infuse some emotion into the styling of its sixth-generation '07 Camry to counteract criticism that previous-generation models are bland.

That rap has not hurt sales, however, as Camry has been the best-selling car in the U.S. in eight of the last nine years, tallying 431,703 deliveries in 2005.

But to make the new model edgier, Toyota says it utilized its “Vibrant Clarity” design language, already seen on the upcoming Yaris subcompact and RAV4 small cross/utility vehicle.

The Camry also boasts some of the same styling cues found on the newer, upscale GS and IS Lexus models by sharing a similar trapezoidal rear taillight design. Toyota calls Camry's shape “athletic and modern.”
By Christie Schweinsberg

New Sentra Debuts After Delay

Nissan North America Inc. takes the wraps off its new ‘07 Sentra sedan.

The compact car has been redesigned six times, although this is the first time in almost 10 years.

After a year's delay due to negative consumer group feedback on an earlier design for the car, the new Sentra is set to go on sale this fall in the U.S.

Nissan plans to price the car at about $15,000. The current base model starts at $13,100.

The Sentra gets a new platform and a more powerful base engine: a 2L DOHC 4-cyl. replacing a 1.8L. The exterior look carries on Nissan's signature design language, already seen on the Altima and Maxima sedans.
By Christie Schweinsberg

Mercedes Intros Big SUV

Calling it the most economical fullsize SUV in the world, DaimlerChrysler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche introduces the giant new Mercedes GL-Class, a 7-seat utility.

It is Mercedes' first fullsize utility vehicle and it will compete with the likes of the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator and Infiniti QX56.

While Zetsche calls it an SUV, the GL actually is a unibody CUV. The main powerplant will be a new 4.6L DOHC V-8 producing 335 hp, but starting in the fall it also will be available with Mercedes' V-6 diesel.

Zetsche also touts the auto maker's clean diesel technology, which it intends to share with the Chrysler Group.
By Drew Winter

Mini Getting Bigger

After single-handedly creating the premium small-car market in the U.S., “big” is happening to BMW AG's Mini.

The auto maker shows a concept version of a much larger car it says will be on the road within three years. Dubbed the Mini Concept Detroit, it features a much longer wheelbase than the current Mini and a large cargo area. However, company officials say it retains key Mini design cues, such as short overhangs, with all four wheels pushed out to the corners.

The idea behind the concept car is “as small as possible, as large as necessary,” says Michael Ganal, a BMW executive.
By Drew Winter

Challenger Flexes Muscle

Production of a Dodge Challenger, based on an unveiled concept car, would herald a new milestone for the auto maker's LX platform.

The “muscle coupe” could either be assembled alongside its platform-mates — the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Magnum — or become the first LX-based product to be built at another site alongside vehicles with disparate platforms.

“The concept was derived from the ability of that platform to deliver (multiple) vehicles, if we so choose,” says Frank Klegon, executive vice president-product development.

Inspired by the '70 pony car of the same name, the concept Challenger conveys a tough, “purposeful” stance, Chrysler says. Its 116-in wheelbase is 6 ins. longer and 2 ins. wider than the original.

“We sought to recreate it not as it was, but as enthusiasts see it through their mind's eye,” says Trevor Creed, Chrysler's senior vice president of design.
By Eric Mayne

Imperial Power at Chrysler

Chrysler Group CEO Tom LaSorda is cautious about the production prospects of the Chrysler Imperial concept, evocative of Chrysler's once top-of-the-line car that ended its run more than 30 years ago.

Punctuating his remarks with nervous chuckles, LaSorda describes the incarnation as a design exercise.

“This is really, truly, a concept (chuckle) vehicle,” he says “It's probably the highest-end car we would ever (chuckle)…that one might be a little bit of a stretch. But we'll see what the reaction is.”

Dripping with elegance, the Imperial is on the same platform as the Chrysler 300, but is 6 ins. taller and 17 ins. longer.
By Eric Mayne

Taking It to the Streets

Forget about the SUV appeal to adventurous off-roaders interested in vehicular mountain climbing under the big sky.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura luxury division is appealing to young urbanites with a new RDX SUV.

“We saw a growing need for a premium entry-level SUV to meet the needs of urban warriors,” says John Mendel, American Honda Motor Co. senior vice president.

Smaller than Acura's fullsize MDX, the RDX springs from an all-new light-truck platform. Mendel says the vehicle will “appeal to a lot of car owners who felt that traditional SUVs lacked… sport sedan handling and performance.”
By Steve Finlay

MKX In, Aviator Out

This used to be the Aviator?

The '07 Lincoln MKX cross/utility vehicle drops the old Aviator name and puts on a new face.

The wrap taillights, the mating of a new 3.5L V-6 to Ford Motor Co.'s new 6-speed automatic transmission and the smiling chrome grille all are a rolling advertisement for Lincoln's self-ballyhooed “innovation.”

The 5-passenger CUV sports a panoramic glass roof, heated rear seats and a 14-speaker audio system.
By Steve Miller

Make Room for Chauffeured

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Ltd. shows off a new extended-wheelbase version of the Phantom sedan that will be launched in the U.S. by late 2006.

The new extended-wheelbase Phantom has 10 in. added to the wheelbase to offer more room for rear occupants, an attractive feature to owners who are chauffeured.
By Drew Winter

Aspen Is Chrysler's 1st SUV

Meet Chrome-zilla.

That is Chrysler Group's internal pet name for the '07 Aspen, Chrysler brand's first SUV due in showrooms this fall.

A mid-year production start is scheduled for the 8-passenger fullsize SUV, which will share a platform with the Dodge Durango.

Chrysler executives are not worried by the softening SUV market, noting that they are highly profitable and still represent 50% of the total SUV market,.

“We see (fullsize SUVs) as an opportunity,” says Klegon, says Frank Klegon, executive vice president-product development.
By Eric Mayne

Hello Caliber, So Long Neon

Chrysler Group's Dodge brand could be playing Russian roulette by making its lone small-car offering, the '07 Caliber, available only as a hatchback.

But Chrysler COO Eric Ridenour is confident the design will score a bull's eye despite the U.S. market's preference for sedans.

He says, “Sometimes being successful means to be willing to do something different.”

The Caliber replaces the Dodge Neon.
By Eric Mayne

Reinventing the Minivan

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. unveils a concept it hopes will reenergize the minivan segment.

The F3R, which stands for “Freedom 3-Row,” is of a radical design that may influence the next-generation Toyota Sienna, says Kevin Hunter, one of the vehicle's stylists.

“We think minivans need to take a more bold design direction, otherwise we can't attract any buyers anymore,” he says. “People are getting tired of the typical minivan.”

The F3R “combines the advanced performance of hybrid technology with the practicality and utility of a traditional minivan,” says Jim Lentz, Toyota Div. group vice president.
By Christie Schweinsberg

New Hyundai Designed in U.S.

Going on sale this summer, the '07 Santa Fe cross/utility vehicle marks the first time Hyundai's California design center has styled a Hyundai production model.

Designers benchmarked the Lexus RX series, Acura MDX and Volvo XC90 CUVs. New for the second-generation Santa Fe is a purpose-built chassis to provide for a more refined, sedan-like ride. Hyundai switched from a double wishbone rear suspension to a multi-link setup to reduce noise and vibration.
By Christie Schweinsberg

Buick Joins GM's CUV Clan

General Motors Corp. unwraps the Buick Enclave concept for a much-anticipated look at the Lambda platform of cross/utility vehicles.

The luxury CUV will go into production in 18 months. Prior to that, a Saturn version, the Outlook, is due to market. The GMC Acadia is expected to follow as a third member of the midsize CUV family.

While the concept is shown as a 6-seater, the production model can be configured for as many as eight passengers.

The concept has a 3.6L DOHC V-6 and an athletic yet elegant presence, with its wheels pushed to the corners and arched fenders.
By Alisa Priddle

Around the Show

Showing, Not Selling

Geely Automobile Co. Chairman and founder Shufu Li says industry analysts likely are correct when they say American consumers are not yet willing to buy Chinese cars.

However, Geely is working to meet their expectations, Li says in an interview with Ward's at the North American International Auto Show.

Geely's presence marks the first time a Chinese auto maker has exhibited at the Detroit show.

“I think, in a sense, they're right,” Li says of doubters. “We still have a lot of work to do to improve our technology and quality.”

Geely plans to begin selling two vehicles in Puerto Rico in 2008 and in the mainland U.S. by 2009. First it must pass federal safety and emission tests.

“We certainly haven't passed all of the tests,” says John Harmer, vice president of Geely U.S.A. Inc. “We haven't completed all of the tests.”

Li says he has been to Detroit many times to “just learn and observe.”

At Least They Had an Exhibit

Only a few feet away from the Geely vehicle exhibit is Malcolm Bricklin, who's trying to bring another brand of Chinese cars to the U.S., but has had problems lately, including lining up enough dealers.

Bricklin, with no exhibit at the auto show, sits watching Geely executives answer questions from the curious.

Checking out the Chinese

Geely Automobile executives John Harmer and Chairman and founder Shufu Li have to wait to have their picture taken next to their Geely CK sedan on the show floor until an interested party exits the car.

Who should climb out but Chrysler Group CEO Tom LaSorda. He gets from behind the wheel, takes a last glance at the car, nods at the executives and walks off.

Staying Alive in Motown

“I'm not dead. I'm here,” Jim Padilla, Ford Motor Co. president, says at the Detroit show.

Padilla opens Ford's presentation against a backdrop of media reports he will be leaving the company.

Speculation has been rife in recent months, as Padilla seemingly has taken a backseat in preparations to announce restructuring of Ford's North American operations.

Meanwhile, Steve Lyons, group vice president-North American marketing, sales and service, is preparing to retire in March, which will set off a reshuffling of executives in senior marketing, sales and service positions.

Spade Says “No” to Neon

Irreverent comic David Spade takes the stage to help unveil the '07 Dodge Caliber which replaces the Neon as the auto maker's entry in the small-car segment.

Snipes Spade: “Dude, anything looks good compared with a Neon.”

Hip-Hopping with GM

The Cadillac Escalade is popular with the hip-hop community, and General Motors Corp. wants to keep that going, as evidenced by its edgy introduction of the '07 fullsize SUV at a media reception during the show.

For entertainment next to displayed models of the new Escalade, GM brings in a legion of energetic young dancers.

It also adds a Los Angeles club DJ who plays loud, pulsating rap music (some of which feature lyrics that are a bit raunchy), plus a punker-drummer, Travis Barker from the band Blink182, who has spiked hair and plays shirtless, showing off an assortment of upper-body tattoos.

Among them was a Cadillac brand logo on his stomach. A GM spokesman says that body art was done a while back, before the musician was hired for the auto show gig. “We didn't ask him to do it, but when we heard he had it, we said, ‘What the hell, let's hire him.’”

So Build It, Already

Early buzz on the show floor focuses on the Dodge Challenger and whether Chrysler intends to build it. Prevailing opinion says Dodge would be foolish not to put the legendary muscle car on the street.

“Oh, they have to build it,” says a top dealer executive. “In fact, I'm going to hunt down Joe (Eberhardt — Chrysler's executive vice president-global sales and marketing) and tell him they'd better build it.”

Shattering Experience

Chrysler Group CEO Tom LaSorda rides shotgun as the redesigned '07 Jeep Wrangler is driven through a plate glass window and then up a steep, faux glacier to a prominent perch across the street from the auto show's exhibition hall.

Journalists are wowed, and COO Eric Ridenour is seen hugging LaSorda after the stunt. “Incredible!” Ridenour says.

Outside, a cleanup crew of 20-plus workers are less impressed.

Says one: “You know how a car window breaks in the parking lot and the glass goes everywhere? We'll be finding this stuff months from now. This sucks!”

W.A.T.C.H. Your Language

Against the backdrop of an industry that has a language all its own, consider this exchange between a journalist and Peter Rosenfeld, Chrysler Group's purchasing chief.

Journalist: “How many of your suppliers are in trouble?”

Rosenfeld: “We have about 20 on what we call our ‘watch’ list.”

Journalist: “Is that an acronym?”

Rosenfeld: “Watch?”

Journalist: “Yes, W.A.T.C.H.”

Rosenfeld: “It just means watch. Sorry. I used a real word.”

Sometimes you must watch yourself when you do that in this business.