Michael J. Jackson, who heads the nation's largest dealership chain, says the North American International Auto Show in Detroit “is now second to none” in terms of what's showcased and who's there.

Well on second thought, maybe second to Frankfort, Germany's auto show, he says.

Mr. Jackson, CEO of the 300-dealership AutoNation Inc. empire, is a former auto executive (president of Mercedes-Benz of North America) who says he's “gone retail.” He spent days at the Detroit show checking out what's ahead for his dealers and all their brands.

Nissan goes from A to Z

Show stealer at auto show: Carlos Ghosn, parent Renault's CEO for Nissan Motor Corp.

The press corps packed the stands for Mr. Ghosn, who rolled out a jazzy reborn “Z” car that Nissan scrubbed nearly five years ago.

If the Z is revived, so, too is Nissan, largely thanks to Mr. Ghosn.

He managed to do what they said was impossible in Tokyo — revamp an ailing major Japanese automaker despite being a Latin American from Renault.

“Nissan still has a long way to go,” declares Mr. Ghosn, a native of Brazil.

But for now, he adds, “There are thousands of onetime ‘Z’ owners out there who we know will snap up the new 2002 model and give us the halo product we have needed.”

Mr. Ghosn himself owned a “Z” car in the 1990s.

M & M from Toyota & Honda

Toyota and Honda uncorked two coming attractions that surprised even their dealers — Matrix and Model X, respectively.

Matrix will add a stylish econocar to Toyota's Echo, Corolla and Prius lineup in time for the 2002 model year. It will augment Toyota's drive for a 10% share of U.S. market. Toyota got that in December after adding its full-size Sequoia SUV and Lexus 430.

Honda's Model X is part compact sporty car, part pickup truck. It's aimed squarely at Gen Xers and Yers.

The Korean comeback

The Korean Three reeled off a host of new products to celebrate their takeover of the entry-level under $10,000 market.

Hyundai, its sister brand Kia and GM-bound Daewoo want to sell 620,000 vehicles in the U.S. this year and add 105 dealers to their present total of 1,715. They sold 473,000 in 1999 and are filling out lineups with the Hyundai XG300 sedan and Santa Fe SUV.

The Kia Rio wagon priced from $8,900 and Daewoo hybrid U100 minivan-wagon-SUV, plus a restyled fullsize Leganza sedan, add key elements to Korean offerings.

OK, now make it!

Ford Division President James G. O'Connor unveiled a nostalgia-filled 2002-model Thunderbird that's already filling Ford dealer order books.

The first ’54-model two-seater T-Bird stole auto shows back then. The ’02 evokes a fond memory of the exciting world of new cars.

But the vehicle has been shown at several auto shows throughout the country, including Detroit last year.

“How many times are they going to show that car before they finally put it into production?” says one journalist contrarian.

VW goes for nostalgia… again

Volkswagen succeeded a couple of years ago by reviving the Beetle. Now it wants to press the nostalgia button again by reviving a modern version of the Microbus.

Most Baby Boomers recall the hippie legacy of peace and love expressed in flowered decals and peace symbols splashed across the mother of all minivans, the VW “Bus,” which was launched as the Transporter 50 years ago in Germany.

Arlo Guthrie drove a VW Bus in the iconoclastic ’60s movie, “Alice's Restaurant.” Then again, Dr. Jack Kevorkian drove one on his ’90s suicide missions before he got locked up.

The new concept version has a cleaner, rounder and more stylish look.

VW board member Jens Neumann laid it on thick during the unveiling at the Detroit auto show.

“The Microbus was no van, no MVP, no SUV, no hybrid,” he says. “The Microbus was a personal space, with that most elusive of qualities — a soul.”

Is this Las Vegas?

Spectacles 2001-style at the Detroit show:

Jeep Liberty descends down a man-made mountainside; the Ford Thunderbird is surrounded by cascades of confetti forming a rainbow; the Cadillac Vizon concept truck bursts onstage amid dry-ice fog and strobe lights (well actually, that one's becoming an old standby).

Good golly Miss Molly

DaimlerChrysler draws big crowds with its provocative — and sometimes far-out — concept vehicles each year at the Detroit show.

This year's concept crew included a Chrysler Crossfire two-seater. It's sleek. But will it make it into production? Odds are against it, what with the limited demand for sporty two-seaters.

Another DC concept, the Jeep Willys, looks ready for war. Its design is martial. But its body, heavy on plastic, is hardly bullet-proof.

Then there's the Dodge Super8 Hemi, an out-there passenger sedan that takes cues from Dodge trucks and SUVs. Its tall stance, “A” pillars that turn inward and narrow side windows give the vehicle a, well, Sci-Fi look.

Its interior evokes the brushed and painted aluminum gauges and trims of the 1950s.

The DC concepts are a “celebration of American design,” says product design chief Trevor Creed, who, by the way, is English.

BMW goes to max with the Mini

BMW of North America debuted the revived Mini Cooper and the Mini Cooper S at the Detroit show. BMW's former corporate communications manager, Jack Pitney, will head up the Mini brand in the U.S.

Plans are to launch both vehicles in early 2002.

A network of 70 BMW dealers will sell the Mini in the U.S. The dealer network will be announced this month. Mr. Pitney says dealers will need to provide the Mini with a brand-specific environment, but not necessarily a separate showroom.

“Its unreasonable of us to expect the dealer in the heart of New York City to have a separate showroom,” he explains.

Instead, BMW will settle for dealerships with a separate Mini entrance, a dedicated sales team and Internet sales savvy.

Lexus wants the lead

Lexus executives say they expect models they unveiled at the show will help them surpass the 2000 segment-leading sales of 206,037 units in 2001.

In March, the 2002 SC 430 hard-top convertible will hit showrooms. Some 7,000 of the expected 12,000 units coming to the United States already have been sold, says Denny Clements, Lexus group vice president and general manager.

In August, Lexus will add two new versions of the IS 300. One will be a sedan with a 5-speed manual transmission and another is the small, wagon-like SportCross.

“We intend to be an even stronger player in the marketplace,” says Mr. Clements. “We're not abandoning our heritage, we're guaranteeing our future.”