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Detroit Auto Show 2004 Trends and Overview

Wed, 28 Jan 2004 00:00:00 -0800Where last year's Detroit Auto Show was all about horsepower and luxury, this year's show was more muted, with few truly outstanding cars making shockwaves. The main contender, the Chrysler ME Four-Twelve, didn't create anything like the reaction of the Cadillac Sixteen last year and seemed a bit late to the party, with its massive power and excessive styling. And after all the hype, shouldn't it have been a Dodge, the power brand of DaimlerChrysler, rather than just a Chrysler?For the past couple of years the show has been dominated by truck and SUV launches, so it was good to see the focus shifting back towards cars once again. Not simply cars, but iconic American sports cars such as Ford's Mustang, Shelby Cobra and new Chevrolet Corvette, no less.

Ford's show introductions were heralded under the headline "Year of the Car", which Ford backed up by premiering the new Ford Five Hundred mid-size sedan, Freestyle crossover and revised 2004 Focus range. GM followed suit by launching not just the Corvette C6 but the all-new Solstice compact roadster and G6 sedan from Pontiac.

In parallel with this it's interesting to see rear wheel drive platforms making a real comeback, after a decade of front wheel drive cab-forward designs, as pioneered by Chrysler.

There seems to be a yearning for fresh proportions by designers and Chrysler is once again leading the field with the fine Chrysler 300 and sister Dodge Magnum models, cars which replace the older 300M/Intrepid series with their ?90s cab-forward look. Those cars also had strongly plunging beltlines and vast front overhangs, features that the new ?cab-rearwards' models reverse completely. Other cars displaying this thinking include the new Lexus GS, Dodge Slingshot and the Chevy Nomad.

Linked to this is the realisation that hybrid powertrains mean the advantages of front wheel drive may not be so important in future, as hybrid components can be spread around the chassis to give better packaging and all-wheel drive capability.

Furthermore, it's interesting to note how the role of hybrids is shifting from economy cars to providing powerful performance-on-demand for larger cars. The Mercedes S320, new GST, Lexus RX400h, Ford Escape and Nissan Actic hybrids all demonstrate this direction, and show how this is likely to be the way forward for larger cars in a market that refuses to embrace the diesel engine.

While the US big three have been concentrating on cars, Japanese makers have finally started targeting the US pick-up truck market, that last safe haven for the domestic makers which the Japanese are now determined to prise open.

The Toyota Tundra, Nissan Titan and new Frontier pick-ups are production-ready for 2004, while the Honda SUT, Mitsubishi Sport Truck, and Toyota FTX concepts preview the next wave to come in 2005-06. They're all notably more emotional in their design than the existing truck offerings but whether that's what the average mid-west customer really desires remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi showed two of the more distinctive concepts at Detroit with the Sport Truck and Eclipse Concept-E and seem to have found a more distinctive styling direction at last.

By comparison, the European presence was surprisingly quiet with most of the cars having already been previewed and no new concepts except the Range Stormer and VW Concept-T dune buggy.

Interior seating is displaying new versatility, moving on from that ridiculous ?90s obsession of removable seats to ingenious arrangements where seats fold magically away within the vehicle. The revised Chrysler Town & Country beats them all, by managing to fold both second and third rows seamlessly into the floor in less than 30 seconds. Amazing.

Less amazing were Fords latest "Living Legends" - the Bronco and Shelby Cobra concepts. Most observers felt the back catalogue is looking a bit thin, the execution a bit formulaic. Let's hope there's something fresher for next year.

By Nick Hull