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Detroit show introduces exciting new models

January 19, 2007|by TOM JENSEN / Wheelbase Communications

As expected, automakers from around the globe were rolling out their heavy artillery for the the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), which opened to the public in Detroit, Mich., Jan. 13.

Historically the largest and most important show in the American auto industry, this year's NAIAS has proved to be an ideal platform for the "Big Three" U.S. automakers to unveil some of their most important mass-market vehicles. Sure, there were high-tech gadgets, alternative powerplants and a veritable fleet of concept cars, but the most significant cars to roll out were also some of the most practical.

The company with the most momentum in Detroit seemed to be General Motors, which claimed the show's two biggest awards and served up an effective blend of new products.

The Saturn Aura was named the North American Car of the Year, topping an impressive and highly competitive list of 31 vehicles. The Chevrolet Silverado was selected the North American Truck of the Year, giving GM a rare sweep of the show's top awards, which are determined by an independent panel of 49 auto industry journalists.

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Among its new model offerings, GM's most significant was the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu midsized sedan, which clearly is the automaker's most formidable challenge yet to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, that segment's traditional series leaders. GM has greatly enhanced the quality of the materials in the cockpit, making it more upscale than in years past.

Also new from GM was the second-generation Cadillac CTS, which features 258- and 300-horsepower engines and later in the year will have an optional supercharged engine producing even more power.

The unquestioned star of the show for GM, however, was the long-rumored Chevrolet Camaro convertible, expected to debut in late 2009. The droptop version of the iconic muscle car signals GM's return to the pony-car market, which it had pretty much abandoned by dumping the last-generation Camaro and Pontiac Firebird after the 2002 model year.

Ford, which is in the middle of a radical cost-cutting and reorganization program, rolled out the 2008 version of its Five Hundred full-sized sedan. It addresses the two glaring weaknesses of the current model: plain styling and lack of power. The new front fascia gives the Five Hundred a Fusion-esque look. More importantly, it packs a full 60 more horsepower under the hood, along with a new six-speed automatic transmission.

Also redesigned is the subcompact Ford Focus. Gone are the hatchback and wagon models, replaced by a sedan and a fastback coupe. The big news here is the significant improvement in the design and quality of the interior materials.

From DaimlerChrysler comes the next generation of minivans, a class of vehicles the company pioneered in the early 1980s. The most notable feature is the "swivel and go" middle-row seats that can be turned rearward. Combined with a picnic table that screws into a floor-mounted bracket, the seats allow four people to dine or play cards.

Chrysler called it "The recipe for success" and trotted out Chief Executive Officer Tom LaSorda to do a little cooking for the assembled media.

LaSorda also got to show off the hairy-chested 2008 Dodge Viper, a model that returns from a year's hiatus with a full 600 horsepower, all the better to battle its archrival, the Chevrolet Corvette Z06. Although the sheet metal looks familiar, the Viper will be available in five new colors this time around.

From Europe comes some truly unique and striking vehicles. From a sheer audacity standpoint, it would be hard to top Audi's new 2008 Q7 V-12 diesel sport-utility vehicle that offers 500 horsepower, 737 lb-ft. of torque, 0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds and 19 mpg. Audi also offered up a more sedate diesel Q7 with a V-6.

The Japanese automakers, of course, were out in force at the NAIAS, too, with their own bread-and-butter production vehicles, most notably the crew-cab version of the all new full-size Toyota Tundra pickup, which is squarely aimed at the heartland of America and one of the last automotive segments the traditional Big Three still dominate. Known as the Crew Max, the big Tundra pickup is bold, aggressive and functional.

Nissan had something new for both high-end and mid-range buyers. For the first time since its debut in 2004, the Infiniti QX56 gets a complete makeover for the 2008 model year. Infiniti, of course, is Nissan's luxury division.

On a more mass-market note, Nissan unveiled its first small sport-utility vehicle/wagon, the 2008 Rogue, which offers available all-wheel drive and a continuously variable automatic transmission, all for about $20,000.

Honda did not launch any new production cars in Detroit, choosing instead to concentrate on concept vehicles, including the next-generation Accord coupe and the Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept, said to be the basis for the next NSX sports car.

Mazda's lone new production model introduced in Detroit was the new 2008 Tribute Hybrid small sport-ute, a kissing cousin to the Ford Escape. Subaru, meanwhile, chose to unveil its 2008 Legacy and Outback models.

Also new was the Hyundai Veracruz, the Korean automaker's first big SUV.

Tom Jensen is feature writer and roving reporter with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

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