Cobo Center in Detroit has 723,000 square feet of exhibition space, enough to spotlight hundreds of new cars. Mysteriously, as journalists gathered there last week for press previews of the North American International Auto Show, it seemed as if there was room for only one vehicle: the 2014 Corvette.
Chevrolet's 2014 Corvette Stingray revived a storied sports car name, ruling the show the way it hopes to rule the street. And General Motors hopes the 450-horsepower Stingray — powerfully reloaded for a post-recession comeback — can help to revive the company in both symbolic and sales terms.
The 'Vette, that most aspirational dream car for heartland buyers, may be a bellwether for the United States' recovering car industry and economy: When middle-class strivers feel flush enough to splurge on Corvettes again, the good times may be about to roll.
GM grabbed more attention as its Cadillac ATS won the North American Car of the Year award, chosen by a jury of auto journalists. Cadillac also unveiled the swoopy ELR, a plug-in hybrid coupe based on the Chevy Volt.
Of course, buyers have mostly shunned today's crop of electrified cars. After years of EV frenzy, Detroit's show saw a dearth of electric models.
Instead, automakers poured out creamy luxury models, especially in entry- and midprice territory that's prized for sales volumes and attendant profits. Seemingly unprecedented in blue-collar Detroit, if not at any U.S. auto show: Only two nonluxury, truly all-new showroom models were introduced. They were Nissan's Versa Note hatchback and the Kia Cadenza, itself aspiring to luxury with a price well over $30,000.
Emboldened Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50 luxury sport sedans represented the latest attempts to go mano a mano with the BMW 3 Series. BMW kept pace with its alluring 4 Series coupe.
Mercedes-Benz will look to conquer $30,000 territory with the curvy, compact CLA sedan, which it introduced to the press on the eve of the show's opening but chose not to display during the public show. It also delighted showgoers with a handsomely refreshed E-Class lineup, years before those cars were due for full redesigns.
The space-age Nissan Resonance crossover was one bravura concept that had journalists buzzing. And the subtly contoured Volkswagen CrossBlue Concept — imagine a minimalist German take on a Jeep Grand Cherokee — seemed a prime candidate to continue VW's remarkable turnaround in the U.S.
Highlighting the industry's tussle between power and fuel economy, Detroit's luxury gave way to, well, Lutzery. Robert A. Lutz, the retired GM vice chairman who championed the Chevy Volt, was up to his old green-tweaking tricks. His new company, VL Automotive, showed the Destino, a doppelganger of the Fisker Karma plug-in hybrid sedan with the hybrid system rudely replaced by 638 horses worth of CO2-spewing Corvette V-8.
If Fisker — whose production has been on hold for months — can't survive, and Lutz delivers a handful of six-figure Destinos, Detroit's 2013 show may have produced a future collectible on the order of a Tucker. As an auctioneer might intone in 2043: "This primitive plug-in hybrid has a Corvette V-8 under the hood and is actually the last Fisker-bodied car ever made. And as you older folks might remember, Fisker and GM both owed their existence to government aid."
Enough fantasy; here are some high points from the 2013 Detroit show:
The exterior of the MDX design study is a near-clone for the production version that goes on sale in summer. The big news for Acura's midsize crossover is likely to be a front-drive version, with all models powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 of roughly 310 horsepower. Sharing the spotlight in Acura's display was the breathtaking NSX concept, now moving closer to reality with an actual interior. The NSX is some three years away from showrooms; it will be built in Ohio and powered by a midmounted V-6 assisted by electric motors.
Seemingly answering Mercedes-Benz's power-mad AMG unit, Audi cranked up the RS7 and SQ5. The former is a 560-horsepower version of the sparkling A7 hatch, with a twin-turbo 4-liter V-8. Starting from the Q5 crossover, the SQ5 adds a 354-horse supercharged 3-liter V-6. Both models go on sale by September.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Bentley sales are booming again. The handcrafted $238,000 Continental GTC Speed convertible follows suit with a 616-horsepower twin-turbo W-12 engine that booms to 60 mph in 4.1 seconds, to 100 in 9.7 seconds and continues on to 202 mph.
Longer, lower and wider than the 3 Series sedan that it's based on, the new 4 Series is an opulent coupe that BMW will hoist up the price ladder to meet the likes of the Audi S5. Engine choices are likely to include BMW's 2-liter turbo 4 and 3-liter in-line 6 when the car reaches showrooms later this year. With the 4 Series moving up to a richer neighborhood, the 320i sedan takes the brand in the opposite direction. On sale in April for $33,445 to start ($35,445 with all-wheel drive) the most affordable 3 Series gets a 180-horsepower version of the 2-liter turbo 4 that drives the more expensive 328i.
To go on sale a year from now, the Chevy Volt-based ELR coupe will cover 35 miles on battery power before its four-cylinder gasoline engine starts, generating electricity to keep the car moving down the road. The lavish Caddy should deliver a sportier driving experience than the Volt, but at a price that may approach $60,000.
The seventh-generation 'Vette rolls into showrooms this summer with an expected starting price around $56,000. It's faster and newly refined to measure up with more costly rivals like the Porsche 911. Highlights include a lightweight aluminum chassis, carbon-fiber and carbon-composite body panels and a seven-speed manual transmission. A 450-horsepower 6.2-liter V-8 spurs the Stingray from zero to 60 mph in less than four seconds, Chevy says, and it will exceed 1 g in lateral acceleration.
Chrysler's big cowpoke, the Ram 1500, may have been named North American Truck of the Year, but Ford's Atlas design study looked strong enough to hoist the world onto its pickup bed. The Tonka-like Atlas previews the crucial 2015 F-Series. Show observers couldn't avoid noticing how the Ford and Dodge tag-team made Chevy's conservative new Silverado look about as gutsy as a Toyota Camry.
Honda's riposte to the Nissan Juke will be a cautious effort, judging from the styling of the Urban SUV Concept shown here. Set to go on sale next year, this subcompact crossover, nine inches shorter than a Honda CR-V, is based on the Fit.
Styled in Hyundai's Irvine, Calif., studio, the HCD-14 Genesis Concept suggests the direction of premium Hyundai sedans to come. An optical system recognizes the driver to start the car, and 3-D hand gestures operate controls.
The Q50, a replacement for the G37 sedan, goes on sale this summer with the world's first steer-by-wire system; electronic controls replace the mechanical link between the steering wheel and turning wheels. The shapely Infiniti will offer rear- or all-wheel drive, and the choice of a 328-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 or a 354-horse hybrid V-6 powertrain.
The midlife upgrade of the Grand Cherokee gets Chrysler's new 3-liter diesel, with 240 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque. Chrysler's seamless eight-speed automatic transmission will help it achieve fuel economy of 28 mpg in highway driving, Jeep says.
Appropriately, Kia used the luxury-heavy Detroit show to introduce the richest sedan in its history, the Cadenza. A sister to the front-drive Hyundai Azera, the Cadenza adopts Hyundai's 293-horsepower V-6 and should hew closely to its $33,000 base price when it goes on sale this summer.
With a glowering front end that's one part Predator and one part Kabuki mask, the Lexus IS elicits love-it-or-hate-it reactions. But no one will overlook Lexus' sport sedan again. Consumer reaction will be tested in June, when the IS 250 and 350 models go on sale with a choice of two V-6 engines and rear- or all-wheel drive.
Based on the Ford Escape compact crossover, Lincoln's close-to-production preview of its upcoming MKC looked sharp. But to compete against Audi, BMW and Land Rover, the newly renamed Lincoln Motor Co. will also need sharp performance.
This Italian greyhound has been the underdog of big luxury sedans. The new version grows 10 inches longer, while the price shrinks to around $100,000 or less for a version with a 410-horsepower, 3-liter twin-turbo V-6. A 3.8-liter twin-turbo V-8 model will have 530 Italian ponies, more than any standard V-8 competitor.
Mercedes plans an onslaught of more affordable models in the U.S., led late this year by the roughly $30,000 CLA250 sedan. Looking like a baby CLS, the CLA gets a 208-horsepower turbo 4 with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. The hyperaggressive E63 Benz sedan and wagon amass 550 horsepower (or 577 in S-Model guise) from a twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8. On sale in summer, the Benzes, complete with Lamborghini-scale air inlets and jetlike exhaust outlets, explode from zero to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds.
The John Cooper Works Paceman concept is a British bulldog, a two-door version of the chunky Countryman crossover. It goes on sale in March with a 208-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder.
On sale in June for $13,990, Nissan's subcompact Versa Note hatchback trades power for economy, scaling back to a 1.6-liter, 109-horsepower 4 that delivers up to 40 highway mpg. The Resonance, an imaginative vision for a future Murano crossover designed by Nissan's California design studio, is an out-there concept that actually works. It features a futuristic VIP lounge interior and dazzling details, including carbon-fiber wheel trim that recalls a Dale Chihuly sculpture.
The Corolla may be a bland econobox, but that hasn't kept Toyota from selling 9 million of them in the U.S. since 1968. Still, Toyota wants more emotion in a coming 2014 model, and the Furia design study teasingly suggests the hottest Corolla ever. But many show-car elements, including carbon-fiber trim and full-width LED front lighting that recalls RoboCop's visor, seem bound for the cutting room floor.
The CrossBlue concept's powerful plug-in diesel hybrid unit is said to deliver 89 mpge and a 661-mile driving range. But VW isn't ready to introduce such costly technology in a production version. More significantly, the CrossBlue smartly melds SUV tradition with VW's new, space-efficient modular construction. The six-passenger midsize model would also fill a big hole in VW's ambitious, expanding lineup. Expect this handsome SUV to reach showrooms in about two years, but with conventional gas, diesel or hybrid powertrains.