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Overriding theme of auto show? There isn’t one

While they may or may not end up in America's driveways, there were plenty of vehicles turning heads at this week's North American International Auto Show.
Auto Show Hot Cars
The Dodge ZEO concept car was one of the more striking debuts at the Detroit auto show.Jerry Mendoza / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

While they may or may not end up in America's driveways, there were plenty of vehicles turning heads at this week's North American International Auto Show, including Hyundai's new luxury sedan, a Cadillac coupe, Chrysler's green concept cars and a hybrid Toyota pickup.

Slumping U.S. auto sales didn't slow down the action at the grandaddy of the car show circuit, where automakers introduced more than 50 production and concept models in three media preview days. High gas prices didn't play much of a role, either. For every plug-in hybrid or fuel-cell concept, there was a 620-horsepower Chevrolet Corvette or a brand-new full-size sport utility vehicle from Kia. Chrysler promoted a tiny electric concept car as well as the full-size Dodge Ram, which made a grand entrance alongside 120 longhorn cattle.

"The overriding theme was that there was no theme," said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Irvine, Calif.-based Kelley Blue Book.

Automakers put a head-spinning variety of fuel-efficient technologies in cars at every price range. There was the $80,000 Fisker Karma, a plug-in electric hybrid sports car with Maserati good looks that can go for 50 miles on one charge. BYD, one of four Chinese automakers at the show, unveiled a plug-in hybrid sedan that will go on sale in China for under $30,000 this year. Ford Motor Co. introduced EcoBoost, a direct-injection, turbocharged engine which it says will improve fuel economy by 20 percent. Even Ferrari debuted an ethanol-capable F430 Spider.

Diesel engines, which are about 30 percent more efficient than their gas counterparts, made a big comeback now that cleaner diesel fuel allows them to meet emissions standards in all 50 states. BMW AG unveiled its first diesel-powered vehicles for the U.S. market, the 335d coupe and X5 xDrive35d sport utility vehicle. Audi AG showed a 500-horsepower diesel super car concept, the Audi R8 V12 TDI, which can go from zero to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. Daimler AG offered a diesel option on its GLK compact sport utility vehicle, among others.

But diesels weren't limited to German automakers. Toyota Motor Corp. announced it will soon offer a diesel V-8 in the Tundra pickup and the Sequoia SUV, while Honda Motor Co. said it will bring a diesel to its Acura sedan in 2010. Chrysler LLC put a diesel hybrid in its Jeep Renegade concept vehicle, while General Motors Corp. has a diesel engine in its Saturn Flextreme plug-in concept car.

David Champion, the senior director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, said diesel used to connote pollution and big trucks. He's eager to see if clean diesel has changed that perception, and if U.S.. consumers will choose diesel even though it's no cheaper than gasoline.

"Whether the marketplace is going to endorse diesels remains to be seen," he said.

Other automakers met demands for more fuel-efficient vehicles by downsizing. The Hummer HX concept, a Jeep-like off-roading vehicle with a removable roof, would be the smallest Hummer ever if it's made. Toyota's A-BAT concept is the Prius version of a pickup, with a hybrid powertrain and a 4-foot bed. Land Rover unveiled the compact, three-door LRX concept, while parent Ford showed the Ford Explorer America concept, a reworking of its phenomenally popular SUV that uses a unibody frame — rather than the traditional truck frame — to save fuel and give the vehicle a more car-like ride.

"Explorer has been such an important model for them over the years. Taking that in an inventive direction that's still true to the Explorer name could be a big success for them," Nerad said.

Ford also got kudos for the eye-popping design of its Verve concept, which showed what Ford's subcompact might look like when it hits the U.S. market in 2010.

"Here's your proof that good design doesn't cost any more than bad design, but it makes all the difference in the world in terms of buzz," Global Insight auto analyst Aaron Bragman said of the Verve.

Other cars getting serious buzz were the Cadillac CTS coupe, a sharp-looking, two-door concept that many analysts agreed was a highlight of the show, and the posh Hyundai Genesis sedan.

Hyundai Motor Co. is hoping Genesis will help it compete with other luxury makers when it goes on sale this year for just under $40,000, but analysts aren't sure the bet will pay off, saying the Hyundai name means great value but not luxury.

"You don't sell Mercedes-Benz and BMW because they're a great value. You sell them because of the cachet and the image," Bragman said.

The North American International Auto Show opens to the public Saturday.