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The best of the best from Detroit

2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 is introduced at Auto Show in Detroit
General Motors Corporation introduced the 2006 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 during Press Days at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week.Rebecca Cook / Reuters file
/ Source: Forbes

Emotions run high during the three media preview days for the annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

In the week before this year's show opened to the public on Saturday, Jan. 15, automakers unveiled their newest vehicles and prototypes to the press — and automotive executives revealed their feelings about finances, the competition and, of course, the cars themselves, which are particularly good this year.

For example, automakers may have seemed a bit slow in integrating Apple Computer's iPod technology into cars, but the Detroit auto show brings good news for buyers of the iPod, of which Apple has sold over ten million models to date.

DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz brand displayed a much-needed new version of its M-Class sport utility vehicle, which will offer a $300 iPod integration kit when it goes on sale in April. Mercedes said in a statement that most of its other 2005 and 2006 models will have the optional kit.

Fiat's Ferrari subsidiary is another automaker that is reportedly working to bring iPod technology into its cars. It also has a new supercar in Detroit, the Superamerica convertible, which is a 540-horsepower version of the Ferrari 575M Maranello coupe. While the Superamerica and other Detroit show cars are inanimate objects, they stir passionate thoughts and feelings from the people behind them.

Frank Stephenson, Ferrari's design director, managed to escape from the Superamerica's exhibit on the third media day to explore the other cars on the floor. Taking a first look at Ford Motor's Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe prototype, he said, "Gosh. It's not new." Other new, retro-inspired Ford designs have left him cold, such as the overhauled Mustang two-door, which he said "looks ten years old already."

"I look for innovation," he said. "I look for designers who are pushing the envelope."

On the other hand, some of Ford's designs won kudos from Thomas G. Elliott, American Honda Motor's executive vice president for automobile operations, who said at the show that Ford's new Fusion and Lincoln Zephyr sedans, companion models, show advancements in the company's styling.

Elliott also liked the Chrysler Firepower coupe prototype, a less harsh and more upscale analog to the Dodge Viper SRT-10 sports car. He mentioned the Chrysler and the Fords when asked which new models, apart from his own company's, most impressed him at the show.

Asked the same question, Robert A. Lutz, General Motors' vice chairman, said, "I never answer that question because I do not wish to endorse competitors," a slightly ironic comment considering that Lutz and the other Detroit executives study and discuss the competition constantly, in public and in private.

GM has been the world's largest automaker for the better part of a century, but Japan's Toyota Motor could steal that title in the coming years, as American automakers are battling eroding market share, rising health care costs and higher interest rates. GM expects to spend $5 billion on health care this year, and has been complaining for years that the undervalued yen creates windfall profits for the Japanese.

The auto show comes into the financial picture because American automakers must focus not only on costs and currency, but also on sparking revenue by building more exciting cars. After posting a North American loss of $22 million in 2004's third quarter, GM released a statement that enumerated several reasons for the setback, including "an unfavorable product mix."

Lutz is responsible for his company's new car development, including such recent affordable releases as the Saturn Relay, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Buick Terraza minivans and Pontiac G6 and Buick Lacrosse sedans. While GM is ramping up the volume of these cars, their ho-hum designs are not exactly setting showrooms ablaze. Earlier this month, the company reported that sales at Saturn, Pontiac and Buick were down both for December and for 2004 overall. However, sales increased in 2004 for GM's Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac brands (Hummer sales were down).

In Detroit, GM showed such hot rods as the new 500-hp Chevrolet Corvette Z06 hardtop and the 440-hp Cadillac STS-V sedan. But the show-stealer — to the surprise of virtually everybody — was GM's Saturn stand, which contained a handsome prototype sedan, the Aura, and a stunning new roadster, the Sky, which will go into production next year.

The Detroit auto show is important to domestic manufacturers because it's their chance to show the best they've got — their chance to redeem themselves, in some cases. Among this year's American show cars, some vehicles have horsepower figures stretching into the 500s and 600s and some have futuristic designs. Please follow the link below to look at twenty of the show's most smoking hot cars, foreign and domestic. As you can see, the Detroit auto show is no place to simmer down.