DRIVE TIME


Detroit Auto Show: Tech and Environment in the Driver's Seat

Mark Solheim

Power and speed are no longer the mantra in Motor City. Reporting from Detroit, columnist Mark Solheim names six of the best new concept cars and shows you what to expect for the 2008 model year.



Welcome to a less-muscular Motor City.

In recent years, the annual Detroit auto show has been a showcase for design excess and engine bravado. With every new muscle-car concept, automakers were pushing the limits of power and speed. And showmanship ruled. Just last year, GM introduced the Camaro concept with a long line of classic Camaros parading through Cobo Center. Jeep debuted the Wrangler by driving it through a plate glass window in the lobby.

This year, the show is more subdued -- not surprising given Detroit's well-publicized financial problems and sagging sales. Ford, GM and even Chrysler have toned down the glitz, leaving any lavish intros to the German luxury brands. Instead of power and speed, the major themes are eco-friendliness and technology.

As always, concept vehicles may never get produced and "major" announcements should be taken as so much hype. Still, I have my favorites:

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Best of show

MOST INNOVATIVE. Nissan takes the award for ingenuity with its Bevel concept. Sort of a futuristic crossover panel truck, it's aimed at boomer males who need versatility for, say, carrying hang-gliding equipment. Solar roof panels supplement the electrical system and fiber-optic cameras replace side mirrors.

DREAMIEST RIDE. Mercedes' Ocean Drive concept, a classic- and classy-looking super-luxury four-door convertible, was driven to the stage by "Dancing With the Stars" stars Emmitt Smith and Cheryl Burke.

MOST ENVIRO-FRIENDLY. GM is combining technology and environmental awareness in a concept called the Chevrolet Volt, an alternative energy vehicle that runs on "E Flex" power. The E stands for electricity, because an electric motor runs the drive train. That electricity could come from any number of sources: hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol, biodiesel or a battery recharged in your garage.

MOST USEFUL TECHNOLOGY. Ford announced a partnership with Microsoft, complete with an appearance by Bill Gates via satellite from the Consumer Electronics Show. Microsoft is supplying the redesigned 2008 Focus and Five Hundred and ten other Ford vehicles with Sync, a hands-free audio technology that not only lets you control your cell phone by voice but also commandeer your digital music player (including iPod). It will even convert text messages into audio.

BEST FAMILY VALUES. Chrysler introduced its redesigned minivans using the theme "a whole new recipe," complete with an appearance by celebrity chef Bobby Flay. No radical exterior design here -- the big news is more functionality inside. Optional second-row captain's seats can swivel 180 degrees and face the third row. A removable table lets passengers work or play or eat meals from the drive-thru window together, creating a family room on wheels.

MOST ENTERTAINING. Audi introduced its 12-cylinder diesel Q7 SUV with a performance by Seal. Mercedes was no slouch, though. It created a small ice rink so figure skating couples could follow the company's diesel four-wheel drives around the rink. And Jeep hired African drum band Drum Cafe to kick off its Trailhawk, a concept that combines off-road, open-roof virtues of the Wrangler with refinement of the Grand Cherokee.

2008 Preview

A few vehicles that debuted are definitely headed for production for the 2008 model year. The Honda Accord coupe (pictured) and sedan get a new look plus better fuel economy and added safety. BMW showed its 3-series convertible, which has a lightweight steel hardtop. Smart fortwo, the tiny two-seater from Mercedes, is finally coming to the U.S. after two years of uncertainty.

Oddly, Toyota and its luxury nameplate, Lexus, bucked the environmentally friendly trend. Toyota previewed its Tundra Crewmax pickup, emphasizing its brawny engine and towing prowess. And Lexus redesigned the sporty IS, now called the IS-F, and equipped it with more than 400 horsepower from a gas-thirsty 5-liter V8.



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