North American International Auto Show 2002

There was a lot of collective whistling past the graveyard as the North American International Auto Show gathered the world's automotive cognoscenti in Detroit. While displaying to the gathered throng the vehicular equivalent of cotton candy, several of the world's top automakers were not-so-privately trying to figure out how to get their financial houses in order.

To the tune of rock music and dancing girls, many manufacturers' top execs waxed eloquent about various "concept vehicles," just as Detroit News headlines blared that Ford Motor Company was preparing to dump 20,000 employees, and General Motors was poised to offer thousands of its white-collar staff "early retirement packages" -- kind of Layoff Light. Though the day's headlines didn't play DaimlerChrysler's headaches in quite so blatant a fashion, German-American Motors is also in the throes of trying to return to financial stability so stridently that in a "good news" portion of one of its executive's speeches, staff cuts were presented as positive developments.

With this as the backdrop, the world's top automotive companies spent millions to display their wares to thousands of journalists from America and around the world. Oddly, the biggest trend that emerged this year was Ugly, with a capital U. While there were several attractive concept vehicles on display, a broad variety of car companies chose to represent the future with some of the most ungainly and dreary exercises in recent memory.

Apparently infected with the "cross-over vehicle virus," designers from around the globe seem to think that the vehicle tomorrow's public most desires is a Jetsons' version of the old station wagon. Just about every manufacturer showed a 'two-box" half-sedan, half-SUV, and most designs seriously compromised utility while at the same time offering dull-to-downright-offensive "style." I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm going to wake up on New Year's Day 2003 and suddenly develop a strong desire for gimmicked-up version of an airport bus, but maybe my tastes aren't sophisticated enough to recognize that in the future ugly will be attractive, a conclusion first espoused by an episode of The Twilight Zone. After all, I don't have odd patches of facial hair nor do I insist in dressing only in black, so how the hell hip can I be?

That being said, here are a few of what this humble reporter considers to be the hits and misses of this Detroit auto show:

Hits

Top of the charts for me was the Chevrolet BelAir, which admittedly taps into the Fifties retro mold of the Ford Thunderbird, but at least does it in an attractive way. Many of the car's exterior lines evoke the '55-56 full-size Chevrolets, and to my aging eyes, those are some of the best-looking cars ever built in mass production. The convertible BelAir will has bench seats front and rear, a column-mounted automatic shifter and an instrument panel that borrows freely from its mid-Fifties forebear. My only quarrel with the design is the anachronistic multi-spoke aluminum wheels that could have been lifted from a 1970s Ferrari (or a 1980s Camaro.)

Another hit was the Dodge M80. While the people-and-cargo packaging might leave something to be desired, you can't help but like this scaled-down Dodge Power Wagon. It offers neat touches like protruding round headlights and pontoon fenders, while a simple interior treatment updates the retro look in function but not in style.

Mining a similar vein was the Dodge Razor, a little coupe that has great similarity to the Pontiac Bonneville showcar of the early Fifties. With a long hood and fastback deck, this little stunner looks fast even if its eventual powerplant turns out to be a chipmunk in a treadmill. But, we have to ask, aren't the high-mounted tail-lamps a bit much?

The Pontiac Solstice is another stunning little coupe that owes less to the past than the Razor and could see future production. Ford contributed the GT40 to the hit list. The car is a throwback to Ford's endurance racing days of the mid-Sixties designed to be driven on the street. It is another profile that will get aging Baby Boomers' hearts pumping.


Misses

Leave it to Saab to come up with a showcar that could make the late, unlamented Sonnett seem pretty in comparison. Sure, Saab seems destined to go its own way, and we think that is laudable. Further, we like Saab's current street vehicles very much. So please, please, Mr. Lutz, deliver us from the 9X concept car. Designed to be a completely new take on the all-wheel-drive sports-utility, it turns out to be a new take on oddball.

And when it comes to oddball, how about the Mitsubishi Sport Utility Pack (SUP). This concept vehicle resembles a cross between a Volkswagen Thing and Kermit the Frog. (Please, Kermit, don't take offense at the association.) The cabriolet (convertible) version is filled with some pretty trick features, but if this is what Generation Y is seeking, I'll gag down my baseball cap.

Another oddity is the Jeep Willys2, which, with its pale seafoam-metallic paint and someone-stepped-on-me profile, should make real Jeep enthusiasts recoil in disbelief.

Finally among the misses in my book are the nearly innumerable station-wagonlike conveyances that were foisted upon us this year. Among them are the Acura RD-X, Infiniti FX45, Jeep Compass, Mercedes-Benz Vision Grand Sport Tourer, Toyota CCX and Volkswagen Magellan. Does anyone remember that the crossover vehicle that started it all, the Lexus RX 300, looks like a sport-utility, not like a station wagon from Disneyland's Autorama?