Legendary nameplates vied with brash newcomers as automakers from around the world rolled out an extraordinary collection of vehicles this week at the North American International Auto Show.
The flood of dramatic models with sleek curve appeal signals a thaw in the deep design freeze that gripped the auto industry since the Great Recession began.
The result: an auto show to remember as the Detroit Three flex their muscles, European automakers look to America's market to offset economic unease at home, Japanese brands try to regain momentum and Hyundai continues to surge with new models and the North American Car of the Year.
Ford began with a stylish, tech-laden re-imagining of its Fusion midsize sedan. Dodge followed with the 40-mpg Dart compact with style of its own - the first true test of Chrysler's alliance with Fiat.
Chevrolet flexed its new-found small-car muscle with a little performance coupe that's part mini-Camaro, part BMW 1 Series and entirely aimed at millennial buyers of the sort who wouldn't have touched a Chevy on a bet five years ago.
Next came brand-new versions of Germany's legendary sports cars, the Mercedes-Benz SL and Porsche 911 Carrera convertible. The idea that these cars are debuting at the same show - and that it's in Detroit is as startling as if Ford and Chevrolet decided to introduce an all-new Mustang and Corvette convertiblein Frankfurt.
But Europe is shaky, and America looks solid at the dawn of 2012. The experts expect U.S. car sales to rise by about a million this year. Predictions for Europe run the gamut from bad to disastrous, as economists wonder whether government austerity programs will slow sales a little or an economic crisis will send them into free fall. BMW and Audi also brought new models to the land of opportunity, while Cadillac grabbed the spotlight early in the show with the new ATS sport sedan.
Smaller and lighter than any Cadillac in decades, the ATS is aimed straight at the BMW 3 Series. The 3 Series is the standard by which all sport sedans are judged, and did I mention that it made its world debut at Cobo Center this week, too?
The ATS promises well more than 30 mpg on the highway, and is destined to become Cadillac's best seller. "It's uniquely American, but designed to go head-tohead with the 3 Series Audi A4 and Mercedes C-class," GM North America boss Mark Reuss said. "I'm going to enjoy this."
Lexus also is having fun with the LF-LC, a predatory-looking luxury coupe that reveals the brand's new look and could be the basis for a new SC image car to boost Lexus' appeal. Honda's Acura luxury brand hopes to generate some energy of its own with an unprecedented three new vehicles at the show. In what amounts to a complete reinvention of the brand, Honda President and CEO Takanobu Ito promised the cars will all be on the road within three years. Honda's American tech center will develop the NSX sports car that's destined to become Acura's icon.
Fiat's Maserati luxury brand gave "imported from Detroit" new meaning with the Kubang, a luxury SUV that combines Maserati's flowing style and sumptuous interior with the Jeep Grand Cherokee's platform. Destined for sale in ritzy spots around the world, the Kubang will be built in the Jefferson North assembly plant on Detroit's east side.