A brand-by-brand showcase intended to demonstrate nameplates' clarity and focus began in the fabled -- and rarely entered -- Design Dome. As I walked through doors flanked by Securitas agents, I scanned the room in front of me and felt my internal video card overheat. I blinked as my vision flickered and jammed. Lines skewed. Decklids blurred. In a microsecond, I decided that there was a catch to the Chevrolet in front of me. Breathlessly frustrated with those around me who shuffled past the car without fainting, I grabbed Raymond's arm. "My God," I sighed. "It's the mid-cycle Malibu." I was partially mistaken. The tail in front of me belonged to the fully-refreshed next-generation 2013 Malibu. I'll grant reports of "Bangle-butt" partial credit -- from a dead-on angle, they're right. From any other angle, the dramatic surface language suggests a magically suspended decklid spoiler. The pixel-simple taillamps will stay with me. The rear is still easily understood, without being as flat as the current Mali's deck. Reports that the Malibu somehow apes the Kia Forte are frankly incorrect. The Forte's headlamps don't have the next Malibu's layered detail. No Forte can claim the next Malibu's updated clamshell hood, which requires some of the world's tightest manufacturing tolerances to execute. Current generation Malibu owners should enjoy their uniquely thick chrome window surrounds -- GM seems to be moving away from one of my favorite Malibu styling cues. The Malibu moved the American midsize upmarket with its thematic twin-cockpit rendered in bold colors. The twin-cockpit motif is now gone, but the dash textures have to be finger-traced to be believed. There is literal depth to this dashboard. I'll leave it at that. The Spark looks true to what we've seen before. Reports that the Aveo is inspired by the Lancer are accurate, but Chevy is doing interesting things with lamp lenses and Beretta things to the C-pillar. The Orlando's baseline body lines have been maintained, though I would've liked to have seen a more deeply beveled daylight opening surround. Its headlamps aren't as aggressive as in the concept. Two Volt interiors were displayed: "iPod white", as seen before, and a color scheme that matches my Sprint HTC Touch Diamond. David Lyon, Executive Director of Interior Design, mentioned that five interior color schemes would be available -- and that the two on display were the least daring of the bunch. When mass-market interiors are as edgy and well-executed as the Volt and Malibu, it often feels as if highline brands can't possibly provide more -- and lose their relevance. Cadillac interior designer Phil Kucera reassured me that "leather and wood can evolve into realms you haven't even dreamed of." We were shown an interior buck for a RWD global Alpha-based compact car called ATS, which featured a production version of the Converj's concept steering wheel. The mostly serious black interior was accented by high-contrast stitching in an unexpected 90s color. Another interior designer promised that the bold accent was actually under consideration for production. The interior buck's gauge cluster housed a digital audio GUI that I've seen in DAPs, but never in an auto interior. The full-size XTS4 concept was coated in a color very near the Chevy Groove concept's Lunar Quartz. The hue spilled over edges, onto a waterfall C-pillar, and into a continuation of the "hint of fin" Cadillac taillight trend. The 4 at the end of the long concept's name signifies the availability of AWD. In my opinion, for clarity's sake, the XTS name should be dropped in favor of DeVille or Fleetwood -- IF the final product deserves such a hallowed name. Frankly, alphanumerics have lost meaning -- Lincoln buyers can't discern between an MKS, MKT, and MKZ, and the brand suffers because of that. I never believed that GMC would be relevant in the new GM without autonomous product and a strong brand identity. The Orlando-based GMC Concept did a great job of hiding its origins, with intense Terra4/Terradyne styling ethic up front and squinty, precise lines in back. (For what it's worth, GMC's concept reminded me a lot of the Ford SynUS in its aura and attitude.) The biggest surprise here was the body-length character line that traveled from the C-pillar, down into both side doors, and culminated in a brake cooling duct for the front wheel well. After seeing the Camaro's complex single C-pillar and rear fender, as well as the CTS Coupe's complicated twisting A to C pillar, I believe that GM has not only the ability to mass produce these shocking, technical stampings -- but the guts to make it happen, as well. GMC will need this literally edgy styling to remain a relevant brand. If even one product is a soft, recognizeable badge job, GMC will lose all value. "Soft" is exactly how I'd describe Buick going forward. Buick seems to be the "safe option" for those who are too wussy to go with the other brands' declarative exterior styling. It will be tough to shed stigma without a seriously declarative halo vehicle for the brand. Michael Burton, Buick design "advocate," envisions the brand as "premium without being pretentious." The "Buick Vue" should launch with a slightly updated interior and more NVH refinement, said the brand's Craig Byerly. A curvy smaller crossover was shown -- thankfully, I couldn't tell what platform it shared, and I was content not to know. It did not feature GPiX or Agile styling cues, as reported by some attendees. This vehicle had four doors, conventional side glass, and a conventional C-pillar. I worry that the fairly bland Opel Insignia-based Regal will be lost between the bigger LaCrosse and smaller Delta-based compact sedan. The Delta compact is surprisingly tasteful in execution -- the nicest of the lineup we saw by far. It employs cues from the LaCrosse that translate very nicely into the smaller form factor. The Delta Buick is a "believable" vehicle. It needs a meaningful name. "Skylark" won't work. Raymond drove a plug-in hybrid Vue mule. Its engineers let us know that the hybrid components would take up a moderate amount of cargo space, and that the final product would include a two-tier cargo area to maximize space while accommodating hybrid components. I drove the HCCI Saturn Aura, which switched from normal gasoline operation to diesel-style combustion under certain conditions to create a 15-percent improvement in fuel economy. It was the strangest feeling "hybrid" (operation) engine I've ever driven. At first, the car felt like a normal gasoline-powered engine. Then, at once, the engine started making diesel sounds and fuel economy spiked. The novelty of the switch was intriguing and delightful. This technology deserves further research and development, a more marketable name, and a better-branded mule. An HCCI LaCrosse would bring attention and interest that Buick would otherwise not get.
We both saw Chevy Volt chief engineer Frank Weber positively *flog* a development mule on the autocross course. The little car seemed to jet around the course, even fully loaded with passengers. I didn't get a ride -- I'm a believer in the technology and wanted Luddites to have their chance first. It was intensely validating to see 200 pre-production Volts in every build stage. It was heartwarming to see mundane production elements -- labels, bulbs, cloth, trim -- that proved that my faith had not been misplaced. Naysayers said the Volt was impossible, that the Volt could never happen. To them, I say, "I've seen it. It's real. And it's coming for you. Fast."