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View 2008 Detroit Auto Show Photo Gallery

Story by Jack Baruth; photos by Zerin Dube and Carl Modesette

Are you sick of the Detroit Auto Show yet? Have the endless broken embargoes, family-vacation-disposable-camera-quality photographs, hilariously car-ignorant reporting, and faux-world-weary meta-coverage vomited across the blogosphere finally made you permanently allergic to the condition known as NAIAS? We don’t blame you. It’s been less than ten days since the ZR-1 made its majestic rotating-platform ascension above the crowd at the Friday-night “GM Style” opening event, and it already seems as if 2008 Detroit Show coverage has been with us longer than the previous-generation Land Cruiser.

The farther away we get from the show and its seven thousand sweating journalists, however, the easier it becomes to get a bit of perspective on the whole thing, and we therefore humbly ask you to hang on for just one more article. There won’t be any outrageous Chinese-car-company-chairman stunts in this one. Nor will there be any straight-from-the-show-floor photos that make those old shots of the Loch Ness Monster look like Ansel Adams’ best work. Instead, we’ll simply recap the show and award the Rockers, Suckers, and Snoozers which made the ’08 show one to both remember and forget. Let’s get started.


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Rockers: Dodge and Ford Full-Size Trucks. Nothing illustrates the breakneck pace of today’s product development like the battle for full-size truck supremacy in North America. The new F-150 represents the third all-new F-150 in just twelve years. How many all-new F-150s were there in the twelve years prior to the introduction of the 1997 F-150? That would be, er, none, as the 1996 F-150 was simply the second refinement of a truck which arrived in 1980. The 2009 Ram represents a similar achievement; it’s the third new Ram since 1994. Let’s put this in perspective. Since the Dodge Ram arrived in 1994, there have only been four generations of Honda Accords, and since 1997 the F-150 has been redesigned just as often as, and probably more comprehensively than, the Toyota Camry. We’ll know more after we drive the new entries to the market, but it’s very possible that Chevrolet and Toyota, which introduced all-new full-sized trucks just a year ago, are now fighting for third place. We want to hand out a special Rocker mention for Dodge’s cattle-drive media introduction. While we suspect it didn’t go exactly as planned, it was a gutsy move which was well-matched to the equally brash 2009 Ram trucks.


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Suckers: Toyota Venza and BMW X6. What can you say about two reasonably expensive, and amazingly ugly, vehicles which have no reason for existence other than offering their drivers a slightly higher seat in traffic? Consider the Venza – if you can do so without feeling a bit sick. Toyota says their market for this car is the “active boomer”; we’d suggest that a better way to describe the target buyer would be “utter moron”. Hey, look! It’s a Camry, and it does everything a Camry does, but it weighs more, costs more, and occupies a larger space on the road! American motorists can look forward to more miserable minutes stuck in the left lane behind one of these charmless Harvest Gold hippos, with the added problem of not being able to see the utterly empty left lane ahead. Still, we don’t expect much in the way of automotive interest from Toyota nowadays. What’s BMW’s excuse? The X6 appears to have no mission in life other than offending one’s fellow motorists. Yes, we know it will handle and drive pretty well, but the equivalent 5 Series will handle and drive better while costing less. BMW created so much goodwill among motorheads this year with the introduction of the sparkling 1 Series and the surprising pricing of the new M3 that we were almost ready to give the X6 a pass and uncritically regurgitate the line about it being an “executive jet for four” or something like that. And then we got into the back seat and hit our head on the roof. Ow. This monster truck is only an “executive jet for four” if the two executives in the back seat are perfect clones of Sir Bernard Ecclestone. Think of it as a Cayenne which carries less cargo, can’t go off-road, and which looks disturbingly like a suppository, and you’ll see why we aren’t fans of the X6.


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Rockers: Audi R8 V12, A4, TT-S, diesels. We’re not sure that the sublime R8, already one of the world’s best cars, is in any way improved by the addition of a five-hundred-horsepower diesel engine, but the sheer magnitude of the engineering effort and corporate courage involved in producing such a monster deserves applause. The new A4 appears to be a strong contender for the title of best entry-level luxury car, and the TT-S brings the R8’s balance of sporting capability and aesthetic triumph to a broader market. We also think the A4 diesel, when it arrives, will be far more significant in the long term than any six-figure oil-burner supercars. Audi’s on a roll in this market; if the dollar can firm up a bit against the Euro, the future for Audi is so bright that, um, they’ll have to wear shades.


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Snoozer: Mercedes GLK. Who cares? This mini-trucklet appears to be aimed exclusively at people who are quite happy with their Kia Sportages but who recently won the Powerball and feel the need to splurge. Luckily the fine folks at M-B had a stunning white C63 to distract us.


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Rocker: VW Passat CC. The (in)famous Tony Lapine, designer of the Porsche 928, once said that a truly great car design would not immediately appeal to the viewer – instead, it would reveal beauty as time passed. Some people think he was just trying to get people to stop talking about how much the 928 resembled the AMC Pacer, but in the case of the Passat CC he has a point. The longer we looked at the CC, the more we liked it. Sure, it’s basically a frivolous vehicle, but it’s a likable frivolous, in the mode of the Mercedes CLS, rather than an offensive frivolous (yes, BMW X6, we’re thinking of you again here). The CC is a stunner and it’s exactly what the brand needs as a flagship for North America. VW was cagey on pricing, which will be critical to the car’s success. Stated bluntly, it needs to cost no more than a Lexus ES350 in order to succeed. Will Volkswagen be able to surmount the SuperEuro?


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Sucker: Maserati. We covered the “let them eat cake” Maserati press conference earlier in the week, but we’re still reeling at the idea that a brand which basically functions as the PCjr of Ferrari is somehow going to make tremendous headway among the “super-wealthy”. Sure, the Quattroporte’s a great car, and the new GranTurismo looks like a solid alternative to the 911 Turbo and Aston Vantage, but our guess is that most of the “superwealthy” remember, oh, I don’t know… the Biturbo? If they don’t remember the Biturbo, they certainly remember the rather recent Year Of Our Lord 2007, where the remaining Maserati Coupes were being blown-out at Odd Lots prices to people who were decidedly not superwealthy. Yes, it was possible last year to buy a brand-new Maserati for slightly more than the price of a Chevrolet Suburban LTZ. Unless Maserati wakes up to the fact that its real customer base consists of regular American car nuts with a couple bucks in their pockets, look for that scenario to repeat itself.


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Rockers: Cadillac CTS-V and Corvette ZR1. How the folks at Cadillac must have laughed behind their hands as the latest round of German super-sedans appeared! How they must have smirked when Lexus announced the automatic-transmission IS-F! The struggle for supremacy among the four-hundred-odd-horsepower crowd of the RS4, M3, IS-F, and C63 now looks entirely irrelevant, because the CTS-V has five hundred and fifty horsepower and what appears to be a chassis to match. It delivers a six-speed manual transmission, monster brakes, and F-117 styling. It even has a nicer, more feature-packed interior than some of the overseas hot rods! And while the Germans struggle to swallow enough margin to make the Euro-to-dollar discrepancy palatable to their American audience, Cadillac’s going to build the CTS-V right here in the United States. Has it really only been a decade since the Catera was Cadillac’s best effort in this segment? It feels like a hundred years have passed since then. And the ZR1 – well, we don’t need to say much about the ZR1, do we? General Motors is well and truly back on the road to marketplace domination. And not a moment too soon.


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Rocker: Dodge Viper ACR. With all of the well-deserved hype surrounding the ZR1, it was easy to forget that Chrysler’s been serving up a six-hundred-horsepower track rat for nearly a year now. The new-for-2008-calendar-year Viper ACR is simply an even sexier, more track-focused variant of an already brutal car, but there’s something about the Team-ORECA-for-the-streets aero package and big stripes that makes us feel as if we were eight years old again. This car has a magnetism which cannot be captured in pictures. You need to see one, and we need to buy one… but that ZR1 is so fast… as our pal Ron once said, “That’s a high-class problem to have, right there.”


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Rocker/Sucker: Alt fuels. The General Motors announcement that they would be partnering with new venture-capital brainchild Coskata to develop cheap cellulosic ethanol felt almost like a reprieve from a death sentence for America’s automotive enthusiasts. It holds out the promise that the future doesn’t necessarily belong to increasingly miserable variants on the Toyota Prius, followed by the complete demise of individual mobility. And yet we’re not convinced by the whole “Gas-friendly to gas-free” business. Most of the alternative propulsion ideas out there look like unworkable crap. Fuel cells? Hydrogen? Plug-in-hybrids that depend on dirty coal-powered electric plants? It’s the same junk we’ve seen for years, and it’s no closer to reality than it was at the turn of the (twenty-first) century. The automakers appear to be engaged in some sort of staring match; nobody wants to be the first to debut a genuine transportation alternative, but neither is anyone willing to be the last, and so the endless stream of meaningless concept cars continues while cars grow ever larger and thirstier. If the automotive industry doesn’t fix their own wagon here, the governments, or the markets, will.


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Snoozers: Subaru STi and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Now we know how our parents felt when the Mustang II came out. Was anybody out there actually asking the Japanese rally-rep makers to make their cars fatter, slower, and even uglier? If so, speak up now, so we can come to your house and kick your ass. Well, in actuality we’ll send the 2009 Cobalt Turbo SS to kick your ass. It offers a roughly similar amount of power to the rally-reps, less weight, more enjoyable handling, and a price approximately fifteen grand below these overpriced plushies.


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Rocker: Mazda Furai. The phrase “concept car” means different things to different manufacturers. In Honda’s case, it means releasing a slightly altered version of next year’s Honda Pilot and calling it a “concept”, perhaps in the hope that people will get tired of talking about how bloody homely it is by the time they begin inflicting production copies on the soccer mommies of the country. In Mazda’s case, it means taking one of the most bad-assed vehicles in the world – a Courage LeMans Prototype – and making it look scarier. What’s the point of the Furai? That’s just it – there is no point! It’s just there to look cool! It’s just there to crouch in the back of your mind, whooping with evil rotary mania and spitting smoky oil past its apex seals like a drooling Godzilla, in the hope that you’ll somehow then decide to run out and buy an RX-8 or CX-9, either of which, it must be said, would make an excellent choice for many different people.


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Snoozer: Mini Clubman. It’s a nice enough car, but for the money you could buy a Mazda RX-8, which also has suicide doors, also seats four people, is significantly faster, and helps to fund the production of the Mazda Furai concept. Did we mention the Furai already? What? We did? Well, we’re mentioning it again.


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Rocker/Sucker: Nissan GT-R and, um, Nissan GT-R. A masterful press campaign, relying heavily on the somewhat impressionable folks at Edmunds, has firmly planted the Nissan GT-R in the public consciousness as the car which runs around the Nurburgring in 7:38. Never mind that production cars in independent hands are about fourteen seconds slower around said ‘Ring. Never mind that representing lap times set by prototypes as production realities amounts to sloppy journalism at best and manufacturer shilling at worst. Never mind that the Corvette Z06 has more power, significantly less weight, and larger tires to boot, while costing less and looking better. 2008 will be The Year Of The GT-R for quite a few people out there in Enthusiastland. And yet we have to wonder at the relevance of a limited-production seventy-thousand-plus-dollar two-door sedan that weighs nearly as much as a CTS-V while knocking out about seventy fewer of those already famously puny Nissan V6 ponies. Sure, the British press loves the GT-R and hails it as the best performance car of the year; they said the same thing about the TVR Griffith. Are there really enough “Gold Collar” Playstation freaks out there to make the GT-R a sales success? Only time will tell.


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Rocker Of The Year: Ford Mustang FR500S. The FR500S was kind of lost in the explosive (literally) Ford press conference, escaping briefly into the limelight before following its Bullitt, GT500KR, and GT Glass Roof siblings off the stage, but it represents something tremendously important. For the first time in a very long time, an American manufacturer has developed and made plans to sell an affordably-priced pure race car to the general public. If any further proof was needed that we are living in an automotive Golden Age which exceeds even the musclecar era, this was it. Honda may sell an S2000 “Club Racer”, but Ford is actually selling club racers.

Sucker Of The Year: Porsche Cars North America. There’s no excuse for a company in the middle of record profitability to skip the Detroit Show, particularly when they have a new product (the Cayenne GTS) which will heavily rely on the Midwest in order to be a sales success. By skipping the NAIAS, Porsche basically extended a middle finger to the media and its consumers in “flyover country” – something consumers would do well to remember.


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Snoozer Of The Year: Land Rover and Jaguar. The new XF, which is really a lovely car in the metal, should have lifted the spirits at the English corner of the Detroit show – but the fact that both iconic brands are about to be swallowed by Tata hung over the displays in almost visible fashion. The Rover people were particularly despondent, handing out press packets with the same resigned shrug that one imagines accompanied the arranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Well, that’s it for Detroit 2008. Any cars which survived the ritual gearknob theft and surreptitious disassembly which accompanies the “Industry Days” are now in the uncaring, hateful hands of the public-day visitors, who have the ability to turn a cream-colored interior into a uniquely filthy shade of brown within hours. Belt buckles are dragging across paintjobs, children are playing “trampoline” on collapsing seats, and the manufacturer reps are handing out the smallest “full-line” brochures possible in the certain knowledge that most of them will end up being used to sop up melted cheese and pizza sauce back home. It’s anarchy up there – but we’ve done our best to show you the pearls among the swine. See you again for Detroit 2009!

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Jack Baruth

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