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Story by Jack Baruth
Photos by Zerin Dube

“THANK YOU, AND GOOD MORNING FOR COMING!” Huh? Mark Fields doesn’t read a teleprompter terribly well, and he would go on to make at least one more hilarious malapropism in the following few minutes, (“WE CAN’T WAIT FOR ALL OF YOU TO GET BEHIND… uh, THIS CAR!”) but it didn’t matter. With their 2009 press conference, Ford broke from the troubled domestic-manufacturer pack and ran for full-throttle glory. We’ve seen this kind of bravado from the Blue Oval’s Detroit rollouts before, but there was a critical difference. Last year the 2009 F-150 arrived in a blast of pyrotechnics as a quartet of Mustangs twirled smoking donuts , but this year the fireworks were silent, replaced by a determined confidence in a simply spectacular wave of product. Gone was the machismo and Toby Keith-fueled manic energy; the new Ford wants to be a great car company, not just a great truck company.

See the S:S:L 2009 NAIAS Day 1 Coverage Gallery HERE.

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With the 2010 Taurus, revealed this morning at Cobo Hall, Ford has single-handedly re-created a kind of vehicle which most people had assumed was dead forever: a premium-quality, genuinely aspirational full-sized American mass-market sedan. The styling is exceptional, disguising the D3 platform’s height and creating a sense of genuine road presence. Still, we’ve seen sharp-looking American sedans before. The difference is in the no-excuses interior. It’s no exaggeration to say that there has never before in history been a mid-market sedan with this level of interior detailing, features, and design… and the best news is yet to come. With this press conference, Ford announced its intention to make Ecoboost available in the vast majority of its future product, including Taurus. The magic letters “SHO” weren’t mentioned, but what else could a three-hundred-and-fifty-five horsepower Taurus be called?

Flanking the Taurus on-stage were the new Fusion and Fusion hybrid, which offer a total of four engine choices and best-in-class mileage figures for both hybrid and four-cylinder variants, the Flex Ecoboost which rectifies more or less the only issue in the thoroughly satisfying retro-wagon – namely, a little shortage of poke – with an additional ninety horsepower, and the 2010 Shelby GT500 Mustang in coupe and convertible variants. For the small-car fans, there will be Fiestas within a year. One hundred percent of Ford cars will have six-speed automatics available within the year, all Ford cars will be available with a four-cylinder engine in the near future (Ecoboosted, one suspects), and there’s a raft of hybrid and pure-battery cars coming. The Press As A Whole, assembled around us in the sweeping arena, took a collective breath and burst into heartfelt applause. Ford is bringing the product, and they are bringing it right now.

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Alas, if Ford’s theme was outstanding new product, Chrysler’s theme was “The Distant Future”. Against a simple backdrop of hanging, unplugged electric cords, Jim Press presented the company’s desperate case in a strained, humbled manner. Acknowledging the four-billion-dollar bailout payment up-front, Press immediately focused on a quintet of electric vehicles. First: the “range-extended” Wrangler and Town & Country, which run on batteries for up to forty miles before firing up a small gasoline engine to recharge the batteries on-the-fly for a range of up to four hundred miles. The T&C in particular is a potential silver bullet into the heartland of American family-car buyers; on the vast majority of use, no fuel use would take place, but for the proverbial trip to Grandmother’s house it wouldn’t be necessary to find a power plug.

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A rebodied Lotus Europa with a Dodge grille was presented as the “Dodge Circuit”, a thirteen-second Tesla competitor for “future” sale, next to a new range-extended Patriot which is also unlikely to see the light of day. There was a brief disturbing but emotional moment when, following Press’ announcement that Chrysler had “leaned” 3200 jobs into nonexistence, a noise somewhere between a shocked “ahh” and a solid “boo” arose from the crowd. The final bit of collateral for possible investors was rather unexpected: the “200C” concept car which appeared to be a rather handsome successor to the existing “LX” sedans, complete with a fanciful electric drivetrain to impress the mainstream media. As the media began to disperse, Press begged, “Don’t leave yet.” Truth be told, it didn’t matter. There was only one customer who needed to be watching the conference – the US government – and the point was duly made to that customer. Don’t kill us: we’re going to build electric cars. On the other side of the display area, far from the notice of the Times and USA Today, alone behind its cordon sanitaire, the Nurburgring-running Viper ACR sat mute, a proud but sad reminder of the fact that Chrysler was, until recently, the proudest and feistiest of the domestic manufacturers.

Well, at least they’re still honest. Chrysler was forthright about the economy, their sales, and their desperate need for financial assistance, but General Motors apparently decided that they needn’t mention any of that stuff. Rick Wagoner, facing a long hall packed with screaming UAW workers and dealer reps, projected a near-invulnerable sense of confidence as a line of new GM cars ranging from the Vaporware Volt to the Chinese-Market-Optimized LaCrosse paraded his way. Alas, someone forgot a rather important part: don’t run the new Cadillac SRX and the Chevrolet Equinox right in a row. What is Cadillac doing in the cheap-ute market, anyway?

Still, GM isn’t utterly without solid new product. There was a production-esque Cruze sedan in the line of vehicles, plus an Opel Insignia, which was confidently identified as “that new Opel Invicta” by the Detroit Free Press reporter standing behind us. And if the LaCrosse is really meant to wow the Chinese, it does not completely fail to impress here in the States. The new Cadillac CTS Sportwagen is pretty cool, too. And if/when the Volt arrives, it will be more than welcome in the marketplace.

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We ended our day at uber-confident Audi, which managed to post yet another sales record in the midst of the auto-sales apocalypse. As beautiful women pulled a sheet off the stunning V-10 powered R8, the don’t-call-it-the-A7-yet “Sportback” concept rolled out onto the floor, and supercharged S4s and A6es seemed to smile behind their LED “boomerang” character lights, it wasn’t hard to see that the men and women from Ingolstadt were firmly on top of their world. Yes, it’s good to be Audi at the moment.

Make no mistake, though: today belonged to Ford. Months ago, our inside sources at the Blue Oval told us that their new product would turn the industry upside down , but we didn’t believe them. We’re believers now. A popular Focus, a fuel-efficient Fusion, a stunning Taurus, a new generation of the iconic Mustang. If we seem a little short on objectivity this evening, please forgive us. It’s gonna be one hell of a ride.

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Jack Baruth

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