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Story by Jack Baruth and Carl Modesette; photos by Zerin Dube, Carl Modesette, and Dave Everest

Oh, what we wouldn’t give to return to the fashionable ennui of last year’s Detroit Auto Show! Back in those oh-so-innocent days, the floor was crowded, the giveaways flowed like water, and no manufacturer could foresee any problem worse than perhaps falling back a place in their particular front of the never-to-end horsepower wars. We didn’t know the “Carpocalypse” was coming, didn’t know that car sales would crater the way they have, couldn’t begin to guess that within a year the domestics would be on their knees while Toyota and Honda experienced thirty-percent-plus volume drops. Oh well. That was then, this is now.

The floor traffic was way down at Detroit this year, even if the increasing numbers of obnoxious soap-averse Eurotrash with monstrous rolling-tripod HD video cameras made the press previews feel a little… close at times. What’s the point of using a twenty-grand rig to film three days of a show, knowing that you’ll be boiling it down to a press-pass-contract-specified maximum five minutes of 320×240 Flash video? This was the worst-smelling NAIAS in history; the mulchy aroma of the “eco-drive” basement area mixed with the sweat-soaked polyester tops of the foreign press to create an aroma best described as “paint-peeling”. Some of these dudes really should have been thrown in the ol’ Silkwood shower.

Still, there were times when, comfortably seated in the fixed buckets of a matte-blue Murcielago or relaxing with Audi-branded chocolate squares in a manufacturer lounge, it was possible to obtain a little perspective on the show. Forget the economy, the drama, the naked pleas for government assistance, and the relentless howl of anguished prima donna front-row photographers. It’s still a show about cars, which means we’re going to name the Rockers, Suckers, and Snoozers of the 2009 North American International Auto Show.

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Rocker: Ford Taurus. In our McLaughlin Group-like round table at the end of the day, I asked each member of our six-man crew to name the biggest hit of the show. The unanimous answer? The 2010 Ford Taurus. Not since the arrival of the 1986 Taurus has an American manufacturer delivered a genuinely desirable, completely competitive mid-sized sedan. Yeah, the Malibu’s a great car, but very few people have ever suffered from “Malibu envy”. Put this car in your driveway and the neighbors will notice. It combines style, power, comfort, space, and features to deliver the most impressive package in the segment. For that reason, it’s also our Speed:Sport:Life “Car Of The Detroit Show”. Every year, starting in, ahem, 2009, we give this particular accolade to the car which most amazes our staff. The award itself, a six-foot-tall, avant-garde sculpture of crystal, gold, and carbon fiber, will be handed to the Taurus designers as soon as we get some advertising revenue to pay for it. Don’t hold your breath on that one… but potential sedan buyers should feel free to keep their wallets in their pockets until this big, bold Ford hits the showrooms.

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Sucker: Cadillac SRX. Remember the Cimarron? Did you ever think Cadillac would make that particular mistake — rebadging a front-wheel-drive Chevrolet — again? Guess what? They just did. This Equinox-with-fins is an affront to The Standard Of The World, plain and simple. It’s ugly, it’s embarrassing, and it if doesn’t look exactly like an Equinox… don’t forget that the Cimarron had twin headlamps while the Cavalier had singles. I’m sure that Cadillac dealers want this car, primarily to fight against the Lexus RX350, but considering that we’re discussing the same group of people who developed a “Landau” top for the first-generation CTS, perhaps GM shouldn’t be taking their advice. Can we end this paragraph with a pun on a James Bond movie? You bet. The SRX is “A Vue That Should Be Killed”.

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Snoozer: Bentley Continental GTC Speed. Okay. First we had the Bentley Continental GT “Speed”. About six months later, we got the Bentley Flying Spur “Speed”. At Bentley’s press conference, a Continental-GTC-shaped car was hidden under a sheet, and the sheet was removed to reveal… holy crabapple, they’ve made a Bentley Continental GTC “Speed”! Who’d have predicted that? Luckily, we had the usual press-preview speech to distract us, in which the British-accent talking head loftily assured everyone that Bentley was reducing emphasis on the “weak US market” to focus on those bastions of the free world, Russia and China. Here’s an idea: try increasing your emphasis on building a car that doesn’t look like “Xzibit” was given a 2004 Phaeton and a sack of chrome trim, and maybe the market won’t slack up on you.

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Rocker: Audi R8 5.2 FSI. Back up in your, er, auto show with the resurrection! The Audi R8 earns “Rocker” status for the second straight year. Last year it was the outrageous diesel V12 concept model; this year it’s the V-10 they should have made from Day One. The “standard” R8 is already perhaps our favorite car on the market, and an extra hundred-some horsepower won’t diminish its appeal one bit. It wasn’t easy to build this car; photos of V-10 prototypes meeting a self-immolatory end have circulated around the Web for some time now. Let’s hope that the production R8 5.2 FSI sets the market alight without catching fire in the literal sense. Presumably Lamborghini fought the arrival of this car as long as they could, but in reality there’s room for both the Gallardo and the super-R8 in the market. One is a stylish riposte to the overblown F430, while the other is aimed at the 997 Turbo customer who is ready for a step up.

Suckers: Nissan, Porsche, Pontiac. Skipping the Detroit Auto Show is a punk move. Skipping the show, finding out that your dealers are going to ante up themselves to have a presence there, and bullying them out of doing so? Wick-wick-wack. Nissan’s excuse? They had no new product to show. We suspect that a lot of people in the region would have appreciated getting a look at the new 370Z, but what do we know? Plus, it’s not like Nissan’s short of cash. Sure, times are tough, but they’re saving sooooo much money by voiding GT-R warranties. Or maybe they were so caught up in this crap about the 370Z being a “Cayman killer” that they wanted to emulate Porsche’s show-skipping ways. Which reminds me: what was the Zuffenhausen Wrecking Krew’s excuse for missing the show? Were they so busy stacking the money from their hedge-fund antics late last year that they just didn’t have time? Remember, when you give red-state America the metaphorical finger, we tend to return the favor. Sometimes we talk about you on the Internet; sometimes we buy a new Audi S5 instead of a Porsche Cayman to sit next to our 911 and our Boxster at home. Just a random example, there. But what did Pontiac do? To find out, ask Lord Byron.

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Snoozers: The Koopz That Time Forgot. Dude! Remember the new Camaro? Wasn’t that gonna be awesome? It sure was — back in 2007. Now it’s rivaling Tara Reid’s implants for overexposure. What about that Hyundai Genesis Coupe that was gonna totally destroy the Mustang? It’s coming, any day now. Really. Try to ignore the fact that it’s huge, heavy, and won’t have a V-8. Just think of it as offering Mitsubishi Eclipse performance for slightly more money. Plus it’ll turn the rear wheels, you know. It just won’t spin ’em. People! The coupe market is time-and-fashion-sensitive. If your competition — in this case, the Ford Mustang — is on its second generation before your product is ready, it’s too late. When the Camaro tanks in the market, GM will lay it on everything from the economy to the people who assemble the dashboard, but the real blame only points back in their own direction.

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Rocker: Lamborghini. What do you expect? When the hottest model of the entire history of the world auto show steps off the platform to chat with (and unsubtly watch-check) our most notorious Associate Editor, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that we’ll throw a little love in the direction of the raging bull. Come on. We’re not made of stone. But put the ladies aside for a moment and focus on the cars. With the LP640 Murcielago and LP560 Gallardo, Audi’s excitement division has created the coolest supercars in modern history. While Ferrari thrashes in a rosso corsa morass of failed F1 drivers, greedy dealers, and buffalo-butted metal-top pose-mobiles, Lamborghini has quietly cornered the market on pure desirability. Face it: if you show up at the hottest club in a resale-red 612 Scaglietti and are confronted with a matte-finished wedge of Murcielago muscle, you’ve just volunteered for beta-male status. And with the Gallardo, Lamborghini’s just about done the impossible by making an Italian supercar that meets and beats the rest of the world in the uncompromising environment of the racetrack. The man who brings an LP560-4 to a trackday can run with any production car in the world; even against the mighty Viper ACR it would be a driver’s race. We’ll still take the twelve-cylinder car, though. Make it flat green, Reventon-style.

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Sucker: Lexus HS250h. “You put your Prius in my Corolla!” “No, you put your Corolla in my Prius!” Either way, who put this thing in the Lexus lineup? It makes the Cadillac SRX look like a credit to its brand. Not only does it not particularly look like “the world’s first luxury-brand exclusive hybrid”, it doesn’t look like a hybrid, period. It looks like a Corolla. At the beginning of the press conference, the screen was briefly filled with a shot of the 1990 Lexus ES250. This HS250h (think they got the “H” in there enough times?) makes that old two-tone faux-hardtop look like a Jaguar XKE. A special “Sucker” mention goes to the new IS250 convertible, which looks exactly like a Camry Solara with an even uglier rump. What’s happening at Lexus? Once upon a time, these guys could do no wrong. Sure, they were occasionally ridiculed for blatantly copying Mercedes-Benz, most famously by Automobile’s Robert Cumberford, but trust us: if Robert had owned a crystal ball that could have shown him the current lineup, he’d have cooled it on his stop-the-copy criticism.

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Snoozer: Electric Cars. Here’s the deal: Until somebody can fix the “battery problem”, electric cars are going to remain useless vaporware. So you can quit showing ’em. That means you, Chrysler. We’re looking in your direction as well, GM. The Chinese will be playing touch football on the moon before the Volt reaches production. The funny thing is that we drove an actual production electric car — the Mitsubishi i-MIEV — during the show. If that’s the future, we’d rather choose Mad-Max style anarchy where we all wear crazy leather outfits and fight on top of moving tanker trucks. “Boring” doesn’t begin to describe real electric cars, and fake ones are even worse.

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Rocker/Sucker/Snoozer: Toyota Prius. This car divided opinion among our staff like no other. Some liked it, citing the improved styling, neat gadgets, and increased performance in all regards. Others called it a soulless crapwagon which was greenwashing Toyota’s image and blocking left lanes in maddening fashion. The rest of us just don’t care. Regardless, you have to respect Toyota’s suppository-like egg-mobile. It’s the first genuinely iconic Japanese shape since… well, ever. “You can recognize it at 100 yards” was Toyota’s pitch, and that’s good, because the people who drive these things are a menace, even at that distance. And yet “those people” have made the Prius the car with the highest owner loyalty in the market. You don’t have to love it to understand why it’s been successful. That success is deserved, and this new one is going to continue along the same lines. Like it, loathe it, you really can’t ignore it.

Like rats with the cheapest possible shoes on all four of their tiny little paws, the assembled journalistic hordes had mostly abandoned the sinking S.S. NAIAS by Monday afternoon. We could hear our footsteps on the carpets as we paced through, taking hundreds of photos for the comprehensive Speed:Sport:Life galleries. Will we remember 2009 as the year Detroit finally sank beneath the waves, or as a mere anomaly in history? It’s too soon to tell. Take our advice, though: if you can make it there during the public days, don’t miss your chance. This may be the last year that Detroit functions above the regional-auto-show level. It will be a shame, should that happen. Some major part of American automotive history is buried there beneath the hum of the People Mover and the diminishing roar of the crowd.

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Jack Baruth

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