Friday, January 14, 2011

The 2011 North American International Auto Show is the epicenter of the automotive world. Nearly 400 photos and coverage from Detroit

Do you ever look back on the old Motorama pictures and wish you could be there? The anticipation of the latest concept car, hidden under a flowing cover, just waiting to be unveiled to the world for the first time. The throngs of people and photographers, anxious to get their first glimpse of the future. The lavish productions, grandiose displays, and beautiful models, all meant to one-up the next carmaker.

That may seem like an event lost forever in the optimistic 1950s, but it still happens today if you know where to look. My office sent me on our annual trip to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last weekend for the exclusive media preview days. And even though you won’t find many tailfins ad nuclear-powered hover cars, you still get that high voltage kick that makes you feel like you’re in the center of the automotive world.

The 2011 event had both its high spots and low spots compared to years’ past. On the downside, there were clearly fewer manufacturers, fewer all-out concept cars, and a fairly sparse crop of significant introductions. Even the basement, which is usually packed with upstart auto manufacturers and Chinese automakers with an eye on the American Market, was occupied more by log siding and window companies.

That’s not to say there wasn’t any action on the main floor, though. 2011 marks Chevrolet’s 100th anniversary, so their display was punctuated by several historic cars from the GM Heritage Collection, including a rare 1953 Corvette, and a 1914 Chevrolet. As far as cars you can buy, the new production Camaro Convertible, the Volt electric hybrid, and the world debut of the diminutive Sonic hatchback and sedan were key vehicles. And in what I have to believe was a first in Detroit auto show history, the absence of an Impala on the show floor meant there was no new full-sized Chevrolet represented.

Buick also made some news with the introduction of the Verano. Slated under the still fresh Buick Regal, the Verano becomes the smallest car in the Buick lineup. Also, look for the new Regal GS, and other upscale Buicks with turbocharged V6 power plants.

Over at Chrysler, the revamped Chrysler 300 and new Sebring replacement Chrysler 200 were among the new model debuts. The Grand Caravan will also borrow some styling themes from these cars, such as the horizontal chrome grill treatment. And thanks to Fiat’s new ownership of Chrysler, there were several little gumdrop-shaped Fiat 500s to check out scattered throughout the Chrysler display.

Jeep celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2011, so they unveiled some specially-trimmed 70th anniversary models, as well as a newly updated Compass to go with the already introduced new Grand Cherokee.

Ford seems to have what I would consider the most impressive presence at the North American International Auto Show. Their large floor space is filled with bright lights, LED video monitors, and activities. And during the media event they rent out the COBO Hall Arena for an all-out lights and smoke floor show. This year, they introduced the C-Max mini crossover in gasoline, hybrid, and electric favors, and an electric version of the upcoming new Focus.

You had your fair share of exotic and high-end hardware in Detroit this year. Ferrari, Bentley, and Maybach provided some unattainable eye candy. Porsche revealed the 767-hp, 918 RSR Coupe Hybrid race car, and Mercedes displayed a nuclear yellow SLS AMG E-Cell. An all-new Audi A6 and BMW 6-Series drop top were also among the aspirational entries.

Concept cars were few-and-far between in Detroit this year, and most of them were thinly-disguised prototypes of cars that will soon enter the market. Even the radical cars were primarily some version of another small electric, electric-hybrid, or other gas-sipper. It’s starting to look like the fuel on which these vehicles operate is starting to become more important than the cars themselves. To that end, Toyota had a smaller version of the Prius as a concept, as well as a Prius-based mini-minivan. And Honda had a Civic Coupe “concept” that you can basically expect to see in showrooms soon.

GMC displayed the Sierra Concept, which was a butched-up crew cab pickup that would look right at home of the set of The Fall Guy. Ford had the Vertrek SUV concept, Hyundai had the Curb Crossover concept, Mini had a bigger Mini called the Paceman concept, and Kia had the Soul-looking KV7 concept.

Downstairs, the auto show provided some electric and hybrid vehicle for short test drives around an enclosed track. I tried out an all-electric Smart Car and a new Chevrolet Volt. The Volt was a nice enough car, but it has graphics and sounds that make you feel like you’re driving a new laptop or smart phone. Traditional, it ain’t. The Smart car is too ridiculous to be taken as a serious vehicle, but the electric version twisted out a lot of instant torque on the small course.

For me, the 2011 North American International Auto Show was a mixed bag of interesting world debuts and cars that I will never even notice once they hit the streets. But there’s no denying the excitement, hope, and effervescent anticipation that makes up one of the most significant auto shows in the world.

Didn’t get to go? No problem. My camera was working overtime to bring you the highlights, lowlights, and everything in between. Enjoy nearly 400 photos from the epicenter of the automotive industry in the slideshow below.

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