The first fruits of the Daimler/Chrysler alliance are on show in Detroit. Gavin Green glimpses the shape of things to come
Detroit has about as much in common with Paris as a derelict car park has with the Louvre. But in the same way that the Paris catwalk is still the world trend-setter for high-street fashion, so Detroit's motor show is the pointer for road vogue. Over the years, the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit's decayed downtown area, has shown the way ahead for car design more than any other motor show.

And it's at these shows that a series of eye-catching concept cars from Chrysler earnt that company the reputation for being the world's most avant-garde street stylist - the Jean-Paul Gaultier or Alexander McQueen of the blacktop.

This year, of course, Chrysler has changed. It is now part of the vast German Daimler concern, even though the Yanks still optimistically talk about Chrysler "merging" with the Germans. To celebrate, one of the star DaimlerChrysler exhibits in Detroit is a Mercedes. The Vision SLR is a concept car, a type of vehicle from which sensible-shoes Mercedes usually shies away, reckoning that it is wiser to spend dough on cars that the punters can currently buy. But the SLR is a high- performance coupe that boasts not only a traditional Mercedes moniker (the SLR was Mercedes' greatest Fifties sports car) but also a traditional Mercedes sports car feature - "gullwing" doors.

It also has a super-powerful 557bhp supercharged V8 engine. It won't go on sale, at least not in this exact guise, but there's a good chance that a Ferrari-busting front-engined Mercedes supercar, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the SLR, will hit the streets in a few years.

Not that Chrysler has rolled over and died in the face of its bigger German brother. It has a raft of intriguing concept vehicles on show, the most outrageous being a vast, 7.2-litre pick-up truck (a breed of vehicle the Yanks love) called the Dodge Power Wagon; while the most visionary was the fuel-cell-powered Jeep Commander, a 4x4 that is as green as the countryside it is designed to churn up. One newcomer definitely scheduled for production is the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Novel rather than impressive, it looks like a cross between a London taxi and a Fifties hotrod, and will be marketed as a stylish, sporty alternative to an estate car. UK sales are likely.

Sensing an opportunity to steal a march from the traditional masters of style, rival US car makers General Motors and Ford put great effort into their catwalk cars. GM, whose stand at Detroit in the past has usually looked more like a used-car lot than a glimpse of the future, had five concept cars. Three were quite daft - including an open-top Buick saloon which, with its parallel roof rails, looked like a mobile handbag. The best GM effort, though, was highly impressive. The Cadillac Evoq is the first truly modern and handsome Cadillac-badged vehicle we've seen in decades. It's a two-seater luxury roadster, aimed at the Mercedes SL and Jaguar XK8, and will go on sale within two years. It is earmarked for Europe. The Evoq is peppered with technical novelties. One of the cleverest is "Night Vision", which uses an infrared sensor to make objects visible to the driver well beyond the headlamp range: objects are shown on a display screen, with warm things - such as people, animals and other cars - highlighted. "Night Vision" goes on sale in America, on the Cadillac DeVille saloon, later this year. It is a world first and promises to be a major safety boon.

Ford also breathed new life into a famous old badge - the Ford Thunderbird. Forty years ago, the Thunderbird badge sent young men's testosterone levels soaring. Recent Thunderbirds, on the other hand, have had about as much sex appeal as a trucker's vest.

The new one, previewed at Detroit, has overtones of the original 1954 Thunderbird yet still looks modern and appealing. It uses the underpinnings of the Jaguar S-type - another part of the Ford family - and also uses the Jaguar's UK-designed V8 engine. It is designed by Ford's new styling boss, J Mays, who also designed the New Beetle, and is scheduled to go on sale in the US late next year. UK sales are almost certain.

For Europeans, though, there was no doubting the production-car star. It was the BMW X5 and, as with DaimlerChrysler, it is another US-German hybrid. Designed and engineered in Munich, it will be built in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It's a 4x4 "sports activity" vehicle and is designed more for motorways than for mud.

BMW's arch rival Mercedes has enjoyed huge sales success with its new M-class 4x4, a result that finally persuaded BMW to put its badge on to an "off-roader". Quite why BMW is doing this, though, is still something of a mystery. After all, BMW owns Land Rover and Range Rover, the kings of the genre, who must wonder just why BMW needs the X5. It does tend to imply a certain lack of confidence in the British-badged 4x4s. The X5 uses much of the suspension and drive-train hardware earmarked for the next generation Range Rover. Diesel, straight-six and V8 engines are on offer and, aware that 4x4s have a dodgy reputation for safety, the X5 has a modern unitary construction body, strengthened roof pillars and 10 airbags. British sales start in mid-2000 - a few months before the new Range Rover hits the showrooms.