Detroit Motor Show 2006: Motown revives some Sixties classics

US car-makers are flexing a considerable amount of 60s muscle with their cars of tomorrow. John Simister reports from the steroid-enchanced Detroit Motor Show
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Seen from a US perspective, the car industry is not backward in going backwards. The biggest cheer of the Detroit Auto Show came when Chevrolet revealed its Camaro Concept, an unashamed tribute to the 1969 edition of Chevy's famous sporty coupé which was typically powered by a very muscular V8 engine.

As the tension mounted, a series of original '69s - a Camaro SS, a Camaro Z28 and others - smoked and revved their way across the stage to the delight of the attendant press corps.

A famous American sports presenter (of whom I had never heard) even started to lose her vocal and visual focus slightly as the hydrocarbon haze pervaded her live interview with Camaro luminaries, the effect portrayed on giant screens around the giant stand. Had this been in the UK there would have been smoke alarms and health and safety busybodies flitting about everywhere.

It's the Ford Mustang's fault, of course. That unashamedly retro remake, with a just enough chunky modernity to keep it real, has been a colossal success. So it's hardly a surprise that Ford's rivals feel the need to plunder the rosiest parts of their past, looking back to a time when muscle-cars were very cool indeed and neither exhaust emissions nor Middle Eastern energy crises disturbed the euphoria.

Chevrolet will almost certainly build this new Camaro, reviving a name which withered ignominiously in the mid-1990s, and it will combine what is essentially a Corvette V8 engine (400bhp) with a new rear-drive platform intended mainly for Australian Holdens, including the successor the the Holden/Vauxhall Monaro.

Getting the right look wasn't easy, though. General Motors' product czar, the septuagenarian but colossally energetic Bob Lutz, told his design team to go away and try again after it had come up with something too like the final, lacklustre Camaro.

What they ended up with is certainly as authentically Camaro-esque as Ford's Mustang, which truly reflects its original, but imagine the surprise at Chevrolet when it learned that the Chrysler Corporation, or DaimlerChrysler as it is now known, was up to some very similar tricks.

In fact, Chrysler's Dodge division could well have upstaged its Camaro competitors were it not that Chevrolet's muscle-car icon has the stronger following. For the previous day, Dodge revealed its Challenger Concept, a remake of the car-star of the 1971 fim Vanishing Point, and itself a potent machine especially when powered by the Chrysler Hemi engine.

Finished in lurid metallic Hemi Orange, this new Challenger is meant to match people's mental image of the original rather than the actuality. It's built on a Chrysler 300C platform shortened by four inches, and again is likely to make production if enough capacity can be found at the 300C factory.

Ford countered with a Shelby GT500 version of the Mustang, one example of which carried 1960s tuning guru Carroll Shelby himself across the presentation stage. But it wasn't just US car-makers that were retreating into the womb of time to rebuild their self-belief as the financial vultures gather.

Lamborghini, a marque that should have no such existential angst, revealed a chunkier remake of its beautiful 1966 Miura, which it claims could be put into production on Gallardo underpinnings. But why would Lamborghini, already a maker of fine and handsome modern supercars, want to reinvent an old one? It makes no sense. Nor does Ford's F250 Super Chief pick-up truck, a monster concept whose design is inspired by a particular type of luxury American railway carriage.

Meanwhile, back in that other part of the US auto-psyche that looks ahead, ways to eke out more fuel mileage have taken on a new determination given that a gallon of gas briefly passed the $3 mark last year. (If only it could be that cheap here...) For example, GM's Saturn division has launched a Green Line hybrid version of its Vue compact SUV.

This uses a simple motor/alternator which assists the engine via a belt drive as the Vue moves off, so is cheap to add yet can improve fuel efficiency by about 20 per cent, thanks partly to the regenerative braking it offers and its stop-start system. The slender battery pack encroaches little into its interior space, and the Green Line carries a modest $2,000 price premium over the regular Vue, making it the cheapest hybrid option of all.

While the Green Line may not as effective as some of the more sophisticated hybrids on the market, if it gets more people driving hybrid cars then that has to be good thing. Next year, however, GM will launch a much more sophisticated "two-mode" hybrid in a couple of large SUVs, a system developed jointly with DaimlerChrysler and BMW. Here, the electric motor is incorporated in the gearbox casing, and the two-mode part refers to the ability to gear down the electric motor's speed on the motorway so it can run at its greatest efficiency. The problem with a Toyota Prius, for example, is that in fast cruising it loses its economy advantage and you would be better off instead with a good turbodiesel. The two-mode system is intended to remedy that.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz arm is preaching the benefits of diesel like never before. To make the point, Detroit saw the launch of the new, Alabama-built GL-class, a full-size 4x4 which in GL 320 CDI diesel form will be the most economical large SUV of all. Even so, American buyers are falling out of love with giant 4x4s and downsizing to that mushrooming breed, the crossover. These estate-cars-on-stilts, not always with four-wheel drive, appeared in many new forms at Detroit: the Buick Enclave Ford's edgy-looking Edge and the Jeep Compass (the least off-road-capable Jeep yet built) being the most prominent.

The Dodge Caliber, which will eventually come to the UK, uses the same Mitsubishi Lancer underpinings as the Compass, and is an aggressive-looking machine with its square-cut lines. It will cost $13,000 in the US, which is impressively cheap, but then the new Jaguar XK will cost little more in dollars there than it will in pounds in the UK.

Car-makers have all sorts of justifications for this, but it still makes little sense. The Detroit bargain-bucket award, though, goes to the Chinese Geely saloon, which at $10,000 will be test-marketed in Puerto Rico first while it's honed to some sort of US consumer acceptability.

Elsewhere, Nissan's Urge concept is even more open-air than various Jeeps, but designed as a lightweight sports car. This skeletal machine, lacking roof and rear window, is intended to have a small, high-revving engine and go-kart-quick steering. And when you tire of driving the real thing, you can stop, fold a video screen down from the rear-view mirror and fire up an Xbox game using the car's controls.

The basic shape could point to a proper Nissan sports car to take on the Mazda MX-5, while over at Mazda itself the Kabura three-seat coupé, with its mini-RX-8 looks, is a strong hint of a future MX-3 coupé. An almost-coupé much closer to production - it's launched this year - is the Volvo C30 whose one-piece glass tailgate echoes those of the old 1800 ES and 480. Production of the new Mini Traveller was also confirmed at Detroit.

We saw a "concept" version of the new Lexus LS saloon at Tokyo, and at Detroit it emerged in production form as the LS 460 complete with eight-speed automatic gearbox and human body-temperature sensors.

It is apparently able to park itself with the driver merely having to help with the brakes. But, good-looking as it is, the award for the show's most beautiful saloon must go to Aston Martin's exquisite Rapide. A four-door DB9 might sound a difficult aesthetic stunt to pull, but it works. It's a little tight in the back, but bearable. Will Aston Martin build it? "We're gauging reaction," is the official line. On that basis, the answer is surely yes.

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