While the Japanese and Germans strutted their stuff in Detroit, the local boys are still struggling into the 21st century. Still, the plug-in Chevrolet Volt impressed John Simister - and the Cadillac CTS might just break through in Europe

It's all going wrong in the United States. I knew this was going to be a different Detroit show as soon as I was marched off for a "secondary passport control" check at immigration. I had the right journalist's visa but there was some Kafka-esque nonsense about contracts and I had to sit for an hour and a half while watching a hapless Japanese man being hustled into a room by a uniformed robocop wearing blue rubber gloves.

Finally, an officer with more than one brain cell got round to me. After a few lies about getting to me in "just a few minutes, sir," I confirmed what I'd already told the original officer. "Well, that's fine, sir. You're all set." I wanted to break his nose, but that's never a good idea with a breed notably lacking in humanity.

So, once successfully imported into the Land of the Free, it was off to the 100th Detroit show, fast becoming upstaged by its similarly centenarian rival in Los Angeles. I found a US auto industry beaten about by fears over energy security and, unlike its government, carbon emissions. The two worries, conveniently, require similar solutions. And there's a third, of course; GM and Ford are still in the financial mire, and so would Chrysler be had it not merged with Daimler-Benz.

This was a show that saw the domestics counting every cent while the Japanese and the Germans strutted their stuff; a show that revealed just one all-new muscle-car in the gas-snorting US idiom, and even that was a four-door saloon. Step forward the Ford Interceptor concept, the company's belated response to the square-jawed Chrysler 300C's success and a car likely to be built.

Meanwhile, what the heck was happening at Chrysler? There's a new Grand Voyager, which looks like a bad facelift. There's the Nassau concept car, which looks like a five-door Crossfire but which might replace the 300C one day - that's the goose killed, then. The Dodge Avenger (a former Chrysler UK model name) looks promising, though - it's built on the underpinnings of the also-new Mitsubishi Lancer, a car that at last gives its maker a credible mid-size car for Europe (not just in a megapower Evo version this time).

The big news, apart from the Jaguar C-XF covered last week and undeniably the star of the show, was the Chevrolet Volt. When hybrids were first mooted, the carmakers took great pains to tell the buying public that just because the cars had electric motors, that didn't mean they had to be plugged into the mains to recharge the batteries. But now there's a new buzz-phrase: the plug-in hybrid. Ford showed a proposal for such a car in the Airstream concept, a polished-aluminium recreational vehicle capsule with a built-in lava lamp and virtual fire.

But it was Chevrolet that shouted the loudest and encouraged us to dig the deepest. If we are to address serious issues, the Chevrolet Volt was the most significant car at the show. It's the first sign of General Motors' E-Flex vehicle architecture, in which the driven wheels are always powered purely by electricity. That electricity can be generated in different ways - hence the "flex" bit - while still using the same basic layout and electric motor.

As presented, the Volt has a lithium-ion battery pack arranged along a central spine, plus a little 1.0-litre, three-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine sitting above a generator, which is the only thing it powers. Another version could have a fuel cell that would maintain a charge in a smaller battery-pack, but the battery would still be the sole direct supplier of power to the electric motor.

In both cases, the battery charge can be augmented by plugging the Volt into the mains. The version with the petrol engine and the big battery takes just three and a half hours to recharge fully from the mains and can run for 40 miles on one charge, yet can reach 100mph continuously or 118mph in bursts. If you have a 20-mile commute, you need never use any petrol. To go further the engine needs to fire up, but it's able to run very efficiently because it's tuned to run at a constant, optimum speed. On a full tank plus a full charge, the battery Volt should run for more than 600 miles.

The Volt is based on the still-in-development platform of the next-generation Chevrolet Cobalt, a member of the GM family seen in Europe as the Vauxhall/Opel Astra. The powertrain design allows the front wheels to be pushed far forward, which gets rid of the ungainly overhang that blights too many modern cars. The concept car uses many lightweight plastics, including polycarbonate glazing made in shapes impossible with glass (look at the side windows), but it's still heavy.

The main obstacle to its production, though, is the battery technology. Lithium-ion batteries are proven in computers and mobile phones, but banks of them create a lot of heat when being charged. Thermal management and keeping all the cells stable are problems yet to be solved, and the technology could be beaten to market by the fuel cell if the thorny problem of hydrogen supply can be addressed. Oil companies are among the biggest producers and users of hydrogen, needed to tailor crude oil to make the required petrochemicals, so the problem is one of distribution first, and creating hydrogen from non-carbon sources in the longer term.

And, amid the euphoria about E-Flex's planet-saving potential, there's still the matter of where the mains electricity comes from. Pressed, the GM engineers talk of a renaissance and growth of nuclear power. There'll be a lot of PR to do on that.

Meanwhile, the US still loves its crossovers - SUVs that stand tallish but aren't too tough. Europeans will love the show's best crossover, too - it's the Volvo XC60, built on the Mondeo/Freelander/S-Max platform and available from early 2009. It looks at once stocky and sleek, with slender, tapering side windows and hollowed-out flanks; obviously a Volvo but very dynamic.

Its deep glass tailgate is in two sections, the lower one sliding over the upper one before they both rise, while all four seats are cleft with the "ponytail slots" first seen on the all-female-designed YCC but now extending from head to spine-base and right through the backrest. It helps to create a very airy ambience. That feature might not make it to the production car, sadly.

A much stranger crossover was the Kia Kue concept, a US-designed four-seater coupé with enormous wheels, four-wheel drive and no clear purpose. Then there was the Nissan Rogue, a bigger interpretation of Europe's imminent Qashqai and easier to spell. I liked the Nissan Bevel concept car, too, although I feel uneasy about being so accurately targeted (empty-nest-ish male, likes to make things, needs car with built-in workshop suitable for hobbies etc, often drives on his own, wonder why?).

Talking of indulgences, Lexus showed a near-production-ready version of its V10-engined LF-A supercar, now a little rounder at the edges. Stablemate Toyota had the FT-HS with the 3.5-litre, 400bhp hybrid powertrain from the Lexus RX400h. It's a compact sports/GT car with a skeletal interior, carbonfibre wheels, a sliding roof and stupendous acceleration. This California-designed lightweight machine is intended to be "a sports car for the 21st century", and it could just turn out to be the next Toyota Supra.

Honda's Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept is similar with its front-mounted V10, but it techno-trades hybridism for four-wheel drive. Here is said to be the next Honda NSX, the original's mid-mounted engine notwithstanding.

Not quite so futuristic was the convertible version of Chevrolet's Camaro concept car, now confirmed for production in 2009 on an Australian Holden platform. There'll be right-hand-drive versions, too.

Other very pleasing convertibles included the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead, covered by us last week and looking very exotic with its brushed-steel bonnet and oiled-teak hood cover; the Aston Martin V8 Roadster displayed in front of a curiously cheesy landscape diorama on an entirely unmanned stand; and the Mercedes-Benz Ocean Drive. This, improbably, is based on the Mercedes S600 and even retains the four doors, at an undisclosed cost in structural rigidity. Production is unlikely.

And there was the BMW 3-series, now a coupé-cabriolet whose three-piece roof includes fully coupé-sized rear side windows complete with the usual BMW bevelled rear corner. The boot is low and stubby, too; no coupé-cabriolet has looked better.

While on the subject of coupés; Honda previewed the style of the next Accord in a coupé form unlikely to be seen in Europe. It looked quite striking, but the European saloon version could well be very different if US and Euro Civics are a guide.

But we shouldn't forget that this show is meant to showcase the American motor industry. What, then, is the best home-grown newcomer among cars we'll actually be able to buy? I nominate the Cadillac CTS, a little wider and softer-edged than the 2002 original, subtly sparkled-up with chrome details and blessed with an interior as soft and inviting as the old car's was hard and cheapskate. We've been told for several years now what a Cadillac should be in the modern world, but this time I do believe it's happened. It could yet be the brand's breakthrough car in Europe, something the European-made BLS manifestly isn't.

So, an odd Detroit show. For me, it belonged to the Jaguar C-XF, the car that will replace the S-type that was too obviously an American idea of how a Jaguar should be. For years, Jaguar's creativity was stifled by the desire of its vital US customer base for retro-look cars, so when those buyers started to abandon Jaguar as too old-fashioned it was a cruel twist of fate.

At the show, I sensed some American disquiet at the C-XF's deft blend of futurism and Jaguarism, but that's a good thing. Jaguar can look forward at last. And, in contrast to his predecessor, the new Ford boss Alan Mulally (late of Boeing) really does seem to want that to happen.

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