Curtain Calls

As I look back on the Detroit Auto Show of 2006, I will remember it as the contrition car show. This is the show where automakers--chastened by high gas prices and driver defection from drab designs--were out to atone for past sins. There was the new crop of gas-sipping micro cars from Japanese automakers who were once unwilling to bring such diminutive models to America. From Detroit's Big Three there were smoothly styled crossover SUVs that are easier on the eye and the wallet than their incredible hulks of the past. Toyota, frequently dinged for its "blandmobiles," rolled out more highly styled flagships in the new Camry and Lexus LS. And General Motors and Chrysler made a bold grab back to the days Detroit muscle ruled the road, with glorious remakes of the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger.

Everywhere I roamed in Cobo Hall these last three days, I heard mea culpas. "For a while we did really bad cars," said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, acknowledging Detroit's bad old days of slip-shod quality and homely gas guzzlers. "But there's enormous good will for the glory days of American cars, when they really were American and didn't try to be Japanese or German. And we all recently discovered that was a gold mine we had left fallow for a couple decades."

No more. Beyond the muscle-car revivals, there were bold American crossovers like the Ford Edge and Dodge Caliber that seemed designed to prove that the town that invented the SUV could also re-invent it. In the high-style department, GM's elegant Buick Enclave had a shale leather and light wood interior that evoked the hip lobby of a four-star New York hotel. And Detroit also attempted to show that it now gets it about gas prices. GM rolled out two hybrid SUVs: the small Saturn Vue and jumbo Chevy Tahoe. Ford outfitted its locomotive looking Super Chief pickup with hydrogen power. And Chrysler unveiled its blingy new Aspen SUV (in a whiteout blizzard of "snow" confetti) equipped with a Hemi engine that shuts off half its cylinders on the highway to boost mileage.

Will these smart and stylish new models put an end to panic in Detroit? Not a chance. In fact, shortly before I sat down with Lutz for his only one-on-one interview at the show, GM took another shot across the bow from Jerry York, the former Motown exec now working for Vegas high roller Kirk Kerkorian, GM's largest individual investor. York, speaking to stock analysts at a hotel inside GM's headquarters down the street from Cobo, urged GM's bosses to get into "crisis mode," by, among other things, slashing their own paychecks and cutting the stock dividend in half.

Lutz acknowledged that a few nice star turns at the Detroit show barely put a dent in GM's problems. But, by showing off its hot new models, GM at least gives consumers--and its weary workers--something to believe in from a car company that looked like it couldn't steer straight. "The worries about GM's financial status stay with us until they're solved," Lutz said. "But everybody feels better about any burden if you see light at the end of the tunnel. I think we're starting to establish some credibility with the media about our products and that in turn, believe it or not, will drive sales."

The Japanese might not have Detroit's financial woes. But they also had something to prove at this Detroit Auto Show: that they can design as well as they engineer quality. With attractive cars like the Lexus LS and interesting concepts like the Nissan Urge roadster, they made some progress. (Mazda also showed a racy little sports car concept, the Kubura, that it should definitely build. But, of course, Mazda is now controlled by Ford.)

When it came to flexing muscles, the Japanese reasserted their superiority in small cars. The Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Nissan Versa all bowed at this show as remarkably roomy runabouts that can go 40 miles to the gallon or better. Those cars also brought back memories of the days when small sippers from Japan put Detroit on the defensive. "Because gas hit three bucks a gallon, at least three Japanese companies are betting that Americans will want tiny little cars," sniffed GM's Bob Lutz. However, he still sees plenty of opportunity to sell big SUVs like GM's new Cadillac Escalade. "The full-size SUV market is not dead," he insisted. "Not by a long shot."

As if Detroit didn't have enough to worry about, a Chinese car company showed up for the first time in Detroit. It wasn't exactly an auspicious debut. Chinese automaker Geely didn't actually make it onto the show floor. Instead, its display booth was located in Cobo's outer hallway, beneath a bird's nest whose occupants left their calling cards on the humble Geely sedan all week. Still, the hallway and an overhead balcony were packed for Geely's Tuesday press conference, where chairman Shufu Li, speaking through an interpreter, promised to begin exporting an under-$10,000 family sedan to the U.S. by 2008. When asked whether he was worried about political roadblocks, Li offered a Confucius-style statement of resolve. "On the same piece of land, there can be tall trees and small trees and trees that live and trees that die," he said. "All I am saying is Geely wants to be a tall and healthy tree on this same piece of land." Translation: Look out Detroit, another turf war is coming.

Mule Power

Let's give the last word on the Detroit Auto Show to Carlos Ghosn, an all-star executive whose turnaround of Nissan was cited by Jerry York as the blueprint Detroit should be using. When I spoke with Ghosn about what it takes to fix a car company, I expected lots of talk of the need for speed and driving hard. But instead, here's how Ghosn described a well-run car company: "Car manufacturers are mules, not horses," he said. "Mules are more reliable animals, especially in the mountains where there are many ups and downs. Horses may go faster, but they can fall down. Mules, they never fall down." Ghosn's advice to Detroit's distressed automakers: Work like a mule. And don't fall down.