Detroit Reloaded

Move over Hollywood. Detroit is the new home of the sequel. At least that's what it felt like at the Detroit Auto Show this week.

The remake of the Chevy Camaro was the King Kong of the Detroit show on Monday, day two of the press preview. Gawkers buzzed around it like biplanes long after it was unveiled by General Motors execs in the morning. Across crowded Cobo Hall, the reborn Dodge Challenger was also getting its fair share of attention, with a constant stream of camera crews giving the orange muscle car its close-up. Both cars are headed for a street-rod smack down with the hot-selling reinvention of the Ford Mustang. With all the testosterone pouring from those tailpipes, you would have thought it was 1970 again (and wouldn't Detroit love that?).

Of course, as Hollywood knows so painfully, not all sequels pan out, some just get panned. Detroit has learned that lesson, too. GM's tepid remake of the Pontiac GTO two years ago got about as much traction as "Herbie: Fully Loaded." And Ford's reincarnated T-Bird never lived up to its hype. But as the Mustang (and the Nissan 350Z before it) shows, a car company can make a lot of gold by mining its past. And with Detroit automakers desperate for a hit, there's nothing quite as tempting as the tried and true. "It's not for a lack of great ideas," GM Chief Designer Ed Welburn told me as he gave me a walk-around of his sharply dressed new Camaro. "This is something we own. And it's a road other brands can't travel down because they don't have a Camaro."

Welburn parked his vintage '69 Camaro in the design studio to inspire his stylists as they were sculpting the new model. But Welburn had pimped his ride with a bumblebee paint job, big rims and a modern beefy steering wheel. No surprise then, that the new Camaro has massive 23-inch wheels, a thick steering wheel and stick shift that looks like an aluminum baseball. Its scowling shark snout and pouncing muscular tail makes this car looks like it's ready to attack anyone who gets in the way. Welburn admitted it's as much a homage to the early '60s Corvette Stingray (his favorite car of all time) as it is to the late '60s Camaro. Still, its sharp lines and creases give it a modern look that makes it more than just a retro rehash. "This car," says Peter DeLorenzo, publisher of AutoExtremist.com,"is best in show."

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Lutz Bashes Bankruptcy Rumors When it comes to knocking down pesky adversaries, King Kong has nothing on GM Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz. For months, GM has been dogged by speculation that it's going bankrupt, and in another attempt to reverse its fortunes, GM announced on Tuesday that it would cut prices on 57 of its 76 models by an average of about $1,300. GM CEO Rick Wagoner has gamely tried to dismiss the bankruptcy rumors, with very little success. (The sober Standard & Poor's credit rating agency even sees a GM bankruptcy as possible.) But when it comes to near-death experiences, Lutz has more experience than most in Motown. He was the No. 2 exec at Chrysler in the early 1990s when it nearly went under for the second time in a decade. (Then he fathered hits like the Dodge Viper and the PT Cruiser, transforming Chrysler into such a hot property that Daimler-Benz bought it in 1998.) In the crush of reporters around the Camaro, Lutz was asked for the millionth time if GM was going to file Chapter 11. "It's just not going to happen," he huffed, "I don't care what some junior Wall Street analyst two years out of Harvard b-school says." With his whiskey rasp voice, he then patiently reminded the pushy reporters of his bankruptcy background. "You want to talk about bankruptcy," he said, "I've seen a near bankruptcy situation and this ain't one."

America's favorite automotive appliance, the Toyota Camry, showed off its extreme makeover Monday. Always long on quality and short on style, the new Camry was supposed to be more than just the automotive equivalent of vanilla ice cream, Toyota exec Don Esmond promised as he took the wraps off it. But then as we gathered around the perfectly pleasant, but hardly remarkable Camry afterwards, Esmond seemed to back away from his pledge. "Vanilla isn't so bad," he said, "It's still the No. 1 selling ice cream." (Just as the Camry is America's No. 1 selling car.) Still, he added, "Maybe we've put in some chocolate chips and cherries." I don't know about those flavors, but I noticed an uncanny resemblance between the Camry's caboose and the controversial bustle back of the BMW 7-series, derisively known as the "Bangle Butt" in honor of its designer Chris Bangle. "We're now seeing a lot of confirmation of our courageous designs," BMW's board member Michael Ganal boasted to me. "Chris Bangle's is now being copied." Now there's the surprise of the show.

The New Germans

Other than their German heritage, BMW and Volkswagen might seem to have little in common. BMW is tearing up the roads as the world's best-selling luxury car. VW has hit a serious pothole in the United States, losing a billion dollars stateside last year. Yet each automaker is making plans to get into new vehicle segments in America. VW just cut a deal with Chrysler to co-engineer a VW version of the American automaker's best selling minivan. Does that mean the summer-of-love Microbus will finally be reborn? Sorry, but there will be no flashbacks of that hippie van anytime soon. "It's not going to look like a Microbus at all," VW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder told me, as he fired up a big stogie at the VW's spartan stand. "That's simply not possible on Chrysler's platform."

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It will look like a VW, with a high style interior and sporty exterior (well, at least for a minivan). It won't, however, have Chrysler's popular "stow-and-go" seats, that fold flat to the floor. Chrysler didn't want to share that much with VW. Pischetsrieder is taking a cautious approach, predicting only 20,000 to 30,000 sales for the VW minivan--less than a tenth of what Chrysler sells. But who can blame him given VW's stunning collapse of the last five years, where it went from Beetlemania to beset by quality bugs to barely breathing in America. "We made the mistake of taking success for granted and rested on our laurels," Pischetsrieder admitted. "And we made the mistake of not listening to the customer in America."

Over at BMW, there's no plan for a minivan version of the 'ultimate driving machine.' And isn't that a relief? But BMW is jumping on the crossover bandwagon. It's working on a "luxury sport cruiser" that's a two-door SUV that rides on a sporty car chassis. It will have a roomy backseat, but no third row like the Mercedes sport cruiser, the R-class. That, says Ganal dismissively, would have felt too much like a minivan. "BMW customers told us 'hands off' when it came to vans," Ganal said. "They said whatever you do, don't do that." Look for BMW's crossover coupe in 2008. They don't know what they're calling it yet. They just know what they don't want it called: the Beemer van.

Carlos Ghosn: Hybrid Skeptic

Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn is one of the auto industry's biggest stars. His amazing turnaround of Nissan has repeatedly been cited this week at the show as the template for pulling Detroit out of the ditch. Ghosn was even recruited (unsuccessfully) by Ford's CEO, Bill Ford. But he remains a stubborn skeptic on the hot hybrid market, from which Nissan is conspicuously absent. Instead, Ghosn is pushing the benefits of the continuously variable transmission (CVT), a gearless tranny that boosts fuel economy by up to 15 percent. As he introduced the edgy new Sentra compact on Monday, he promised to put 1 million CVTs on American highways by 2008. The CVT, which is already on Nissan's popular Murano crossover, will also be on the Sentra, Maxima and Altima. And Ghosn argues that 1 million CVTs, at no extra cost to Nissan's customers, will provide as big an environmental and mileage benefit as 200,000 hybrids, a technology that costs car buyers an extra $4,000 to $10,000. Even with that steep premium, automakers have a hard time making money on hybrids because of their fancy gasoline and electric propulsion system.

When I sat down with Ghosn over espresso later in the day, I asked him why he's so down on hybrids. "I'm not a skeptic about hybrids as a technology," he said. "I'm a skeptic when you put cars on the market where you're losing your shirt." Ghosn also is skeptical of Toyota's claims that it's making money on the Prius hybrid. Nissan will stick a wheel in the water with an Altima hybrid that will only be sold only in California next year. But Ghosn will continue pushing CVTs as the best solution to America's panic at the pump. "Five CVTs equals one hybrid," he said, referring to his contention that the CVT outdoes the hybrids in gas mileage. "That makes it a very attractive solution." Given Ghosn's star power, he just might make CVTs the next big thing once hybrid hype fades.

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