2003 Detroit Show: Best Yet?

January 11, 2003

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2003 Detroit Auto Show Coverage by TCC Team (1/11/2003) 

Three dozen press conferences and several miles of slogging through three media preview days of this country’s best and most extravagant new-car show, I’m convinced that 2003 marks the dawn of a new Golden Age of the Automobile. Never before have so many capable carmakers presented so many wonderfully exciting and capable new cars, trucks, “crossovers” and visionary concepts to an American public who should...should...be ready, willing and reasonably capable of purchasing them.

Yet no one can ignore the great uncertainty in the air: economic uncertainty and real concerns about impending war, oil availability and fuel prices. And there is industry overcapacity – more plants capable of churning out more vehicles than their makers will be able to sell even within the best of scenarios.

Virtually every auto company – the stronger boasting of record 2002 sales and profits, the weaker pointing to impressive new products and turnaround plans – is targeting increased sales and a bigger slice of the pie this year. Yet, even if the U.S. market remains strong – a predicted 16 to 17 million vehicles – they can’t all be right. Everyone knows the competition will be brutal, and the unforgiving marketplace will soon sort them into winners and losers.

“This could be the most competitive year this industry has ever faced,” said U.S. Toyota Motor Sales COO Jim Press. While that reality may be deadly scary for most automakers, it represents good news for potential buyers. The diversity, desirability and overall excellence of new vehicles in dealer showrooms, or soon to arrive, has never been better. And, according to Comerica’s David Littman, vehicle affordability (how much pay it takes to purchase one, counting incentives) recently dropped below 20 weeks vs. about 30 weeks 25 years ago.

The 300-hp club gets left behind

Echoing auto marketing mantras of long-ago, simpler times, nearly everything new is longer, lower, wider, roomier, faster -- and yet (somehow) more fuel efficient. Mirroring the performance wars of the ‘60s, nearly everyone boasts 300, 400, even 500 horsepower in their hottest cars, trucks and concepts. SUVs of all types and sizes continue to proliferate, but more and more “crossovers” or CUVs are looking and handling more like sports sedans than trucks.

Ultralux Italian sports cars at the show include Lamborghini’s $274,000 Murcielago and Ferrari’s $670,000 Enzo (sorry, all 300 are already sold). Bentley, now owned by Volkswagen, unveils a sleekly opulent Continental GT concept coupe; a production version is expected to sell for $150,000. Rolls Royce, now owned by BMW, shows off its new interpretation of the classic Rolls Royce Phantom, priced at about $330,000. Mercedes’ new 543-hp Maybach sedans come in two lengths and luxury levels, the longer one for $350,000. But Cadillac blows everyone away with its stunning ultra-luxury Sixteen concept. Looking like a stealth fighter on wheels, the Sixteen is powered by a 1000-hp V-16 that (using GM’s soon-to-come Displacement on Demand technology) could get as much as 20 mpg! Will they build it?

Ford, hard on the comeback trail and celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2003, opened its media show with a prototype of the coming $100,000-plus GT sports car entering stage left, revving its 500-hp engine, then disappearing stage right. Among Ford’s 15 new production and concept vehicles are its all-new, hugely important ’04 F-150 pickup line (plus a 500-hp SVT Lightning concept version) a Freestyle FX concept preview of Ford’s ‘05 CUV, a 500-hp V-10-powered 427 rear-drive concept sedan, a Lincoln Navicross CUV, a Mercury Messenger concept sports car (sending the message that Mercury is alive and well) and both coupe and convertible concepts that preview the retro-look next-generation Mustang.

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