What is worth leaving sunny Tennessee and driving ten hours straight, having to go through Ohio and deal with going through Toledo in the snow? The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan is the only thing worth it. Beyond layovers at the airport there, I’d never been to Michigan, much less Detroit. Driving into the city is an experience in and of itself. I never understood why American cars have such soft suspensions until I drove on what may be some of the worst roads in America. The complete lack of buildings in downtown Detroit that were built after 1970 draws attention to GM’s Renaissance Center – it’s literally the only glass tower downtown. Not too far away is Cobo Hall, the convention center where all of the auto shows take place.Press Days are undeniably the best time to visit any auto show. If you manage to obtain a pass, don’t let it go. Almost all of the cars are open to be poked, prodded and sat in. The manufacturers almost all have goodies beyond press kits – Mini had smoothies, Jaguar had a full bar, as did many others, and other free goodies. But of course, the main reason you go is to enjoy the cars and the technology. Detroit is a great place for doing just that. It may lack the utterly bizarre concepts that fill Tokyo and marques that don’t sell their cars in the United States, but its got plenty of things to catch your attention.The NAIAS was filled with announcements of new production models and concept cars that hint at upcoming vehicles. To complement all of this were exhibits of technology from Toyota’s fuel cell platform – which owes heavily to GM’s HyWire concept – cutaway engines and Audi’s Continuously Variable Transmission – which does away with set gears in favor of a system of infinitely variable pulleys and chains for optimal performance and gas mileage. The sheer glitz of this event is almost overwhelming. You have people like Ford’s Vice President of Design J. Mays – who designed the New Volkswagen Beetle and Audi’s TT during his earlier stint at Volkwagen-Audi and is also known for the recent Thunderbird and 2005 Mustang among others – Motortrend’s Editor-in-Chief, Matt Stone and bigwigs from other magazines and car companies. This is definitely a place to see and be seen. Aston-Martin unveiled the DB9 Volant, their convertible version in a gorgeous baby-blue with open-pored bamboo and leather dyed to match the car’s paint. This car screams, “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” Wood was a common theme with concepts like the Lincoln Aviator which featured dark, heavily-grained wood for floorboards and one of the Maybach models had open-pored wood trim.Open-pored wood is similar to high quality furniture you’d find in your home, as opposed to heavily-laquered wood that is currently common in higher-end cars. Speaking of the Maybach, the stretched model – the 62 – is amazing. The rear seats fully recline, there is a comfy air pillow, you’ve got a refrigerator and champagne flutes and the seat in front of you is so far away that you can’t even reach it if you lean forward.Talking to the people at the various displays was informative as well. The people from Ferrari, Lamborghini and Masserati were all rude, full of attitude and highly condescending. This compared with the woman from Rolls Royce who spent 20 minutes talking with me about the sheer experience of being in or driving a Rolls. Every single one of the new models sold in the U.S. is owner-driven. Even the people at Aston-Martin were polite, if somewhat aloof.The mix of mundane to exotic is wonderful. Toyota premiered the new Scion tC, the model aimed at a younger demographic. It seems like it could be an effective competitor to the Honda Civic in price, size and quality. I got to sit in and look at all sorts of cars. The concepts from Kia were surprisingly elegant and I finally got to see Jaguar’s RD-6 and Volkwagen’s Concept R Roadster. BMW chose Detroit to premiere another convertible, the 645Ci. This car is easily the most attractive of Chris Bangle’s new BMWs. There were the expected big surprises on display in Detroit. The biggest was the unveiling of the new 6th Generation Chevrolet Corvette. On top of a far more appealing exterior than its predecessor, it succeeded in creating an interior that finally looks like it belongs in a $50k car. What came out of left field was the ME-412 supercar concept from Chrysler. Looking not just a little bit like a stealth airplane, it won’t likely see production like the Ford GT, Audi LeMans and other ego-machines, but it’s an interesting design exercise from the American manufacturer most known for pushing the boundaries of design.Ford had one or two aces up its sleeve as well. Along with the production-ready Ford Mustang and the GT – which has disappointingly large cut-lines – they premiered a Shelby Cobra concept that was created with the aid of Carroll Shelby. This car has clean lines and smooth surfaces that still recall the original Shelbys, powered by a 6.4 liter V-10 with 605 horsepower on tap. The Ford Bronco concept was a great treat. With a strong connection to the original Broncos in proportions and size, this could easily see production without too many changes. A rough-and-tumble looking SUV with a removable hard-top similar to the Jeep Wranglers, this car is imposing through the use of thick metal elements such as the grill and exposed door hinges. It looks ready to go rock crawling in. Of course, if I wanted to go rock crawling I’d be just as likely to pick up Jeep’s Rescue concept. Aimed directly at the Hummer H2, this SUV trumps it in style, quality and for the simple fact that it’s a jeep. But in the end I finished the car show off the way most people there seemed to spend their time, enjoying the free perks. Downstairs I discovered Volkswagen’s press area, complete with gourmet chefs, wine, beer and cars. The only water they had was Perrier and they’d designed kiosks that informed those not busy stuffing their faces, of the factory in Germany where the new Phaeton is built with videos and pictures. I can’t say that I felt as much anticipation for the drive through Canada in the snow to Rochester. But you can evidently only stare at cars for so long without driving them before your feet start to hurt and you’re ready to move on.
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