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Mining Motown

Mining Motown


Two car writers take on the drama of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to find their favorite cars of the not-too-distant future.

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit reminds me of a high-stakes poker game. Automakers throughout the world gather at the nostalgic epicenter of American auto manufacturing to show off their future four-wheelers. It's the culmination of years of development and design funneled into one make-or-break week. It's enough drama and performance to make a Broadway producer weep.

I attended this year's Detroit Auto Show as part of General Motors' diversity media tour. (Incidentally, GM swept the show's top honors: Saturn Aura was awarded the show's car of the year, while Chevy Silverado took the nod for trucks.) I teamed up with fellow tour member Joe La Muraglia, publisher of the online auto site , to sniff out the most significant concept, luxury, and non-luxury cars to come.

Concept Car

Chevrolet Volt The Chevy Volt had some tough competition: Jaguar's C-XF, Ford's Airstream, and the Toyota FT-HS hybrid sports car were all impressive, but none of them are likely to have the impact of the Chevy Volt. Here's why:

Design While most concepts look like they belong on another planet, the Chevy Volt's styling is futuristic but achievable. Its low stance and light, airy interior give it a sporty flavor that actually looks fun to drive. Many of the materials are prototypes, but you can easily imagine this car on the road in your lifetime.

Technology Using a technology dubbed "E-Flex," the Volt is a true electric vehicle that can go up to 40 miles on a charge and can be "refilled" from an existing power grid, i.e., the plug in your garage. Consider that 78% of Americans have a daily commute of 40 miles or less, and GM claims a majority of Volt owners will never use fuel again. Bravo. GM went a step further and added an additional 3-cylinder turbo engine that kicks in as a superefficient generator to recharge the batteries when they get low. So if you forget to charge it or go away for the weekend, you'll still get 50 mpg with the engine converting gas to electricity.

The genius behind the Volt is that the engine can be altered to meet the global market. For example, the battery and electric motor can be paired with a turbo-diesel that runs on biodiesel in Europe, an engine that runs on pure ethanol in Brazil, or an engine that runs on E85 in the United States.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it's still a concept car. The battery technology doesn't exist, but we don't think GM would be playing these cards if they didn't have something in their deck.

Impact Potentially staggering. The Volt is the first significant salvo fired from an American car company in the race for the next generation of propulsion. Sure, hydrogen fuel cells may be the future, but it's a distant future. The technology in the Volt is attainable, flexible and sellable.

Luxury Car

2008 Cadillac CTS When originally introduced in 2002, the Cadillac CTS was the first example of the new design direction at Cadillac. Over the next six years, other models in Cadillac's lineup (Escalade, XLR, STS and DTS) would adopt the same sharp-edged, aggressive, and bold look while the CTS was left to bask in its old glory. Finally, the CTS has had a makeover worthy of attention.

Design The first generation CTS was a radical departure for Cadillac, and the effect was polarizing. While it sold better than expected, many thought the styling wasn't up to par for a global luxury brand. The 2008 CTS silences its critics, as it is simply stunning. It is longer, roomier, and more luxurious than its predecessor with thoughtful touches like metal, wood, and stitching paired with a soft leather interior, recessed LED lighting, and an aggressive grill and front fascia. The latest CTS is clearly a Cadillac, albeit one that has gone to finishing school.

Technology The 2008 CTS will launch with two versions of GM's V6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The V6 features direct injection and produces 300 horsepower. The basic V6 pumps out 258 horsepower; the higher-end version features direct injection (a highly efficient method of delivering fuel) and produces an additional 42 horsepower. Both engines can be matched with either rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive.

Impact GM dominated the Detroit Auto Show, and the CTS was their piece de resistance. Cadillac is the maker's aspirational brand, though not long ago there wasn't much to aspire to. A good entry-level Cadillac is very important because it attracts more people to the brand. An excellent entry-level Cadillac keeps them coming back for more.

Non-Luxury Car

Smart Fortwo Whether you read The DaVinci Code or just saw the less-than-perfect film adaptation, you're familiar with the Smart Fortwo. On the road in Europe for years, this cute, affordable, and efficient urban mobile is finally coming to the U.S. With Daimler-Chrysler as its parent company, we think this little car is destined for big things.

Design Unlike anything on the road here in the U.S., the Smart Fortwo is perfect for the attention-seeker on a budget. Its design was optimized for the tight Euro streets, and as a result two Smart Fortwos can fit side by side in a traditional parking space.

Technology Smart has created a small two-seater that's fun to drive and safe. According to the company, the Tridion safety cell, an oval-shape frame surrounding the passenger compartment, keeps occupants protected as if they were surrounded by "the shell of a nut." And a three-cylinder engine delivers 40 mpg. It's a zippy ride-- just don't expect to be hauling a lot of stuff.

Impact Fact is, most of us drive solo in cars built for more than five people. Image what driving would be if even a fraction of Americans traded in their Cayennes for Smart Fortwos: more room on the road, more parking spaces, less demand for the evil that is petrol. And with a starting price under $15,000, it's easy to understand why the Fortwo is smart.

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