Design has taken center stage at the Detroit auto show like it hasn't in years, with automakers offering dazzling makeovers and concept cars aimed at renewing their brands as markets rebound. From the humble Smart to supercars, automakers are offering more visually interesting products than ever in recent years, raising their game against increasingly tough competition and cutting the boring quotient.
It was evident in Chrysler's revival of the clunky 1970s Dodge Dart in a small slingback entry-level car that will please young people hoping for a little sporty pizzazz from the company's Italian owner Fiat. And it was evident in the remakes in the luxury class, like Mercedes-Benz's six-decade-old SL, where formidable curves and brawn come together in a hefty all-aluminum convertible.
"The big theme for the show is styling," said Jeremy Anwyl, head of auto industry experts Edmunds.com.
Styling is a way to differentiate a product "when cars can no longer set themselves apart by safety features or performance or fuel efficiency. "You're seeing styling in segments where it wouldn't have been a big deal before. You go back a few years ago, compact cars were pretty boring because the idea was people bought it as an appliance -- it's cheap."
Now, he said, auto makers want their products to stand out in a crowded field.
Ford has achieved this by sexing up its middle-market mainstay the Fusion with Euro-styling designed right at the firm's home in Dearborn, Mich. Formerly almost indistinguishable from others in its class -- including the best-selling Camry -- the Fusion now wears some BMW-like touches, no surprise since Ford vice president of design J. Mays has done stints designing for BMW, Audi and Volkswagen.
"What we wanted was a car that looked visually like a premium car," he said.
Twenty-seven new cars were introduced in Detroit on Jan. 9, some of them more changed inside than out, like Volkswagen's Jetta with a hybrid engine.
BMW laid out its new 3 Series range, with inches added on in front and back, and sleek design changes to the lights, kidney-grills and other frills.
Porsche meanwhile unveiled the cabriolet version of its new Carrera (the coupe was launched late last year), which, while unmistakably a member of the venerable 911 family, also came with some aggressive new curves, a wider front and a longer body.
Volkswagen took a different approach to its concept car, the electric E-Bugster, by taking out the Beetle's cuteness, mashing down the top and fattening the sides to give it the stoutness of an American muscle car -- almost.
Audi meanwhile shrunk its crossover Q5 into the Q3 compact.
Not to be outdone by their German rivals -- who topped the U.S. luxury market last year -- Lexus and Acura both introduced racy new concept cars.
Acura's is a svelte concept revival of the NSX, while Lexus has designed a hybrid sport coup, the LF-LC, with curves that look like they were painted on in one brush swipe.
While some were trying to get into the small-car niche, diminutive Scion and Smart headed in the other direction, aiming to redefine themselves in a bigger form.
Scion, Toyota's quirky youth market brand, introduced its hungry-looking FR-S sportscar, with one outfitted for professional drift racing. Scion said it had recruited Japanese start Ken Gushi to drive it in Formula Drift events. Scion vice president Jack Hollis insisted the FR-S had the same DNA as the original boxy xB. It looked more like a Toyota 2000 GT, but at any rate it was likely to catch the eyes of Scion lovers graduating from the earlier models.
Smart meanwhile had a bug-like rock-hopper concept car, the Smart-for-Us, that might have come out of Pixar's "Cars."
It too had little similarity with its urban-life parent, appearing better suited for the beach or the desert. While still small, it dwarfed the original Smart, but it also gave shoppers another reason to look at the carmaker.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011