DETROIT AUTO SHOW -- 2004

Asians hype trucks; Big 3, cars

Roles reverse as competition gets tougher

Originally published: Jan. 12, 2004

The Asians created waves with big trucks at the 2004 North American International Auto Show. And Detroit's Big 3 all proclaimed this the year for their cars.

What's going on here? Detroit only cares about SUVs and pickups, right?

Not quite. "Expect the unexpected" may be the best way to sum up the show.

After years of getting by with a less than full-sized pickup, Toyota dropped a mammoth hint of what's to come.

The wheelbase of the FTX concept is longer than that of Ford's F-series SuperCab. It will set the tone for the redesigned Tundra that will be assembled in a new Toyota plant in San Antonio in 2006.

Meanwhile, journalists selected the gasoline-sipping Toyota Prius as the 2003 North American car of the year. It was a neat trick: In one show, Toyota proved you can make huge trucks and still polish an earth-friendly image.

Say one thing, do another

Honda had a surprise, too.

"For years we've told you that we had no plans for a pickup," said Thomas Elliott, Honda's executive vice president for operations. "Today I'll tell you that we do."

But Honda cheerfully notes that it has been working on the design for five years, despite its declarations to the contrary. And Honda's pickup history goes way back. The company sold in Japan a 30-hp pickup in 1963. Riding lawnmowers are heading toward those numbers nowadays.

Meanwhile, Nissan showed the 2005 Pathfinder SUV. It has been converted from a unibody to a rugged body-on-frame construction and was decked out in colors to match the Titan pickup that was brashly introduced on Detroit's home turf a year ago.

Nissan also unveiled the Infiniti QX56, a sister of the eight-passenger Nissan Pathfinder Armada.

It is Detroit's nightmare. The top Asian automakers continue to march into the Big 3's profit playground.

How will Detroit fight back? With cars. And with some surprising help from colleagues in Europe.

The Chrysler group made no compromises with the over-the-top Chrysler ME Four-Twelve concept. Tired of repeating, "We'll be back," Chrysler executives decided to say it with sheet metal instead. For the past year, a tiny group within Chrysler's headquarters secretly created an 850-hp supercar that will go from 0 to 60 mph in an outrageous 2.9 seconds.

The engine work was done by AMG, DaimlerChrysler's in-house performance group in Germany famous for souping up Mercedes cars.

GM's sexy trio

Ford Motor Co. sought inspiration in Europe, too. The Ford Five Hundred sedan bears the Audi-esque lines of chief designer J Mays' former German client.

General Motors unveiled a sexy trio of small rear-drive cars. Rear drive had been all but abandoned on U.S. cars, but it is enjoying a comeback. The most striking of the three cars, the Chevrolet Nomad, was inspired by a GM concept car from the 1950s. But who reinterpreted this American classic? A Brit, designer Simon Cox.

Looking over the auto show, GM Vice Chairman Robert Lutz could find little that was dull or poorly executed.

Bemoaning the high quality of competition, he said: "It's really depressing that there are no bad products anymore."

You can reach Charles Child at (Unknown address)

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