Making cars stand out and capture the bad guys, too

Every new vehicle that comes out is the most amazing thing to ever be put on four wheels -- a stunning achievement in advanced technology, design, performance and cupholder ingenuity.

Each one is a true "game changer," to use a phrase that instantly makes all automotive journalists put away their notebooks and scout out the buffet table in the corner.

That is, if you listen to the manufacturers.

The general public typically responds to such groundbreaking introductions by asking, "Does it come in blue?" and then gets into a line to buy the new iPhone.

That's because the average person who doesn't work for a car company or auto dealer thinks most cars look pretty much the same.

For the past few weeks, residents of suburban Detroit were terrorized by a guy driving around and shooting randomly at other cars on or near Interstate 96. There were more than two dozen incidents stretching across four counties. Fortunately, only one person was injured.

Based on witness reports, police initially said the so-called I-96 shooter may be driving a dark-colored Chevrolet Cavalier or Ford Mustang. As days passed and fear spread through the area, police started pulling over dozens of cars that seemed to match the description, apparently believing that driving a Cavalier is not enough of a daily inconvenience.

Other witnesses described the shooter's car as possibly a 1998 Oldsmobile Alero or Toyota Camry.

Police finally arrested the alleged gunman Nov. 6. As it turned out, the suspect, whose motive remains unclear, owned a dark gray 2009 Chevy Malibu.

Many people have questioned why the suspect barely resembles the composite sketch of the shooter that police released weeks ago.

But given that the incidents happened while the shooter was inside a car moving at highway speeds, I find it more notable that the description of the vehicle was so far off.

General Motors spent billions of dollars in the hopes that a 2009 Malibu would not look anything like a Cavalier, which was discontinued in 2005.

Ford Motor Co. certainly doesn't want people confusing a Mustang for a Malibu or a Cavalier.

Fortunately, automakers have started to focus on making their designs more distinctive and stylish in recent years.

Among the best examples of this welcome trend is the 2013 Ford Fusion, whose look is even more notable for the fact that it's a mid-sized sedan, typically the blandest segment of them all. Hyundai also has made styling a big focus (though its math skills apparently need work).

Others have been hesitant to unleash their designers too much. The new Toyota Camry doesn't look all that different from the old one, and even a Honda executive conceded last year that its cars "have been a bit boring."

Hopefully, sales results in the coming years will show automakers that being bold and distinctive is good for their bottom line. It might even help police catch bad guys faster.

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