Looking back: What's been hot and cold at the Detroit show
It has been true ever since Toyota and Nissan christened Detroit's first international auto show in 1989 by launching Lexus and Infiniti.
Cobo Center in early January is the buzz capital of the global auto industry, a test bed for technology, audacious design, adventures in segment-bending, outrageous publicity stunts, meetings that lead to mergers — and trial balloons that often go bust but sometimes change history.
The North American International Auto Show is a marker of the times, an index of all that was memorable, meaningful and occasionally miserable in the car business at that moment. Each of the past 25 shows has been a snapshot of period style and the wisdom of the day. Here is a retrospective.
The Detroit auto show was transformed into an international affair in 1989.
1989 Japanese luxury arrives
Detroit's first international show is an upbeat, laser-dazzling affair. In an epoch-making inaugural show, Toyota and Nissan bring heavy artillery for the coming luxury segment battle, debuting their Lexus and Infiniti car lines that aim to slug it out with Europe's best.
1990 Clean, frugal ... and global
As a new decade dawns, two harbingers of future trends appear. Clean-burning, lightweight and fuel-efficient engines are unveiled. There also is a sense of newfound internationalism. Ford Chairman Don Petersen tells reporters that the 1990s will have an increasing number of joint ventures between foreign and domestic automakers.
1991 Safety suddenly sells
Safety is the big news in 1991. Airbags, all-wheel drive and electronic traction control are widespread. So are lower-cost antilock brakes, better handling for accident avoidance and greater crash-absorption capability. Chrysler says it will equip its minivans with a driver-side airbag, the first airbag system built into a production minivan or light truck.
Bob Lutz is behind the wheel of the Dodge Viper after it is introduced at the 1992 show.
1992 Cab-forward Chryslers
Chrysler is the crowd pleaser at the '92 show, attracting a swarm of reporters at the unveiling of the 1993 Dodge Intrepid and its other LH sedans. The Dodge Viper RT/10 wows performance-starved journalists, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee shatters expectations and glass doors as it barges into Cobo.
1993 Gimme a breakeven
As automakers emerge from the recession, the conversation is all about squeezing more profits from existing volume. Chrysler makes the most product noise, dropping the Ram full-sized pickup from the Cobo ceiling. BMW shows off a new generation of powerful V-8 engines.
The Dodge Stratus takes center stage at the 1994 Detroit auto show Charity Preview.
1994 When you're hot, you're hot
Chrysler holds the limelight for the third consecutive year. Peter Graves, of TV's "Mission: Impossible" helps Chrysler President Bob Lutz unveil its "cloud cars," the 1995 Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus, accompanied by showbiz theatrics. Wall Street is so impressed, it sends Chrysler's stock soaring the same day.
1995 Amphibious assault
Chrysler is again the center of attention, with 1,500 journalists and auto executives cramming into 800 available seats an hour before the press conference. To preview Chrysler's redesigned minivans, Lutz and Chairman Bob Eaton act out a fairy tale on an elaborate stage set up as a swamp. The skit climaxes with Kermit the Frog piloting a minivan that leapfrogs the swamp, i.e., the competition.
1996 Pushing boundaries
A hypercompetitive market forces automakers to expand their product lines and brand identities. From the Plymouth Prowler hot rod to the Mercedes-Benz concept SUV, automakers roll the dice at the 1996 show. Mercedes' AAVision is unlike anything the brand has built before. The bulging, muscular SUV turns out to be a mildly disguised version of the vehicle Mercedes will begin building as the M class in Alabama the next year.
1997 Splashy Navigator
Bigger is better. Ford's massive new SUV rolls out under a waterfall in the splashiest debut of the 1997 show. The 204.8-inch-long Lincoln Navigator, powered by a 5.4-liter V-8, symbolizes the SUV-happy mid-'90s in Detroit. Chevrolet rolls out a redesigned Corvette, and Toyota finally challenges the Chrysler minivans on their home turf with the Sienna.
VW's retro favorite: The New Beetle
1998 Beetlemania 2.0
Volkswagen's New Beetle is the star, arriving four years after VW presented its Concept 1 in Detroit. A lozenge-shaped, car-based luxury SUV from Lexus arrives to catcalls that real off-roaders will never embrace such a "crossover" vehicle.
Bigger news is happening elsewhere in Detroit. Chrysler Chairman Bob Eaton and his Daimler-Benz counterpart, Juergen Schrempp, secretly meet for 17 minutes in Eaton's tower office at Chrysler's world headquarters. Four months later, the two automakers announce "a merger of equals."
Nissan resurrects the Z car with this concept.
What did the New Beetle inspire? A year later, automakers combine shapes from the past with modern technology, such as the retro Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Ford Thunderbird reborn as a two-seater. The bare-bones Xterra SUV and surprise unveiling of the Z sports car concept begin Nissan's product revival.
2000 Segment benders
Judging from the truck concepts on display in 2000, designers are hellbent on ripping up the old definition of a truck and making up a new one for the new century. From the Chevrolet SSR to the Pontiac Aztek, the new designs have audiences wondering whether they are looking at pickups, SUVs, sedans or something else entirely. Countering that trend, BMW announces it will bring the Mini brand to the United States. On the sports car side, Jaguar unveils the F-Type, beginning a 13-year wait for the car to arrive.
2001 'Angry kitchen appliances'
BMW designer Chris Bangle debuts "flame surfacing" on the X coupe sheet metal. On the truck side, Japanese designers diverge into a new techno direction. The look adorns the Nissan Alpha-T pickup, Isuzu GBX SUV and Honda Model X crossover. Reaction is mixed. A week after the press days, Bob Lutz — between jobs at Chrysler and General Motors — weighs in at the Automotive News World Congress. "There are concepts," he says, "that look like a whole family of angry kitchen appliances: demented toasters, furious bread machines and vengeful trash compactors."
2002 Is it a car? A truck? It's a crossover
The Chrysler Pacifica, Mercedes-Benz Vision GST and VW Magellan concepts knock another chunk out of the fast-eroding wall between cars and trucks. Each blends awd, six-passenger seating and the appearance of a sleek, luxurious station wagon.
2003 Thoroughly modern trucks
Full-sized pickups display an array of mechanical devices meant to dazzle consumers in Detroit's last stronghold. The 2004 remake of Ford's F-150, Chevrolet's Cheyenne concept and Nissan's 2004 Titan offer glimpses of the future: Cab-forward designs permit more spacious cabs; roomy rear seats and wide-opening doors transform pickups into family haulers.
Toyota's big idea: Full-sized FTX concept.
2004 Toyota goes big truckin'
After years of getting by with a less than full-sized pickup, Toyota stomps the Ford SuperCab with the hulking FTX concept — setting the tone for the redesigned Tundra to be built in a new Toyota plant in San Antonio. Ford shows three sedans heavily influenced by its tie-up with Volvo, but the new Mustang is all Blue Oval.
2005 Torrid Toyota
Toyota's fast climb has everyone talking. The Japanese automaker shot past 2 million U.S. sales the year before — six years ahead of the schedule it set in 1999. Yoshimi Inaba, Toyota's North American boss, tells reporters that Toyota needs to add North American capacity sooner than expected. For those who think Lexus is boring, the LFA supercar debuts. Meanwhile, on the show floor, 12 brands unveil crossovers or "sport wagons," as some still call them.
2006 Ford's new look
After years of designs that communicated a fuzzy brand identity, Ford rolls out a new look. The late-1990s desire to capture the European panache of VWs and Audis is abandoned. Instead, Ford embraces a simpler American look with vehicles such as the Edge crossover. Lexus unveils the first eight-speed automatic transmission. Chinese automakers make their first appearance.
The Chevy Volt electrifies the auto world.
2007 A jolt from the Chevy Volt
GM finally gets momentum in the alternative fuels race with the Chevrolet Volt and its flexible plug-in hybrid powertrain. For a change, the science looks like it belongs in the garage rather than the laboratory. Chrysler says it will drop short-wheelbase minivans; smaller cabins will be the domain of crossovers. Acura announces plans for a V-8 engine that will never come.
2008 Fun, fun, fun
Dodge ends decades of ancient pickup engineering by ditching leaf springs for coil springs on its new Ram truck. The jaw-dropping Hyundai Genesis blows Buick and Lincoln out of the water. Henrik Fisker unveils his $100,000 hybrid sedan. No one foresees the hell to come later in the year.
2009 Damage control
With the financial markets in ruins, GM and Chrysler smile through a visit by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who led Senate opposition to the federal bailout of the two automakers. At the pizzazz-challenged show, the German brands emerge as the life of the party. While the Americans and Asians cut costs, VW, Mercedes-Benz and BMW unveil new vehicles and host lively parties. Quips Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche: "We won't put our long-term success on the line with short-term budget cuts."
2010 Small, but cute
GM and Ford discover small doesn't have to mean cheap. Compact cars come adorned with features seldom seen in econoboxes, such as roomy interiors, computer gadgets, turbocharged engines and sporty sheet metal. The redesigned 2012 Ford Focus — the hit of the show — has touch-screen controls for navigation, phone, climate control and entertainment. Honda Civic product planners look worried.
2011 Small brawl
The small-car wars are on. The wraps come off several Asian entries, including a decontented Honda Civic and the small Hyundai Veloster sporty coupe. Domestic brands come with wee entries such as the Chevrolet Sonic. Toyota expands the Prius lineup with a wagon and a subcompact. The Vertrek crossover concept hints at Ford's design evolution into geometric chunks.
2012 The buzz is back
No more talk of bailouts and the downturn. Design is the hot topic. Cadillac talks of chasing BMW with its new ATS sedan. Dodge unveils the Dart, its first car with Fiat underpinnings. Cobo is crammed with introductions — including the ogle-worthy Acura NSX, swoopy Lexus LF-LC coupe and a Ford Fusion that liberally borrows from Aston Martin. Another sign of the times: Ford flies 150 bloggers and "influencers" to Detroit from around the world.
The crowd-pleasing Corvette Stingray
2013 Stingray and then some
The Corvette Stingray draws the biggest crowds, but the redesigned Chevrolet Silverado parked nearby is more significant. Ford steals some of GM's thunder by showing a glimpse of the next F-150, more than a year before it goes on sale. The race for "affordable luxury" is in full swing, as premium brands chase younger buyers with fwd compacts such as the Mercedes CLA. Hyundai's response is a Genesis concept that looks like it should cost twice as much. Fun and fantasy are back in the old building.