There have been so many spectacular vehicles unveiled over the 25 years of the North American International Auto Show that it is difficult to choose the Top 10. But choose we did. Feel free to disagree.
The 10 most memorable world debuts
With a shot across the bow of European luxury, Toyota unveiled its new brand and flagship with the Lexus LS 400, shown above. Reaction from showgoers ranged from rapt amazement to stunned silence that an automaker best known for cranking out econoboxes could create something so luxurious and perfectly executed.
A decade after Chrysler's first government rescue, the Dodge Viper Concept may have been the clearest signal that the company had regained its fighting spirit. There was nothing sterile, safe or taxpayer-friendly about this ridiculous V-10-powered sports car. Designed to be a modern interpretation of the classic Shelby Cobra, this slithery concept drew such rave reactions that Chrysler management ordered it into production before the doors closed at Cobo Hall.
The introduction that changed everything. By smashing through the glass doors at Cobo with its new SUV, Chrysler raised the bar for showmanship at auto shows. Though spawning many show-biz imitators, Chrysler continued to have the upper hand on stagecraft for most of the next decade, bringing a touch of Hollywood special effects to the Motor City.
The Volkswagen brand had been adrift for years, uncertain of its direction. But in pulling the wraps off a vehicle it called "Concept 1," it signaled a rebirth of the brand by moving forward into its past. Although VW officials insisted it was just a design study, the crowd wasn't fooled. "It's the Beetle!" journalists in the audience screamed. Four years later, it rolled into dealerships.
For nearly 100 years, Mercedes was known for luxurious passenger cars. Sure, the company also made the military-grade Gelaendewagen troop carrier, but it was a crude and jouncy beast. The ML signaled that SUVs could be sporty, utilitarian and luxurious as well, opening a segment that within a decade became one of the industry's most popular and profitable.
Emerging from the brink of bankruptcy and in dire need of good news, Nissan showed its tenacity by resurrecting its iconic sports car. In his speech, Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn exclaimed that his favorite car growing up was a Z. With the hot-selling Xterra already attracting attention, the Z's introduction announced to American consumers that Nissan was back.
The sporty concept convertible was a huge hit but also held important symbolism. Under the direction of newly minted General Motors product czar Bob Lutz, the Solstice went from drawing board to working prototype in just 15 weeks — a sign of what GM product developers could do when freed from GM's bureaucratic morass. And unlike many other cool GM concepts to hit the show floor, this one made it to production.
The coolest car introduction at Detroit wasn't even a car. Dodge decided that the best way to make its Viper go faster was to cut out all the unnecessary parts. So it created a four-wheel motorcycle instead, with the rider perilously astride the V-10 engine. Even cooler was then-Chrysler COO Wolfgang Bernhard blasting the bike onto the stage, dressed as a '50s tough guy — complete with leather jacket and pompadour.
Five Chinese automakers announced grand ambitions for the years ahead — most never to be heard from again. Changfeng misspelled its own name on the trinkets it handed out. Guang Ming had little yellow electric cars with names like The Book of Songs and A Piece of Cloud. The chairman of BYD, oblivious to American auto show customs, took a writer from Jalopnik on a harrowing test drive around the show floor, cutting through an ongoing press conference.
After being told for decades that Detroit couldn't build passenger cars as well as the Japanese (and Koreans), Ford blew away that stereotype with a trifecta of forcefully styled and smartly packaged subcompact, compact and mid-sized vehicles. Even though a mere family sedan, the Fusion was the car of the show for many journalists and suddenly appeared on shopping lists of folks who had bought Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords for years.
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