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Detroit balances green and black

It's the sort of odd-couple relationship that really shouldn't work ... but does. North America's eternal fascination with giant trucks and muscle machines continues unabated as automotive manufacturers go the extra mile in their search for a green future.

All sorts of electric, hybrid and fuel cell future cars and trucks were lined up against supercars, muscle cars, heavyweight four-wheel-drives and pickups as the motoring industry roared into 2008 at the North American International Motor Show in Detroit.

The confrontation is not new, but it takes on a much sharper edge with the prediction of an upcoming American recession and a government edict; that carmakers must meet a 6.7litres per 100km fuel economy benchmark across their total vehicle line-up by 2020. And then there is the first serious attempt by China's motor industry to establish a beachhead in the US.

There is no single hero car for the Detroit auto show of 2008 — although many Americans would argue a case for the “king of the hill” Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 — but plenty of concept and production vehicles which are significant.

The Ford F150 and Dodge Ram trucks are the drawcards for middle America, Audi proves diesel can be special with a supercar R8, Chrysler has family cars, and General Motors brings Cadillac back from a near-death experience with a concept van and a coupe and a V8 sedan touted as the world's fastest.

And Land Rover has the elegant and impressive LRX concept to prove it can bring younger, trendier customers to the company.

The link across every stand at the show is some sort of green theme, real or promised.

Ford Motor Company chairman, Bill Ford, opened the show with a speech that drew on his family's history in the car business from the introduction 100 years earlier of the Model T.

“A lot has changed over the years ... but product is what this business is still all about,” Ford said, putting the preview cars into focus.

But General Motors is more adventurous, exactly a year after it showed its Volt concept as a segue from petrol power into a future where the world relies on electricity for mobility.

“The auto industry has a lot of balls in the air right now when it comes to the future of automotive propulsion,” says GM chairman, Rick Wagoner, pointing to breakthroughs in ethanol innovation and all sorts of electric alternatives.

And then Toyota, which used Detroit '08 to preview its LF-A roadster supercar, a plug-in Prius and a family cross-over called Renza, gives its take on the 21st century.

“Highly-advanced conventional engines, plug-in hybrids, fuel cells and clean diesels, as well as many other innovative new technologies, will all play a part,” says Toyota president, Katsuaki Watanabe. But what about the cars?

There is no single stand-out in Detroit '08, unlike the Nissan GT-R that dominated the Tokyo Motor Show just two months ago, but the American event has something for everyone.

For go-fast fans there is the Audi R8 diesel concept, with a V12 engine that makes it faster than the petrol V8, as well as the LF-A roadster concept at Lexus.

Audi also has the TTS sports coupe out for the first time and Volkswagen has produced its own take on the desirable two-door shape with its Passat coupe. But Cadillac is the star, rolling out a brutal but beautiful CTS coupe — most likely eventually for Australia — as well as a cracking CTS-V that is claimed as the world's fastest four-door sedan.

It could easily come from HSV but will not make it down under as there is no space in the bonnet for a right-side steering column.

For families, Honda has the second-generation of its Pilot van and there is the Venza family wagon from Toyota — which could easily fit on the Camry production line at Altona.

The Ford Verve concept again points to the next-generation Fiesta, but the American take on a Focus coupe is less successful. Unlike the Ferrari F430 — presented in Detroit as a green ethanol burner — and the facelifted Mazda RX-8.

In the truck and four-wheel drive end of the business, there is everything from the Mercedes-Benz GLK which will rival the BMW X3 to the production version of BMW's X6, new Dodge Ram and Ford F150 pickups, and a Saab 9-4X which finally gives the Swedish brand a future family four-wheel drive, in a share deal with Cadillac.

And the concept cars? They range from the ugly Fisker plug-in hybrid luxury sedan to the Gen-Y Hummer HX, the Cadillac Provoq concept with fuel-cell power, and the chunky Toyota A-Bat hybrid truck with doors which open to reveal a four-door cabin ahead of a short pickup bed in the back.

Mitsubishi also has a great looking coupe concept, the RA. As always, Chrysler did a number with three funky concept cars which are grabbing a lot of attention. The EcoVoyager points to the potential for a full-sized family wagon with a fuel cell engine, the Jeep Renegade is a hybrid escape machine and the electric Dodge ZEO proves future sports cars can still be fun after the death of the petrol engine.


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