OVER the next two weeks, a million Detroiters will shuffle through the halls of Cobo Center, looking for some fun and entertainment and, of course, a chance to shop and compare the auto industry's latest entries.
``This year, it's one of the best auto shows I've ever seen,'' says Jack Telnack, Ford Motor Company's chief of design, of the North American International Automobile Show.
And for good reason. There are more than 700 different cars and light trucks on display, along with dozens of concept cars. Not all that long ago, these prototypes could best be described, in Mr.Telnack's words, as ``fantasies in chrome.'' Some concept cars still fit that description - like Chrysler Corporation's Expresso, a science fiction interpretation of a taxi. But Ford's Premys is a different kind of concept car. With only a few cosmetic changes, it goes on sale late this year as the Mercury Mystique.
Show-goers are being treated to some of the auto industry's newest and hottest technological breakthroughs, from in-car navigation systems to hybrid race cars. If they keep a keen eye out, they'll also glimpse some of the changes sweeping the business side of the auto industry. With their market share - and earnings -
in a slide, Japanese manufacturers have taken an unusually low-key presence at this year's Detroit auto show. On the other hand, a newly resurgent Big Three, are rolling out some of their hottest and most competitive new cars and trucks in more than a decade.
Here's a glimpse at what's drawing the biggest crowds:
Nearly 20 years after it vanished from American showrooms, the Bug is back. Volkswagen calls this prototype Concept 1. But it's an unmistakable '90s interpretation of the long-lamented Volkswagen Beetle.
The good news is that this concept car, developed at Volkswagen's California design studios, is cleaner, safer and more fuel efficient than the original. The bad news? Volkswagen isn't sure if it will put Concept 1 into production. But the enthusiastic crowds gathering around the Volkswagen display could change the corporate mindset.
A Teutonic vision
At first glance, you're not likely to guess this is a Mercedes-Benz. The Vision A93 is a full three feet shorter than today's smallest Mercedes sedan. Yet there's still plenty of room for four because the engine and transmission have been moved under the floor of the passenger compartment.
The Vision is scheduled to go on sale in Europe in 1997. Mercedes isn't sure whether there's much of a market here in the US, though it might use the Vision to meet tough new emission standards that go into effect in California in 1998. By replacing the car's gasoline engine with batteries and an electric motor, Vision would became a nonpolluting Zero-Emissions Vehicle. A compact Cadillac
General Motors' Cadillac division hopes to attract a new and younger breed of buyer with the LSE. Officially, the sedan is a ``concept under study,'' but Cadillac officials expect to get the go-ahead by Spring to put the LSE into production.
LSE is sleeker, smaller and sportier than today's Cadillacs, and the carmaker hopes it will appeal to import-oriented Baby Boomers who choose cars like the Infiniti J30 or BMW 525. The LSE was actually developed by GM's European subsidiary, Opel, and will be imported, at least initially, from a factory in Germany. Chrysler's splash
Chrysler's Expresso is a fanciful interpretation of a taxi. It is two feet shorter than the automaker's new Neon subcompact, but nearly six feet tall. Luggage can be stowed under the airline-style seats, and the huge, ovoid windows provide plenty of visibility. According to Chrysler designer Neil Walling, if every full-sized cab in Manhattan were replaced by an Expresso, the island would suddenly come up with another 40 acres of usable real estate.
Chrysler's got two hot offerings on display. Some call Neon the best American small car ever built. Neon's cute, and Chrysler's cab-forward design means a compact interior inside a subcompact shell. The biggest draw may be the price - $8,975.
Another show-stopper is Chrysler's JA sedan. Marketed as the Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus, these roomy compacts are going up against some of the toughest imports in the business, including Honda's Accord and Nissan's Altima. But even the Japanese are calling JA ``very competitive.'' Chrysler President Robert Lutz predicts sales could hit 300,000 units a year. GM's entry
What's the order of the day from General Motors? The world's largest automaker has been struggling to regain its lead, but it should make some headway with the Oldsmobile Aurora. This certainly isn't your father's Oldsmobile. With its muscular V8, this sleek and sporty luxury sedan tosses down the gauntlet at Lexus and BMW.
Buick's bringing back the Riviera nameplate with a two-door version of the Aurora. And it's already winning the same sort of kudos as the original Riviera did when it debuted back in 1963. Ford's new minivan
Critics say Ford's new Windstar is the first minivan likely to give serious challenge to Chrysler's popular Caravan and Voyager models. Windstar may be the most car-like minivan yet. There's plenty of room for passengers and cargo, and the smooth ride comes from a version of the chassis used in the Ford Taurus wagon. Ford hopes to sell 300,000 Windstars a year - a feasible goal, with minivans making up the fastest-growing segment of the American new car market. Technology briefs
A ``green'' race car? Chrysler's hybrid Patriot prototype may soon be lapping LeMans, but it isn't your ordinary race car. Patriot is powered by liquid natural gas which fuels a ``turbine alternator'' generating 500 horsepower of electricity. That energy can either run an electric motor, or get stored in a space-age flywheel which can kick in an additional 200 horsepower as the Patriot blasts out of a corner.
``Our intention is to use motor racing to explore this technology more quickly,'' to see if it might have use in conventional passenger cars, says Chrysler's engineering chief Francois Castaing.
In another twist, you'll never have to fold up a map - or get lost in a strange neighborhood again with the Oldsmobile/Navigation Information System.
``It's a technology that one day, perhaps 15 years from now, probably will be standard on most automobiles,'' said Olds General Manager John Rock.