There was a time, only a couple of years ago, when the Detroit motor show felt like it was on its last legs. Much like the city itself, the annual season-opener was tired and empty, a reflection of economic decay instead of a showcase for the year ahead.
Unfortunately, Detroit the city still feels like this, but its motor show has at least recovered. In fact, this year's event is a much more optimistic affair, with interesting concept cars and production models from Audi, BMW, Honda, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and many more.
It's worth remembering, though, that this freshness is being driven by an American market that refuses to suffer the same second-phase economic wobble that we're experiencing in Europe, and that means that the Detroit show feels more US-focused than ever before.
Still, there is plenty of new metal on show that will make it to European dealers. Here's our pick of the crop.
Perhaps the biggest star of the Detroit show failed to make it onto the stand at all – because Mercedes' small saloon, called CLA, was revealed at a media preview and then kept out of the first-morning clamour to give the new E-Class a bit of breathing space.
The CLA is a swoopy, front-wheel-drive four-door that's based on the same chassis underpinnings as the latest A-Class. It'll enter Mercedes' UK line-up in late spring (May, most likely), with a starting price of around £25,000 – or about £1500-£2000 less than comparable C-Class models (that model will become larger when it gets replaced, incidentally).
As with the A-Class, the CLA is designed to attract younger customers to the Mercedes brand – and it should succeed, if the enthusiastic reception given to the car in Detroit is anything to go by. Its curvy styling drew widespread praise and the mix of Mercedes- and Renault-sourced engines should give it decent efficiency and company car running costs.
In fact, the CLA looks like one of the most promising small Mercs for quite some time. If the price is right, it could be a stylish, tempting proposition for younger buyers.
The Mercedes gets a mid-life refresh for 2013, and the new look was officially unveiled in bulk at the Detroit show; saloon, estate, coupe and convertible versions populated the stand.
The styling tweaks have received a generally positive reaction, since Merc's designers have tidied up the E-Class's busy flanks (the awkward crease ahead of the rear wheel has been sharpened on saloons and estates), and given it a smoother, more coherent front end with single large headlights instead of the previous twin-light approach.
The cabin (always a more expensive fix) looks pretty similar to what's gone before, although there wasn't that much wrong with the choice of materials anyway. Merc is also promising a better level of standard equipment, even on the more lowly models that make the most sense as company cars.
With that in mind, the E-Class might not have been the most arresting new design in Detroit, but it might well end up being the biggest in sales volumes.
BMW 4 Series Coupe Concept
The BMW 4 Series is, in effect, the new BMW 3 Series Coupe. From this generation of the car it gets a model designation of its own, but the concept shown in Detroit looks every inch what you'd expect from the two-door version of What Car?'s Executive Car of the Year 2013.
It looked a particularly effective execution in the silver of the show car, with muscular styling and a much lower, more aggressive stance than the four-door's (in fact the coupe is a full 67mm lower than the saloon). We only hope that neat little design flourishes – such as the sharp-edged air vents behind the front wheels – make it to the final production model.
As you'd expect, the 4 Series' engine line-up will stick closely to that of its four-door brother, so expect 420d, 425d, 430d and 435d diesels alongside 418i, 420i, 428i and 435i petrols. High-performance variants tuned by BMW's M division will follow later.
VW's Detroit star, the Crossblue, was unashamedly aimed at American buyers – because for all the brand's progress in this region (its rise in sales figures is nothing short of alarming), it has lacked the sort of seven-seat SUV that has been such a cash cow for the likes of Ford and General Motors.
The Crossblue will change that when it gets turned into a production car some time in the next couple of years. It's based on the largest and tallest version yet of the MQB chassis kit that sits under the latest VW Golf and Audi A3, and is equipped with a novel diesel-electric hybrid powertrain. Expect four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines to also feature in the line-up when it hits US dealers, though.
The styling is safe and entirely predictable; the car is expected to fit in between the Tiguan and posher Touareg in VW's line-up, and it looks superbly tuned to that role. When it does turn up, it should help VW's burgeoning American dealer network to improve upon the company's 3% market share. It won't come to Europe, though – and that's probably the right decision.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
It will sell in relatively small numbers even in the US, and right-hand-drive production is still only a strong rumour, but the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray was undoubtedly one of the stars of the show.
The seventh generation of the Corvette gets a sharper look that was adjudged a success by showgoers, even if some of its styling cues did look like they were designed around the same time as the Ferrari 599 first appeared.
The rest of the recipe, though, is likely to appeal to purists, with a lightweight aluminium construction, a seven-speed manual transmission and a fresh version of General Motors' venerable small-block V8 petrol engine. It produces 450bhp and 450lb ft, enough for a 0-60mph time of less than four seconds.
It's likely to remain an oddity in the UK, but that isn't likely to stop Chevrolet from trying to sell it here. Expect it to go on sale later this year, in left-hand drive form, for around £50,000.
Honda Urban SUV
The past few weeks have seen a number of fresh rivals for the Nissan Juke, with Renault revealing its Clio-based Captur and Peugeot showing the 2008. At Detroit Honda signalled its intention to get involved too, with the Urban SUV.
The Urban SUV sits on the same chassis parts as the Honda Jazz, but is aimed at an entirely different area of the market. Its distinctive looks are closer to the Juke's than more conventional mini-SUVs like the Captur, with a strong sweeping crease along the flanks and an extremely busy front end that features complex headlights.
A production version of the car is all but certain; Honda's already confirmed that it will launch a model into the small SUV area of the market by 2014. Expect it to feature the same engines as the Jazz, and to be offered with a hybrid option. It's going to have to be good to stand out against a growing roster of rivals (VW is also working on a small SUV, and Ford's Ecosport is coming too) – but if the Urban SUV's looks are retained for production, then it will at least have distinctiveness on its side.
The Infiniti Q50 is a major model for the Japanese manufacturer, which has struggled to build its profile (and sales figures) in Europe, let alone the UK. Any executive car manufacturer needs a rival for the BMW 3 Series, and the Q50 is designed to do a better job in that regard than the G37 it replaces.
The rear-drive sports saloon gets evolutionary styling, although its lines are sharper and a little more distinctive than the curvy, but slightly anonymous G37. The US-market cars will be launched with a pair of V6 petrol engines, one of them linked to a hybrid system, but in Britain the Q50 will also be sold with four-cylinder engines – petrol and diesel – sourced from Mercedes.
The cabin looks suitably high-tech, with a pair of touch-screens in the centre console instead of the traditional single unit. However, brand awareness and the spread of dealer networks will continue to define Infiniti's success (or failure) in the UK for now; the company's fear must be that not enough people get to experience any improvements that the Q50 brings.
Infiniti isn't alone in bringing a 3 Series rival to Detroit; fellow Japanese brand Lexus is showing its new IS model, too.
Due on sale in the UK in the summer, the IS gets a smart new look that incorporates a larger, more distinctive front grille and a pair of tail-lights that seem to 'melt' around the corners and down the rear flanks. It's a neat, attractive approach that has resulted in a slightly more distinctive look than the Infiniti Q50's.
Lexus claims the new IS has greater practicality than before, thanks to a wider body and a longer wheelbase, plus thinner front seatbacks designed to increase the amount of rear legroom. Its fascia takes cues from the larger GS, with a large central screen that allows the rest of the dashboard layout to remain relatively clear and uncluttered.
The key to the IS's success, though, will be its engines. There will be no diesel-powered rival for the BMW 320d; instead Lexus is offering the IS300, which mates a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine with an electric motor. The firm is promising that the car's CO2 emissions will be less than 100g/km; they'll need to be if the IS is to stand any chance against the diesel opposition from not just BMW, but also Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Tesla Model X
Tesla is a relatively unknown brand in the UK, but the electric vehicle pioneer is gaining some traction in key markets such as the US – and its new Model X should help its cause further.
The Model X is a neatly styled, fully electric, seven-seat SUV that shares a fair chunk of its components with Tesla's pretty Model S saloon. It is offered with a choice of battery capacities, with ranges of 210 or 270 miles, and the excellent torque from its electric motors means that it can crack 0-60mph in just 4.4 seconds – quicker than most sports cars.
Unlike the Model S, the new SUV gets a four-wheel-drive system, but its most notable feature is a pair of gullwing-style rear doors. Other packaging tricks include a front boot, which helps to improve load capacity when the car's third row of seats is being used.
Tesla's early days have been hampered by concerns over its technologies, the slow development of electric vehicle infrastructures around the world, and cash flow. However, the firm now seems to have a coherent strategy with novel, appealing vehicles. We look forward to putting them to the test soon.
Audi RS6 Avant, Audi RS7
Audi decided to appeal to America's petrolheads by unveiling two new RS variants on its stand. We'd already seen pictures of the RS6 Avant, but it made its public debut in the metal alongside the similarly powered RS7.
Both cars get a 4.0-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 petrol engine, with 552bhp and 553lb ft on tap, plus an eight-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel drive.
The RS7 looked smart, though the combination of the same brutal pace and A6 Avant practicality made the RS6 Avant look particularly appealing. Admirable gains in fuel economy and CO2 efficiency notwithstanding, it makes us feel guilty for even looking at it, but if the chassis settings can live up to the straight-line pace, the RS6 Avant could be a heck of a rival for the Mercedes E63 Estate.
By John McIlroy
Our reviews are based on hard data and thorough testing in the real world.
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