Flair alive and well in Detroit

Chrysler led the charge of innovative designs at the Detroit show. Andrew Frankel reports

Those who still wonder where the driving force for innovative car design is residing right now were clearly not in Detroit during the first week of the year.

The North American International Auto Show has grown in stature over the years to a point where, now, thousands are prepared to brave the depths of the Michigan winter and the streets of this far-from-safe city to flock to the Cobo Hall for America’s automobile extravaganza.

Despite it being by far the smallest of the US’s big three car manufacturers, the Chrysler Corporation dominated the show with both the quality and the quantity of its new designs. Most exciting of all was the Dodge Copperhead, a junior Viper designed to appeal to those looking for a little more excitement than that provided by the Mercedes-Benz SLK, recently crowned North American Car of the Year. No-one was fooled by its unveiling among four other concept cars. Unlike such as the gloriously mad Dual Cowl Phaeton, the Copperhead looked distinctly production ready, all the way from its brand new 2.7-litre V6 to its suggested £30,000 list price.

The biggest gasps of all, though, were reserved for the Chrysler Concord and Dodge Intrepid, production-ready road cars so gorgeous that they would need to be staggeringly inept on the road not to be a runaway success.

Most of the interest over at General Motors surrounded the new Corvette, a car which, just five years ago, seemed unlikely ever to see the light of day. Opinion over its styling was mixed, some thinking it derivative and unadventurous, but no-one was quibbling over its 170mph-plus top speed or sub-5sec 0-60mph capability.

The Europeans were having a quieter time, saving the bulk of their news for the shows at Geneva and Frankfurt. Even so, Mercedes chose to show its new CLK coupe, a full four-seat, two-door design based on the C-class. The response from the attendant press was muted, perhaps as much because of the impossibly hard act demanded by the gorgeous SLK it follows as for its attractive but hardly breathtaking lines.

There was better news over on the Volvo stand, where the new C70 convertible, due for production in 1998, was revealed. Volvo is a company undergoing the most thorough reinvention in its history and it is a delight to see that, as it strives to attract younger customers without damaging its traditional appeal, there is still room for genuine flair and style.