Detroit: A shade of green

Road cars

D’you know, this city – this city is hurting bad.’ The words may have been new, but the sentiment they expressed is one I’ve heard too many times in relation to the once great metropolis of Detroit. I ask after the city’s health every time I come here and always to the people best placed to answer it: cab drivers. As we drove down streets populated by glassless buildings and listless vagrants on our way to the Cobo Hall – the venue this year as ever for the Detroit motor show – I wondered how Motor City was going to talk its way out of its current troubles this time.

Truly I have never seen so many brave faces collected together under one roof, nor quite so much energy expended not letting the facts get in the way of a well-spun story. Was Ford talking about having to offload Jaguar and Land Rover? Was Chrysler talking about being off-loaded by Daimler? They were not. Things weren’t that bad, apparently; the storm had been weathered and soon all would be well again. It would have carried more weight if the thousands of media gathered from around the world had not heard it all before. Besides, whatever was said, the corporate body language was impossible to mistake.

The showmanship that has been the hallmark of the Big Three at this time of year was notable only for its absence. This year there were no cars falling through ceilings, no chief execs walking through brick walls, no attempt at all to celebrate the industry upon which this city made its name. Heads are down and seem likely to stay that way for some time.

But you cannot accuse the indigenous industry of failing at least to attempt to address the issues that dog their businesses. From a country more comfortable with small blocks than small cars, all the talk was of lightweight strategies, while most of the concepts were based around flexible fuel, fuel cell and hybrid technologies. They seem even and at last to be embracing diesel power. But surely the strangest sight of the show was the hybrid-powered Hummer unveiled by GM’s chief Rick Wagoner not long after he’d informed us that global oil consumption is currently running at a nice round 1000 barrels per second. When Hummer builds a small and environmentally considerate hybrid – albeit as a concept car – you know that even in Detroit, a city that historically reacts to threats to its existence with all the alacrity of a Brontosaurus with a T-Rex on its tail, the message is finally getting through.

By contrast, the Europeans are on a different arc of the curve. With their environmental pitches laid out long ago, they felt comfortable talking about how being frugal and having fun are not mutually exclusive concepts. To this end I sat down with Volker Mornhinweg, the enigmatic head of Mercedes’ AMG department – and, as such, someone the ultra-powerful, car-hating green lobby in Germany must rank as one of their country’s more wanted environmental criminals – and suggested that AMG could no longer sustain a business model based simply on building ever more powerful and profligate cars.

“There are other ways of doing it,” he replied, “and we’ve started already with our Black Series cars.” These are cars that derive their speed from the reduction of weight as much as the addition of power, and while the first, based on the SLK, was rushed, under-developed and unpleasant, I recently spent a few days in the CLK variant and can report that it is quite outstanding. Indeed it seems that no subject is beyond discussion at AMG these days. There was a time when, had I mentioned the possibility of a diesel-powered AMG product, Herr Mornhinweg would have choked on his coffee, but now he just smiles and agrees with me that, now the refinement issues of multi-cylinder diesels have been overcome, diesel has attributes – particularly a surfeit of readily available low-end torque – that would suit the brand very well.

Audi, however, has already twigged this and showed a unique and, if it goes into production, groundbreaking supercar. It looks just like a standard R8 with a rather excessive fresh air requirement, so large and multitudinous are the extra vents and inlets that have been cut into its body (including a monstrous NACA duct in the roof). In fact they’re all there to feed and cool the mighty 5.5-litre V12 diesel engine crammed inside its engine bay. With 500bhp, a 0-60mph time of under 4sec and a top speed ‘in excess of 185mph’, this is not just by far the quickest diesel car ever made, it is the world’s first oil-burning supercar, too.

Even Ferrari is playing the environmental card. We’d gone to Detroit hoping to see the much-rumoured 599GTB California with its convertible roof, but instead we were treated to a very standard looking F430 Spider with the word ‘Bio Fuel’ scrawled down its front and side in bright green ink just for good measure. You can’t buy this Ferrari of course, not least because you’d struggle to find anywhere to fill it up, but nevertheless it has been tuned to run on E85 bio-fuel (a blend of 85 per cent bio-ethanol and 15 per cent petrol) which is not only renewable and drops CO2 emissions slightly, it also adds another 10bhp, allowing Ferrari to claim the car is both quicker and more environmentally considerate. Whether this will form even part of Ferrari’s commitment to drop its cars’ emissions by 40 per cent by 2012 remains to be seen.

Other supercar manufacturers, such as Porsche and Aston Martin, were silent on account of boycotting the show altogether. The US is a critical market to both, but the core of their business lies on the east and west coasts, not in the frozen north of Michigan.

On the way back to the airport to board the BA flight home, it occurred to me that the show and city are both shadows of their once great selves. Next year I shall doubtless return to see if the much mooted recovery was, indeed, all just talk, but it will be a US airline that brings me here. After March, British Airways will no longer fly here. Lack of demand, apparently.

Back in its heyday, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the US; now it doesn’t even make the top 10. At the moment, it is still home to the largest car company in the world but, by this time next year, even that last great claim to fame is likely to be a thing of the past.