Detroit hosts an industry in ascendance

Among automotive journalists, a shorthand exists to reference iterations of the Detroit auto show: the most important annual showcase for car companies in North America.

The 2009 edition is remembered as the recession show. In 2012, it was the NSX show, when Acura’s beloved, iconic supercar was reimagined as a hybrid concept. The 2013 edition, where press previews concluded on 15 January, may ultimately be remembered as the swagger show, where brands rode in on a wave of record profits.  

Like the industry itself, the show appeared healthy, vital and interesting. This vigour was demonstrated both by the quality of the introductions – just look at the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, the Maserati Quattroporte and the BMW Concept 4 Series – as well as the variety of those introductions – consider the hybrid Cadillac ELR, the family-guy Kia Cadenza and the globe-straddling Ford Atlas Concept.

In press conferences and interviews, automotive executives recounted how their companies had escaped the recession of 2008, announcing sales that had improved on last year's numbers; sales that had improved on their pre-recession numbers; and, in some cases, sales that had battered all-time best numbers.

Emerging brands like Hyundai and Kia have it relatively easy when they set new sales marks, but Volkwagen, which posted some lofty numbers during the Beetle's 1970s heyday, eclipsed all previous performances in 2012, reporting 438,000 in sales in the US. This conveniently came in a year when the VW Group defied a slowdown in Western Europe to post its highest-ever annual global sales.  

It was a show where brand executives and their mouthpieces, keenly attuned to how anything they did, or did not do, would be interpreted, stomped right through eggshells. If a company toiled on a new project that it hoped would attract customers and fill its coffers, it would not let environmental concerns or geopolitical intrigues block its path. That meant trucks, vans, SUVs, sedans, coupes and convertibles. It meant gasoline-powered, electric, diesel and hybrid. And it meant, in the case of the Volkswagen CrossBlue Concept, a plug-in diesel-electric hybrid.

Chevrolet dutifully noted that its new Corvette Stingray would achieve better gas mileage than the outgoing version, but the main emphasis was on the sports car’s 450 horsepower and ability to turn that power into speed. The Stingray badge alone might be worth the price of admission (a price, granted, that has yet to be announced).

With the new IS and Q50, Lexus and Infiniti respectively renewed their assaults on the BMW 3 Series – the sine qua non of luxury sport sedans – just as BMW strengthened its defences by introducing the Concept 4 Series coupe. And lest the 3 Series be underrepresented in Detroit, BMW brought the 320i, a less expensive complement to its 328i and 335i compact sport sedans. (Competitors cannot beat even one 3 Series sedan, and now there are three?)

Lincoln – pardon – the Lincoln Motor Company would like very much to not go out of business. Ford Motor chief executive Alan R Mulally asserted his confidence that Lincoln, the Blue Oval’s luxury brand, would avoid the black hole it is so precariously orbiting. Based on the appealing style of the new Ford Escape-based Lincoln MKC crossover concept, there is reason for optimism.

On the topic of black holes, there was Honda's emergence from its own aesthetic malaise. In Detroit the company broke through with the Urban SUV Concept. Honda spokespeople were typically short on technical details for this spritely crossover, but its crisp lines struck a sweet spot.

Across the aisle, Honda’s Acura luxury division showed that it, too, was undergoing a course correction with a handsome MDX Prototype, which will grace US showrooms this summer as a 2014 model. To be offered in both front- and all-wheel-drive configurations, the MDX should help the company’s North American sales, which have languished behind those of its primary target, Lexus.

With imitators pressing it from all sides, why should Mercedes-Benz, the self-described world's first carmaker, seek to expand its offering? Surely some of the brand’s rear-drive purists are aghast at the notion of a front-drive sedan, the CLA, parading around with a three-pointed star on its nose. But many of today's younger shoppers hold no bias against front-wheel-drive cars, which may possess better traction but lack the down-the-road dynamism of rear-drivers. Mercedes chairman Dieter Zetsche thinks the CLA will sell well, and it looks like a good bet.

Over two days, Detroit hosted an industry amassing momentum. Provided underperforming markets like Western Europe can get their houses in order – and that is an open question – attendees of the 2014 edition might witness an even more vital and varied array of production-bound vehicles and concepts. Sustained swagger: Detroit likes the sound of that.