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NAIAS 2003: Detroit rediscovers cars

Sherri Collins
May 7, 2004 SHARE
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One observation was made over and over again at the 2003 North American International Auto Show: The Japanese manufacturers are going all out with a swarm of new trucks and SUVs, and the Big Three in Detroit are finally rediscovering cars. European automakers, of course, have been building high-quality, fun-to-drive cars all along, and the debuts at this year's show reaffirmed Europe's expertise in this area.

A couple of exceptions (there always are): Volkswagen unveiled a concept that qualified for a category all its own, and Mercedes-Benz insisted on calling its Grand Sports Tourer a crossover vehicle, even though it really is nothing more than a very large, high-luxe station wagon.

Vehicles that had been touted early--and which have already been seen on these pages--included Jaguar's facelifted S-Type and S-Type R, Volvo's all-new S40 and V50, Mercedes-Benz's diesel-powered E320 CDI and Volkswagen's Passat TDI and Touareg V10 TDI. Number-wise, the Japanese and American OEMs had more to show, but the eight vehicles detailed below did more than hold their own against their behemoth competitors.

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Audi A8L 6.0 quattro
As there is nothing wrong--and everything right--with the V8-powered A8L, the V12-powered version is the equivalent of lots of yummy frosting on an already delicious cake. Propelled by a re-tuned W12 (450 bhp and 428 lb-ft of torque), the aluminum spaceframed A8L 6.0 goes from 0 to 62 mph in 5.2 sec. and has an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. The redesigned front end is indicative of Audi's new aesthetics: a bolder, in-your-face look, which seemed to work well on this big car. As expected, the high-end sedan has enough amenities to rival a luxury hotel. The 12-cylinder A8 will appear in Europe this summer and in North America by the end of 2004.

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Aston Martin DB9 Volante
The convertible version of the DB9 will be handbuilt alongside its coupe sibling and is scheduled to appear this fall. As with the coupe, the Volante is powered by 6-liter V12 outputting 450 bhp, and it reaches 0 to 62 mph in under 5 sec. The fully automated top retracts in 17 sec. and is hidden under a hard tonneau cover. Aston Martin is planning on selling more than 2,000 DB9 models, with a 50/50 split between the coupe and convertible. Expect pricing for the Volante to be around $168k; $150k for the coupe.

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BMW 645Ci Convertible
Hot on the heels of the 645Ci coupe is the first-ever factory convertible 6 Series. The fully automated top has a glass window and can be opened and closed while the vehicle is moving up to 20 mph. When stowed, it folds completely away; when up, the top's rear winglets add a nifty styling element to the open-air 6er. The convertible has all the standard equipment found on the coupe and a similar list of options, including SMG, a sports package (sport seats and steering wheel, sport suspension and 19-in. wheels with performance tires) and Heads-Up Display. The MSRP is $76,995 (coupe: $69,995); both 6 Series models go on sale in the U.S. this March.

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Ferrari 612 Scaglietti
V12 Ferraris are wonderful things, and the all-new 612 Scaglietti, which replaces the 456 2+2, is no exception. Wearing a skin beautifully sculpted by Pininfarina, the 612--6 for capacity, 12 for cylinders--boasts 533 bhp at 7250 rpm and 434 lb-ft of torque at 5250, and goes from 0 to 62 mph in 4.2 sec. Not bad for a 4,056-lb (Euro spec.) car, no? The usual two transmissions are offered: a six-speed manual and the F1 sequential with steering column paddle shifters. Befitting a luxury 2+2 coupe, the 612 is replete with great swaths of leather, aluminum and electronic amenities, including two CD players (in-dash four and in-boot six). Which may prove superfluous, when one should be listening to the glorious sounds of the V12 engine.

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Land Rover Range Stormer
This is Land Rover's first-ever concept vehicle, and it's a pretty cool one. With a very modern design--reminiscent of several Volvo concepts, especially the AAC--and a boatload of new technology, the Range Stormer is where Land Rover would like to go in the near future. The company plans on using all the underpinnings for an upcoming production vehicle. One trick innovation is Terrain Response. Its six settings, from dynamic to deep ruts, adjusts the suspension setup, powertrain, throttle response and traction control for optimum handling and performance, on practically any road--or non-road--surface. Here's to hoping the production version uses the supercharged V8 (borrowed from Jaguar) found under the Range Stormer's hood. That would be trick, indeed.

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Mercedes-Benz Vision Grand Sports Tourer
If this looks familiar, it's because it was shown 2 years ago in Detroit as the Vision GST. The new version showcases a Mercedes-Benz hybrid engine, a technology Stuttgart views as a stopgap measure until hydrogen power is fully evolved. The six-seater Vision Grand Sports Tourer houses a 250-bhp V8 and a 50kW electric motor, producing a combined 314 bhp for a 0 to 62 mph run of 6.6 sec. The vehicle is also the first to combine hybrid drive with permanent all-wheel drive.

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Porsche Special Edition Boxster S
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the 550 Spyder, Porsche has created a commemorative edition of the Boxster S. On sale in the U.S. this March, and priced at $59,900, the Special Edition Boxster S features a boosted 3.2-liter flat six with 264 bhp, a reduced-travel (by 15%) six-speed manual transmission, a distinctive-toned exhaust system, lowered sports suspension (10mm), 5mm wheel spacers, 17-in. wheels (18-in. Carrera wheels optional), silver metallic paint and special badging. Only 1, 953 Special Editions--reflecting the year the Spyder was introduced--will be produced.

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Volkswagen Concept T
Umm...this one threw me. Looking like a cross between VW's Dakar Rally Touareg and a Meyer's Manx, the Concept T was one of those vehicles that elicited more puzzlement than anything else. Featuring all the tricks and gizmos required for serious on- and off-pavement adventures, the Concept T has a 241-bhp V6 mated to a Tiptronic gearbox. As an avant-garde design exercise, it surely must have been fun to work on, which can sometimes be reason enough to do one. The question still remains: What will Volkswagen do with the design? Perhaps nothing. One can only hope.

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By Sherri Collins
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