A New Spirit in the Motor City

Detroit — The optimism is back. The crowds that attended the media days of the North American International Auto Show here, which ended today, were nearly 35 percent larger than they were in 2012, and even larger than those of the mostly dark days of 2008-2011.

Most notable was the talk on the display floors of the sprawling Cobo Center, where the show took place. The conversation was about new products, instead of corporate demise.

And there was something noteworthy in that, too.

In the past, it had been routine for many automotive journalists attending the show to give short shrift to product offerings from Lincoln, the luxury division of Ford Motor Co. But this year’s Lincoln presentation, hosted by William Clay “Bill” Ford Jr. and Alan Mulally, respectively the company’s executive chairman and president/chief executive, played to a huge standing-room-only crowd.

The immediate attraction was the Lincoln MkC concept vehicle — a swanky crossover-utility/wagon that promises to add a considerable amount of panache and technological sophistication to an all-too-often dour family transportation segment.

But more important was the dual assertion by Ford and Mulally that a reborn Lincoln, now formally called the Lincoln Motor Co., is here to stay. The executives said that the mother company will nurture Lincoln with all of the money and design and engineering talent it needs to remain alive and competitive.

They’ll have to keep that promise. There are rivals aplenty competing for the luxury-car market, among them upstarts such as South Korea’s Hyundai and the still-struggling but determined Tesla electric-car company.

Hyundai showed off its HCD-14 luxury concept car, a vehicle as odd in appearance as its nomenclature. Instead of “odd,” let us just call it downright ugly — a wide-mouthed, shark-faced behemoth masquerading as modern automotive design. Here’s hoping it remains a concept only.

But California-based Tesla is moving in the right direction, which is why I join Motor Trend magazine in crowning Tesla’s Model S the Car of the Year. Tesla’s executives say they want to remove “every hurdle there is to people driving the electric car.” The sleek yet accommodating Model S goes a long way in that direction. Through Tesla’s recharging technology (which the company calls “supercharging” in reference to electrical recharging only) the Model S can be powered up to run 150 miles after a 30-minute plug-in. That’s remarkable.

And then there is the Tesla Model X, a crossover-utility/wagon highlighted by its rear “Falcon Doors,” which rise upward at the push of a key-fob button to grant easy access to rear-seat passengers.

Inside the Model X is a multi-configurable 17-inch screen that effectively renders the car a motorized iPad.

In a meeting room on the third floor of Cobo Center, I was among the journalists meeting with executives of Continental Automotive Group, a global automotive supplier and product-research company planning to change the automobile as we know it.

Continental is planning to bring “completely automated” cars and trucks to market by 2025 — that is, cars and trucks that drive themselves. The idea is to eliminate vehicle crashes through the development of cars and trucks that “talk” to one another, or to infrastructure transponders, thereby permitting a continuous, orderly, free flow of traffic.

A push of a button would allow drivers of a completely automated car to become drivers again. But there are so many legal, political and technical questions raised by this proposed new technology that it will take some time, possibly more than the next 12 years, to work them out. Stay tuned.

The winners of the 2013 North American Car of the Year and North American Truck of the Year were the all-new Cadillac ATS sedan and Dodge Ram 1500 truck, respectively. The award is given by a national, dues-paying panel of 49 writers, editors and broadcasters.

I am no longer a member of that panel because I refuse to pay any more dues. The Washington Post already pays a stipend for the cars we review.

At any rate, I agree with the North American Car of the Year panel’s choice of the Cadillac ATS. I drove the ATS Performance model on my usual round-trip run from Virginia to New York, and on a long sojourn through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is the tightest, best-built car Cadillac has made, and one of the most fuel-efficient. It easily competes with the BMW 3-series. The proof is in the drive — and the pricing. I invite you to do your own comparison test.

But I disagree with the North American panel’s choice of Truck of the Year. I would have gone with the revamped 2013 Ford F-150. There is a reason the F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for a generation. And there are many reasons — fuel efficiency, terrific torque, build quality and overall design among them — that it probably will remain that way in 2013.

That’s my take on the 25th running of the North American International Auto Show.

his week’s Nuts & Bolts features particulars on the 2013 Car of the Year, the Cadillac ATS sedan.