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The 2014 Detroit Auto Show: Ambivalence And Ambiguity

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Detroit Auto Show logo

Detroit Auto Show logo

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Auto shows aren't just about the carmakers getting a chance to spew their latest marketing language at 90 decibels to the sternum-smashing beat of electro-pop while the press looks on in adoration. Okay, so they mostly are about that, but if you pay attention, you can pick out the zeitgeist, the Unseen Hand that pushes out new products, and maybe, if you're lucky, you can infer why.

At least, usually you can.

At the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, there was no pervasive theme, nothing tying new product introductions together, no clear mission for the industry as a whole. It was scattershot, with everything from 625-horsepower supercars to fuel-sippers to the simply awkward or mundane. Being the home show of America's biggest automakers, you might expect them to use it to showcase their plans for the future. They did. We still have no clear mission statement.

2015 Ford F-150 live photos, 2014 Detroit Auto Show

2015 Ford F-150 live photos, 2014 Detroit Auto Show

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The headline item at the Detroit show for many was, naturally, the new 2015 Ford F-150. An aluminum body-in-white over a steel frame make it lighter than you might think possible, even as capabilities continue to climb. A new 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 promises a better balance between power and efficiency. But even the engineering brilliance of the F-150 speaks only to themes of years past, finally catching up to the pickup world. You've gone (light) green? Oh, that's nice.

2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 - 2014 Detroit Auto Show live photos

2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 - 2014 Detroit Auto Show live photos

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Chevy wasn't left empty-handed, of course, especially not after locking down the 2014 North American Car and Truck of the Year awards with the new Silverado and Corvette Stingray. The hottest seventh-generation Corvette yet, the supercharged, (at least) 625-horsepower Z06, made its debut, wearing all manner of go-fast bits--and completely unapologetic about its blatant disregard for gas mileage and eco-friendliness in the pursuit of speed. Fine by us, and we can't wait to drive it. But again, old hat, chum; sure, it's probably the best Corvette that's ever been built, but Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger came out in 2001.

2015 Ford Mustang live photos, 2014 Detroit Auto Show

2015 Ford Mustang live photos, 2014 Detroit Auto Show

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Ford had its own speed demon on display, the 2015 Mustang. Well-styled and even more attractive in person than in photos, the new pony car should prove a sales success, especially with its new 305-horsepower 2.3-liter EcoBoost turbocharged four-cylinder engine option. We're as keen to drive the new Mustang as we are the Corvette Z06--but we're not kidding ourselves that it's any kind of revelation, or that the addition of a small turbo four is ground breaking; the Mustang SVO already wrote that book back in 1984.

2015 Chrysler 200 - 2014 Detroit Auto Show

2015 Chrysler 200 - 2014 Detroit Auto Show

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Chrysler, not to be left out of its hometown shenanigans despite the Italian oversight, brought the all-new Chrysler 200 to the show. It's leaps and bounds prettier than the eponymous car it replaces, and the interior is truly an exception for its price class and segment. Here, we might see a theme in microcosm, if only for Chrysler: it has well and truly turned its ship around, with solid products priced competitively and offering many best-in-class features, carrying on the successes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Charger, Ram 1500, and, to lesser degrees, the SRT Viper and Dodge Dart. But packaging a reasonable amount of tech and luxury into an affordable car, well, that's been the game for 80 years.

There were many cars to like, even a few to get truly excited about, at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show. But was there a theme? Is the industry headed in any general direction? Has the calamity of the bankruptcy and Great Recession era yielded a clarity of purpose that we can all see?

Nope. It's just business as usual.
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