5 hits, misses at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show

In the wake of two hectic days of previews for the Detroit auto show, featuring 5,000 reporters ogling some 40-odd new models from around the world, one thought stands out: Go bold or go home.

The best new models and concepts started with strong ideas and identities that came through at a glance. The weakest shared a lack of unique vision — too many parts that looked like they were swiped from better vehicles.

The good news? Four of the five best will hit the road — while the majority of the worst will remain safely confined to the auto show circuit.

THE HITS

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1. Ford Fusion

Like anything popular, midsize sedans can get boring fast. The new Fusion, which Ford will sell in other countries as the Mondeo, looks anything but. Ford managed to give the Fusion better fuel economy for similar power; the interior also takes a leap ahead. No new concept drew as much attention.

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2. Acura NSX

It’s rare to get a true “supercar” concept at any show, and rarer still from Honda’s luxury arm, which has suffered from a run of disappointing models. The hybrid drive of the NSX concept was the only major break with the tradition set by the original — and Honda vows it will build something very close to this in three years.

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3. Cadillac ATS

General Motors’ new compact luxury sedan took thousands of engineering man-hours to assemble, including numerous trips to Germany’s famed Nürburgring track for chassis tuning and new engines, because GM wanted an honest competitor to the BMW 3 Series. On paper, they got it.

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4. Lexus LF-LC

I spent 20 minutes at the auto show just staring at the Lexus LF-LC, a concept roadster Lexus isn’t expected to build. It’s a shame, because it’s the rare piece of complex, modern automotive design that works as a whole piece. Put this body with the engine from the Lexus LFA supercar, and you’d have a classic.

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5. Porsche 911 Cabriolet

The convertible version of the new Porsche 911 made its debut in Detroit, and it was more than just fitting a fabric roof, building a lighter, more fuel efficient car that’s also more powerful. There’s a reason Porsche has never sold more cars than it does today.

THE MISSES

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1. Smart For-Us pickup

The Smart brand of microcars owned by Mercedes-Benz wouldn’t exist in the United States except for Mercedes’ need to meet fuel economy rules. Turning a Smart into a tiny pickup, then crippling it with an electric motor renders a vehicle that for all its fun graphics couldn’t do much more than golf course duty.

2. Volkswagen e-Bugster

It’s long past time that simply putting an electric motor into a regular model, or building a concept with a lower roof than a production model sparked much enthusiasm. Volkswagen did both for the e-Bugster, which offered little new except for what VW called the “pure theatre” of its start-up system.

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3. Chevrolet 130-R

Chevy says its done research with 9,000 young potential customers to find out what they want in a new car. The result was two coupe concepts; the 140S front-wheel-drive model that seemed mostly derivative but bland, and the 130R, a rear-wheel-drive idea with bits too close to the BMW 1M but lacking any power (only 150 hp in the concept). It did have gold wheels, though.

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4. Lincoln MKZ

The relaunch of the Lincoln brand should begin in earnest with the production version of this MKZ concept arrives later this year. But it will sit across the showroom from the new Fusion, offering the same chassis with somewhat nicer interior bits and a less-attractive exterior a higher price. When the company’s touting that the perforations in the seat leather resembles champagne bubbles, you know they’re stretching.

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5. Honda Accord Coupe

Like the Lincoln MKZ, the Accord coupe is a “concept” that’s only slightly different than a production version. And like the Lincoln, it suffers from a blandness that’s only magnified under the auto show lights. If it looks like a model from two years ago here, it’s not going to do well under the bright lights of a showroom floor, let alone an auto show.

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