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The Motown Show's Hottest Rides

Want speed, looks, luxury, and power? Here are the most imagination-stoking entries in five categories at this year's auto extravaganza

By David Welch

Going to the Detroit auto show, or any major car show for that matter, is a bit like seeing an Indiana Jones movie. You get plenty of thrills. The props are always first-rate. And if you suspend all disbelief, everything is possible. What a blast.

Then the screen dims. The lights come on. The movie is over. And by the time all the cool concepts you saw at the auto show hit the dealers, they're dumbed-down versions of the stunning displays that originally took center stage.

Never mind that. Let's suspend our disbelief for a little while longer. Here are my top five selections from this year's Jan. 5-7 Detroit auto extravaganza, the vehicles that fired my imagination with visions of luxury, speed, and S-curves.

Best Concept Car: The Cadillac Sixteen was easily the most impressive vehicle in the Detroit show this year. The bold ultraluxury coupe is the kind of machine General Motors (GM ) car czar Robert A. Lutz always dreamed of building. And this one outdoes any of the superlux concepts he did at Chrysler.

Designed as a modern interpretation of the long, stately luxury cars of the 1930s, the Sixteen spans 19 feet, and it's as sleek as a panther. Its V-16 engine kicks out 1,000 horsepower, yet can get 20 miles per gallon. It's able to run on 4, 8, or 16 cylinders to maximize fuel economy or power. One great feature: The huge motor rests beneath a two-door hood that opens from each side the way luxurious Caddies did back in the '30s.

Cadillac Sixteen

I asked Lutz if this looker will make it to production. He took a sip from his martini and said he hopes GM can make it. But his boss, GM CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr., was less optimistic: "We have a lot of work to do to make this car."

Coolest Car: Chrysler's Crossfire sport coupe is a uniquely styled gem with a dramatic front end that yields to a a fastback in the rear, as if it were designed in another era. It's best feature is the interior. This might be the first American-made car to have a dashboard as nicely styled and crafted as an import. The German half of DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) had a lot to do with that.

Chrysler Crossfire

The rear-wheel-drive, 215-horsepower Crossfire should sell for more than $30,000. It had tough competition in this category from the newly redesigned Mustang GT from Ford (F ), which is reminiscent of the late '60s Mustangs, and the Mazda RX-8 four-door sports car. The Crossfire is just more original. The Infiniti FX-45 luxury wagon from Nissan (NSAN ) is another nice-looking contender here.

Best Truck: Everyone in the auto industry was on edge waiting for the Nissan Titan full-size pickup, which goes on sale in December. It's the first foreign pickup to truly challenge Detroit's profit stronghold. Sure, Toyota (TM ) has the Tundra, but it's kind of like a kid brother to the Big Three pickups. It looks like them, but it's smaller and weaker. The Titan is as roomy as the domestics, wears the tough-looking front grill of a real truck, and has a 5.6-liter V-8 engine that pumps out more than 300 horsepower. This vehicle will make Detroit take notice.

Nissan Titan

Volkswagen showed its Toureg sport-ute, which is quite nice but late to the party. And the Porsche Cayenne SUV? Imagine, if you will, a bloated Porsche 911 with huge nostrils. Then again, you may not want to.

Biggest Head Turner: The Bentley Continental GT coupe is curvaceous and buff, a real departure from Bentley's traditional burly look. It goes on sale later this year at a price around $140,000. The new $320,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom (made by BMW, which now owns the Rolls-Royce name) is awe-inspiring. It's reminiscent of a classic Rolls, but it's not the gorgeous car that Bentley is putting out.

Bentley Continental GT

Most Environmentally Friendly: Toyota's Lexus luxury division stole this category hands-down. In late 2004, Toyota will include an electric motor in its RX 330 SUV to assist the vehicle's V-6 gasoline engine. Together, the two motors will produce V-8 engine power in a five-passenger SUV that gets about 35 miles per gallon.

GM says it plans to put a hybrid system in 12 vehicles by 2007, including its Chevy Malibu family sedan, Chevy Equinox, and Saturn Vue SUVs, and eventually in the large Suburban and Tahoe sport-utes. That's pretty smart, but as usual, Toyota will get there first.

O.K., raise the lights.

Welch covers the auto industry from BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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