DETROIT, MICH. — The auto show is experienced in brief but vital bursts of color, movement and sound, so I’ll give it to you exactly as I experienced it in real time during the whirlwind press days. The 2012 North American International Auto Show this year was “charged” on a lot of different levels. There were many, many electric cars on the stands and unveiled (natch) and the energy had returned, after a couple of years with the industry in the doldrums. “The show is hopping, bopping and the mood is wonderful, quite a contrast from 2009,” said Gabe Shenhar of Consumer Reports.


And deservedly so… The Hyundai Elantra won the North American Car of the Year. This is Hyundai’s second win (it triumphed in 2009 for the Genesis). “The Elantra is in a sweet spot in a very competitive market, up against the Ford Focus and others,” said John Krafcik, Hyundai’s North American CEO. The award won’t help sales all that much because the company is sellin’ ‘em as fast as it makes ‘em, but it will help brand image. I’ve long been touting the virtues of this 40-mpg highway car, which can be nicely equipped for something like $17,500. A loaded one is $22K. The Range Rover Evoque won the truck award. I would have gone with the Honda CR-V.

I can’t wait… Someone randomly told me that the next Enzo Ferrari will be offered in a hybrid version. Sounds like science fiction, but the guy was from Fiat, and it turns out to be true, or at least a very good rumor. It’s a V-12 hybrid, though.

A big production… Ford held its news conference in an amphitheater where Roman gladiators could have fought to the death. It was cold, but the Ford Fusion (right) — sold in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions — was hot, the hit of the show (along with the Dodge Dart, an ultra-clever hybrid of all-American attitude and Italian go power). The Fusion’s styling resembles a Focus on steroids with the Elantra’s clever coupe roofline. Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry, said that the company reduced carbon dioxide emissions 10 percent in the last model year alone. The Fusion’s green iterations pair with the Focus Electric to give consumers a great deal of choice. Your move, consumers.

A perfect 300… Jerome Guillen, program manager for the Tesla Model S, told me there is “zero doubt” that the car’s Signature edition (which sat on the show stand) would be capable off achieving 300-mile range on a charge. He spent 10 years at Daimler (which owns part of Tesla), and he said the Model S was the “most innovative car” he’d ever worked on. He pointed with pride to a seven-foot long bright molding unbroken by door openings, the kind of thing perfectionists like Elon Musk (and Steve Jobs) demand (and get).

The EPA speaks… By chance, I wandered into a press conference featuring EPA head Lisa Jackson, the Department of Transportation’s Ray LaHood, Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). Much of what they said about the 54.5 mpg CAFE standard was familiar to me, but when the veteran Dingell pointed out that the first auto show car he looked at with his father was a Model T, that got my attention.


Keep on truckin’… The Nissan Leaf (with 10,000 sales in the U.S.) is about to get a sibling, in this case a commercial van. It’s definitely in the family, because it stole the Leaf’s nose. Joe Castelli, a vice president for commercial fleets, said the van (which is based on a global platform that’s big in China but not sold in the U.S.) is “the next step in Nissan’s electrification strategy." It fits right in. Its competitors include the Ford Transit Connect and, it can get funded, the Bright Idea. From what Castelli said, Nissan’s goal will be to bring it in at a reasonable price and jump-start the market. The e-NV200 has what is essentially the Leaf’s drivetrain, is being tested by FedEx in London, and went through a trial with the Japanese post office. With the ability to haul 1,500-pound payloads, it hits the global market (countries not decided yet) in 2014.

The NSX is back… Acura needs a hit, and in Detroit it unveiled three new models, including a refreshed RDX compact sport utility, the sporty ILX sedan (aimed at the “professional” buyer) and, the standout of the three, a brand-new NSX ground-shaker introduced by Takanobu Ito (who worked on the first version of this supercar, but now president and CEO of Honda Motor Company). The NSX was very cool, both ultra-modern and deeply evocative of the earlier car. It’s a car that will be good for Honda’s soul. And the good news is that it will be made-in-U.S.A., at Honda’s operation in Ohio.

An afternoon pickup… I stopped by and took a look at the latest concept Smart car, a pickup truck designed to carry around a bicycle (right). Commute half-way, then do the rest of the trip on two wheels. The vehicle screamed show car — there was no provision for a top. It was a stopgap measure as Smart (now back under the Mercedes brand) relaunches and prepares for an all-new model in 2014.

This is part one. Expect to see more of these dispatches from the frontlines in Detroit.

Here's a bit more on the Dodge Dart, via video from the show floor:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Detroit Auto Show: The excitement's back
The North American International Auto Show is re-energized, and here are some of the high-voltage highlights.