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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2011

Detroit show revs up local car buffs


DETROIT — Bill Dittman, Sr., wasn't in the market for a new car Saturday as he climbed in and out of dozens of vehicles on the opening day of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But that didn't stop the 56-year-old Toledoan and avid auto enthusiast from jotting a few mental notes about what's on offer.

"We've come up here the last four or five years, just to look around," said Mr. Dittman, who has tracked all the vehicles he's ever purchased and bought Nos. 127 and 128 in 2010: a Shelby 500 Mustang and a Lincoln MKX crossover.

"My wife is in love with her Lincoln, and that Shelby is the most fun you can have with your clothes on," Mr. Dittman said as he inspected the interior of a Cadillac CTS-V sports coupe.

Thousands of automotive aficionados and potential car buyers jammed into downtown Detroit's Cobo Center Saturday for the start of the 23rd annual Detroit auto show, open daily through Jan. 23. Some were only window shopping, waiting for the nation's economic recovery to reach them, while others climbed into and out of the more than 700 vehicles on display, looking for their next car, pickup, or SUV.

Regis Wormely, 24, rode up to Detroit from Toledo with more than a dozen others to look at the latest products from Detroit's three automakers and those from other parts of the globe. He spent some time staring at the new Chrysler 300 sedan, the resurgent automaker's flagship luxury offering that has been completely redesigned for the 2011 model year.

"I like this," he said as he sat in the front passenger seat of the 300, inspecting the vehicle's new instrument cluster and info screen. "I think that especially with the [old style] big grill being optional, you can't beat it."

After two years of sparse shows that featured little more than cars on carpets, automakers this year have ramped up their public displays at the Detroit auto show, using interactive kiosks, video games, and live demonstrations to keep show-goers engaged and enthusiastic.

Sometimes the displays bordered on the surreal, as when hundreds gathered around a group of mechanics from Ford to watch them take apart a new Ecoboost engine that had been recently removed from an F-150 pickup after more than 150,000 miles of grueling tests.

Others lined up to take their turns in free racing simulator video games, played on several slot-car race tracks set up by automakers, and participated in game-show style displays, answering questions for prizes.

It was enough to keep show-goers busy for several hours as they wandered from open car to open car.

"I'm a big Ford guy, but I like to see what everybody else has to offer," said Dave Smith, 29, who drove up from his home in Gibsonburg with lifelong friend Chuck Coleman, 29, of Clyde, Ohio. An avid enthusiast of the Ford Mustang, Mr. Smith said he was impressed by how far automakers had progressed in developing alternative powertrains. "The technology that Mercedes has here, that's pretty cool."

But Mr. Coleman, who helps build racing engines for Kistler Engines in Fremont, was less enthusiastic than his friend about electric-drive sports cars such as the neon yellow Mercedes SLS AMG E-Cell. "Remember, there's no replacement for displacement," Mr. Coleman joked.

For some, the auto show isn't so much about spotting technological advances or even rising horsepower and mileage ratings.

"I like all the new paint colors and effects that they have coming out," said John Snyder of Lambertville, the self-avowed "Dodge man" who drives a 2008 Dodge Challenger sports car. "The new styling on the Mopars is just phenomenal. Dodge is making some really good-looking cars now."

Others who traveled to downtown Detroit, such as Toledoans Brendan Olzak and his fiancee, Samantha Klear, did so more for a change of pace and an opportunity to be entertained in the middle of a long, gray winter.

"We like to see the concept cars, some of the technologies, some of the hybrids," Ms. Klear said, standing next to a white 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara.

"But mostly, we just wanted to get out of Toledo for a day," Mr. Olzak said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091

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