From the archive: game-changers storm 2001 Detroit motor show

Until the COVID pandemic hit, Autocar’s January news pages were traditionally filled by America’s biggest motor show, hosted by Detroit, Michigan – Motown.

The 2001 edition in hindsight was especially notable. Yes, it was here where we were all enlightened by the facelifted Daewoo Leganza. 

Lol, okay, sorry: it was here where BMW’s Chris Bangle first showed his controversial Flame Surfacing, Nissan previewed the 350Z, Volvo signalled its SUV intentions and Volkswagen took the first step in its 20-year journey to a revival of the iconic Type 2 ‘hippie bus’.

Autocar Archive returns: 128 years of magazines available online

BMW had acquired new panel-making technology that enabled compound curves to be produced with one pressing, and its veteran chief designer sought to capitalise on it, creating a new vibe that took influence from deconstructivist architecture (think Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao).

“Flame Surfacing gives body surfaces the freedom to turn in on themselves and create a series of concave and convex design lines,” explained BMW as it unwrapped the X Coupé concept – a Z3-like but high-sided sports car based on the chassis of the X5, released a year earlier as BMW’s first-ever SUV.

As if it having four-wheel drive wasn’t bold enough, the X Coupé’s 3.0-litre turbo straight six drank diesel (it was taken from the 330d).

It was said to preview the Z4, due in 2002, but while that car indeed was a Flame Surfacing design, it was still a conventional roadster and powered by a petrol engine.

Interestingly, Audi had shown off a similar concept in 2000 – the quite fantastic Steppenwolf, which looked like a TT plonked onto an oversized chassis – but likewise never put it into production.

Perhaps the closest thing to the X Coupé the public ever got from BMW was actually the X6, the X5’s sloped-rear sibling, which arrived in 2007 as the first real SUV-coupé.

Those are in vogue today – as, of course, are raised, 4×4 sports cars such as the Porsche 911 Dakar…

Nissan’s Z Concept was far more conventional and arguably more exciting, previewing a successor to the Z32-generation 300ZX, which by then looked very dated, having been designed way back in 1986.

“[It] represents Z brought into the 21st century,” explained design director Shiro Nakamura. “Our desire was to honour its Z-ness yet not be retro.” Indeed, the team had toned down the 240Z similarities apparent in their 1999 concept.

The new TT rival from Japan had a 3.5-litre V6 sending 260bhp to its rear wheels alone, making it good for 0-60mph in less than 6sec.

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