January 14, 2014 at 8:51 am

The roar is back at Detroit auto show

The Audi stand draws a crowd at Monday's press preview for the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center. The show has a ripple effect throughout the Metro area, pumping $365 million into the local economy, says NAIAS spokesman Joe Rohatynski. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

A Chevy motorcade snarled Monday rush hour on Interstate 75 Monday as 50 C7 Corvettes accompanied their snarling sibling — the 625 hp Z06 — to its debut at Cobo Center. Camouflaged in black and white spots and chained to a trailer, the Vette looked like a wild animal on its way to the Big Top.

The automotive circus is back in town.

After years of losses and government-intervention to save a crippled industry, the Stingray parade was testimony that the North American International Auto Show has put its worst days in the rear-view mirror. Trucks, horsepower, and high tech dominated Monday’s media kickoff in downtown Detroit.

Where fuel sippers once begged for recession-pinched customers, big trucks and sports cars flexed their muscles.

Where necks once craned for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, journalists scrambled for a glimpse at GM CEO, Mary Barra. Where glitzy concepts were thought an endangered species, innovative prototypes are back in fashion.

Even once-dingy Cobo has received an extreme makeover, its riverfront glass wall giving it the airy feel of a sunlit airport concourse.

The main floor was humming Monday as the curtain came up on two days of 50 new car reveals.

More than 5,000 automotive journalists from around the globe rushed the doors at 7 a.m. to get the best seat for Detroit’s most closely guarded secret: Ford’s all-new F-150. Reporters waited with an anxiousness normally reserved for $100,000 super-cars, but Ford’s high-tech electronics and unprecedented change to an aluminum suit marked this truck design as radical as any ground-hugging sports car.

But before Ford could pull the rabbit from its hat, GM stole some of the Blue Oval’s thunder as the the General swept the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.

The Corvette took Top Car honors (was there every any doubt?) and the Chevy Silverado pickup was named truck of the year, serving notice that the F-150 has competition aplenty.

Indeed, the show floor was a rolling game of one-upmanship as manufactures have invested $250 million in sleek displays to capture media — and public — attention.

The Great Recession memory of yawning spaces and cheap displays has all but faded. This year’s exhibits are as lavish as ever with even budget-conscious car-maker Hyundai offering a swank, second-story hospitality suite.

“It’s great to see everybody really excited about the car business again,” Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz told The Detroit News. “It’s almost like we haven’t been through the last five years.”

“These are great times!” bellowed GM product ringmaster Mark Reuss, pumping his fist and celebrating Chevy’stwin awards on stage Monday morning.

Reuss was one of a number of celebrity Detroit execs that roamed the big tent Monday, including GM’s first female CEO Barra, moustache-twirling Mercedes leader Dieter Zetsche, Ford scion Bill Ford, and Chrysler mastermind Sergio Marchionne. With GM and Chrysler loans repaid, these executives are all masters of their domains once more. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to tour the show this week? Joe who?

The show is clicking on all cylinders. Long-maligned Cobo is a gem after its $280 million facelift, making it cool to hang out downtown again. Hotels report 85 percent occupancy rates this week (70 percent when the doors open to the public, January 18 through Jan 26) and local restaurants and watering holes will be busy feeding hungry scribes and 800,000 public visitors.

The show has a ripple effect throughout the metro area, pumping $365 million into the local economy, says NAIAS spokesman Joe Rohatynski. Compare that to the coveted, 2006 Super Bowl which the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau estimated brought a $275 million boost.

They come to see the cars. And it’s not just the Big Three that are shining. Foreign automakers like BMW, Audi, and Porsche have brought a cornucopia of new electrics, sports cars, and SUVs — and a tail of journalists to Detroit. Thirty percent of NAIAS media are from overseas

Even staid Toyota got into the act, introducing a sexy new concept sports car called the FT1 that harked back to the company’s 1990s Porsche-fighter, the Supra. Toyota design guru Kevin Hunter said the FT1 was “the passion of a new Toyota we are evolving into.” We are, he said, “driven less my consensus now.”

The consensus of show watchers, however, is that Cobo looks like a million bucks. When the Corvette Z06 finally made its way from I-75 to the stage Monday morning, its driver revved the monster V-8, shaking the rafters. That circus roar is back.

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com.or Twitter @HenryEPayne

Silverado Vehicle Chief Engineer Jeff Luke, left, and new GM Product ... (John F. Martin / Chevrolet)
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