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Why Can't Detroit Make Cars Like This?

One reason a rescue package for the auto industry remains so unpopular is the firm conviction, widely held by many policymakers and much of the public, that the best cars come from abroad. Sure, Detroit can make adequate vehicles sometimes. But it's still Honda, Toyota, and other foreign automakers who do the most innovation.

A new automobile review of Toyota's latest hybrid, by Washington Post car expert Warren Brown, is likely to solidify that impression:

Many of you familiar with this column know that I'm not exactly an enthusiastic fan of hybrids. I think too many of them are too gimmicky, not efficient enough to justify their generally higher purchase costs, and too laden with unanswered questions--such as end-life battery disposal and assembly line-to-grave energy costs.

I still have my doubts. But after a week in the oh-so-smooth, technologically transparent [Toyota hybrid] I've not only become more of a believer in hybrids, but I've also moved closer than ever to buying a hybrid automobile.

The basics are all good. Exterior design, accented by an edgily sculpted, three-bar grille, is attractive. Overall fit and finish and interior ergonomics--the way things are designed for ease of reach and sight--are excellent. And the car is an information lover's delight, much more so than any hybrid I've driven.

There is what [Toyota] calls a "smart gauge" instrument cluster. It has color liquid-crystal display screens on either side of the car's speedometer. The driver can select from among four information packages, most of which monitor gas-electric power flows and exchanges, and one of which renders your green driving score via an on-screen, electronic growth of green leaves.

...[the car] offers the best fuel economy of any mid-size family sedan on the market ...

So why can't Detroit build these sorts of cars? Well, that's the catch. It does!

With apologies for the bait-and-switch, the above passage isn't about a new Toyota hybrid. It's about the new Ford Fusion hybrid. And Brown isn't shy about the broader implications: "It proves what I've been writing and saying for years. Detroit makes good cars. The only people who don't know that are people, who for reasons both valid and ill-founded, long ago abandoned Detroit. They need to come back and take another look. Detroit has changed."

Now, I don't want to suggest that one good car--or even the word of one good car reviewer--justifies a bailout for Detroit. That's a complicated subject, even more complicated than when I first wrote it about a few months ago. I hope to revisit it soon, once I have a minute to break away from covering health care.

In the meantime, though, please do keep in mind that a lot of what you hear and think about American cars may not be true. At least not anymore.

--Jonathan Cohn