Detroit is a strange, beautiful place. The nickname Motor City isn’t for nothing – this town thrives on the heartbeat of the American auto industry. Everyone who lives here knows someone who works for one of the Big Three, and in recent decades, many suppliers and foreign automakers have set up shop in the metropolitan Detroit area, with research and development facilities, factories, and more.
Because of the huge auto industry presence here, Detroit is one of the country's most interesting car-spotting locations. No, you won’t see supercars on the regular – instead, Detroit is a place where the forgotten and the unloved still stand strong. All the weird American cars you forgot about over the years are still plentiful around these parts, mostly because they were given out as executive lease cars, sold with huge amounts of cash on the hood, and/or offered up to friends and family at discounted rates.
The cars listed below are the ones you’ll still find in high volume in Detroit. So yes, they’re all American, and yes, they’re from the past 10-15 years (the older ones are pretty much extinct at this point). These are the cars I see day in and day out. Gross, I know.
General Motors GMT201 Vans
Buick Terraza, Chevy Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6, Saturn Relay
One of my friends calls these the four horsemen of the carpocalypse; if you see all four in one day, which could only happen in the metro Detroit area, something really bad will happen to you. When my buddy saw all four, his lovely and elegant Mercedes died. I saw all four, and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Beware!
Pontiac Torrent / Torrent GXP
You probably forgot about the Pontiac Torrent, a rebadged version of the first-generation Chevy Equinox. But Torrents are still thick on the ground here in Detroit, including the 264-horsepower GXP version. True story: I was stuck in traffic on Interstate 94 near Detroit Metro Airport one evening, and had Torrents on either side of me. Terrifying, really.
Chevy Malibu Maxx / Malibu Maxx SS
So cool, it needed a second ‘x’. The Malibu Maxx was Chevy’s take on a midsize wagon, with a nifty adjustable rear seat. The SS added a 240-hp V6 to the front-wheel-drive setup, and while it wasn’t all that horrible to drive, practically no one bought them. If you see one these days, chances are you’re in southeast Michigan.
Ford Funkmaster Flex Expedition
I remember when this thing showed up in the test fleet at Winding Road magazine, and being the low man on the totem pole, I was given the distinct privilege of driving it for the weekend and reviewing it. I even got to do an interview with the Funkmaster himself, who, through his heavily coached-by-Ford-PR answers, told me he was planning to create a similar experience with the then-new Flex. The Flexpedition drove just fine – like your standard Expedition, really. It just looked... like that. When I see them nowadays, they’re usually rolling on even-larger-than-stock chrome wheels.
Ford Explorer Sport Trac / Adrenalin
The Sport Trac was a kinda-pickup version of the popular Explorer SUV. Think of it as a Honda Ridgeline, without all the nifty practicality. Near the end of its life, Ford introduced an Adrenalin model, which was geared toward the, uh, let’s call it MTV Spring Break set. A girl who lived in my apartment complex had a white one, with a vanity license plate that read, “DUHHHH.” She was a stripper dancer. Go figure.
Chrysler Aspen Hybrid / Dodge Durango Hybrid
I actually got to drive one of these, which is kind of amazing, since then-DaimlerChrysler only sold, like, 50. The idea of a two-mode hybrid powertrain was kind of neat for the time (you’ll see another two-mode hybrid system later on this list), but because it combined the Hemi V8 with electrification, the result was a vehicle that cost a lot more money for very little in the way of efficiency.
When is a truck not a truck? When it’s a Lincoln Blackwood. Before the Mark LT, Lincoln sold a small handful of these Navigator-based things. The truck’s bed was actually more of a trunk with a power tonneau cover and full carpet, it only came in rear-wheel drive, and you could have it in any color you wanted, so long as it was black. Lincoln only sold these for the 2002 model year, so they’re super rare, and all in the Detroit metro area, usually riding on huge, chrome wheels.
General Motors GMT900 Hybrids
Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Silverado/Tahoe, GMC Sierra/Yukon
See also: Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango Hybrids. The GMT900 group had V8 engines paired with small electric motors, and the fuel economy gains were negligible. But unlike the Chrysler pair, GM decided it needed to shout the GMT900s’ hybrid powertrains, with huge decals on the windows and body sides (removable from the dealer, thank goodness). In fact, the first time I tested a Yukon Hybrid, a friend and I measured the surface area of all the stickers, and it ended up being about the size of a really nice outdoor grill. So bad.
Saturn Vue Red Line
Speaking of so bad, here comes the first-generation Saturn Vue. (Real quick, how is “Vue” pronounced “view?” It should be “vway” or “voo.”) The Vue itself wasn’t bad, and the Red Line version was kind of hilarious. Billed as a performance SUV, the Redline had no more power than the normal Vue, but had a stiffer suspension and was lowered by an inch. Saturn offered the Red Line package on both generations of the Vue – just look for the ones with the bad body kit – but neither generation offered any real performance.
Chevrolet HHR SS / HHR Panel SS
Designed by the same guy who did the PT Cruiser, the HHR tried to cash in on the little retro-hatch craze a few years too late. But for those willing to buy in, Chevy offered a super-fast SS version, with a turbocharged engine and six-speed manual transmission from the Cobalt SS. Chevy even made an SS version of the HHR Panel work van, which still makes me laugh on the rare occasions I see one driving around.
It looked good, and that was about it. Cadillac took the first-gen Chevy Volt and made it into the two-door ELR, a car that offered no gains in EV range or overall fuel economy versus the Volt, was dull to drive, cramped to be in, and cost way too much money. During the first year they were on sale, the only ones I saw around here had manufacturer plates. Even now, most of the ELRs running around were purchased because of generous discounts.
Cadillac Escalade EXT
Like a Chevy Avalanche, only classier. No, really, that’s it. The Escalade EXT was just an Escalade with the Avalanche’s rear end. Frankly, I’m amazed that Cadillac even offered this thing. I’m even more amazed that it was sold over the course of two generations, from 2002-2013.
Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible
I always see these two ladies driving around the city in matching purple PT Cruiser Convertibles. Despite being super popular in the early 2000s, the popularity of the PT faded as the whole retro-comeback thing lost its cool factor. But they’re still all over the streets of Detroit, and a lot of the owners I know absolutely love them. Just ask the purple PT pals!