Auto shows are often more "show" than "auto." Car manufacturers angle for headlines with concept cars that never see the light of day and claims of market domination that -- like a road trip on an empty tank -- ultimately fall short. However, there was a lot to get excited about at Detroit's 2004 North American International Auto Show over the weekend.

While the automotive industry has been giving itself away since General Motors (NYSE:GM), Ford (NYSE:F), and DaimlerChrysler (NYSE:DCX) launched consumer-friendly 0% financing after sector-wide weakness in 2001, that new car smell has an air of optimism these days.

With the economy showing signs of life and auto sales closing out 2003 in revved-up fashion, 2004 might be just the ticket for the leading carmakers. So it's only natural to see a little spunk in Detroit this week as GM introduced a new 2006 model convertible that will be priced below $20,000, Honda (NYSE:HMC) announced its first sport utility truck, and DaimlerChrysler revealed that it will be pushing its Dodge brand in Europe later this year.

GM's Hot Button promotion is equally encouraging. Giving away 1,000 cars over the next few weeks may seem like a desperate measure for GM, but it's actually not. Only folks who try the company's OnStar wireless communication service will be eligible to win. In other words, GM crafted an aggressive campaign to move a premium add-on service. That's confidence.

The company still has to tackle its debt-laden balance sheet, but this new attitude sure beats the rear-view mirror checking we've seen in recent years. Might the perpetual key fumbling be over? It might just be time for investors to give the autos a test drive.

Are you ready to buy a new car in 2004? Have you checked out our articles on savvy car buying? Is now the best time to buy? All this and more -- in the Buying and Maintaining a Car discussion board. Only on