DETROIT – The Chevrolet Camaro concept stole the show.

More than six hours after it was unveiled and despite a continuous stream of introductions from other manufacturers, photographers were still snapping pictures of Camaro at the Detroit auto show media preview.

All the while, General Motors executives insisted that it was only a concept not approved for production. Except Bob Lutz and Ed Welburn hinted otherwise.

Lutz, head of product development for GM, said the sales target would be 120,000 to 150,000 annually and the price would be $200 more than the rival above the Ford Mustang to account for more equipment. GM’s chief designer added a convertible is in the works.

Hardly the talk associated with “if we build it” thinking.

More important, Lutz said the concept runs, with real engine, transmission, brakes and suspension. A running model makes it difficult to buy any “what if” argument, good news because GM could use more attractions other than just the Pontiac Solstice. The Camaro concept is built off the same rear-wheel-drive platform as the Pontiac GTO, which GM imports from its Holden subsidiary in Australia.

“It’s too early to tell where we’d build it, but I wouldn’t contemplate importing it from Australia,” Lutz said.

GM Chairman Rick Wagoner said there are four rear-drive platforms to choose from – Solstice, Corvette, Cadillac and trucks. That makes Cadillac the likely candidate because Solstice is too small, the Corvette plant doesn’t have room, not too many sports cars come off truck platforms and Cadillacs are built in Lansing, Mich., not Australia.

In addition to cutting prices on its 2006 models an average of $1,300 per vehicle recently, GM said it will reduce the amount of incentives and offer them less frequently.

“We won concessions from the UAW that will save General Motors $1 billion in health care costs this year,” noted Lutz. “But our average incentive in 2005 was $4,000 per vehicle. And if you could get $4,000 down to $2,000 and sell 5 million vehicles annually like we do, the savings would be $10 billion. That would solve a lot of our problems.”

Speaking of the UAW, it was soundly criticized for health care coverage that required them to pay little if anything out of pocket.

“Don’t blame unions for where we are today,” DaimlerChrysler Chairman Dieter Zetsche offered in an interview. “All contracts have two signatures – one of them management.”

Chrysler Group President Tom LaSorda said the Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant could go to three shifts by the end of this year or early next because it could produce three vehicles.

Those would be the Dodge Caliber being built there now, the Jeep Compass crossover coming late in the second quarter and the Jeep Patriot.

“It could be built at Belvidere or at our Sterling Heights plant in Michigan, but we’re leaning toward Belvidere,” LaSorda said.

The 2007 Patriot will be unveiled at the New York Auto Show in April, along with the build location.

Write to Jim Mateja, Chicago Tribune, 616 Atrium Drive, Vernon Hills, IL 60061-1523.

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