Detroit Auto Show 2012: Chevrolet pursues youth with two concepts

Of all the concept vehicles coming to the Detroit auto show this year, these two from Chevrolet will be the most divisive. They're either a savvy marketing move or a return to the worst bad habits of old General Motors.

Chevy says the pair of compact hatchback coupes — dubbed Code 130R and Tru 140S — are marketing studies that GM will research with young buyers. Both are powered by a 150-hp turbo 1.4-liter engine that could reach close to 40 mpg. The Tru 140S draws from the Cruze parts bin and drives its front wheels; the Code 130R is rear-wheel-drive.

Here's the case for these concepts: As young people show waning interest in cars, and suffer from less disposable income than previous generations for transportation, Chevy and other automakers have to work harder to connect. Bringing potential customers into the design could spark their interest in an affordable sports car — both would start near $20,000 — and help Chevy find the level of interior tech that future buyers will demand as standard.

Here's the case against these concepts: As both Steve Jobs and GM's former car guru Bob Lutz liked to remark, it's not the customers' responsibility to know what they want. Design by committee and focus group led to some of GM's worst vehicles of the past two decades, and at best these models break little new ground; the Code 130R seems especially off, with a color scheme borrowed from Ronald McDonald. If GM wants to build a Cruze coupe, it would need more performance than either one of these concepts bring.

I'm open to Chevy's argument for these cars, but the best vehicles ignite passion without an invitation. No one ever put a poster on their bedroom wall of a focus group.