Detroit auto show does without glitz, but there's a sense of optimism in the air


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DETROIT -- This year's North American International Auto Show may not have the flashy publicity stunts and razzle-dazzle of year's past, but it certainly is cheerier and more exciting than last year's wake.

As Detroit automakers recover from a year that saw government bailouts and brands going by the wayside, manufacturers are foregoing the glitz, but events and displays are still tinged with optimism.

This year's show will mark the return of some makes, such as Nissan, that did not have presentations at the 2009 car show. A new exhibit called Electric Avenue will showcase electric-powered vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.

There is a lot on the line this year as manufacturers try to return to profitability, and the Detroit show offers a glimpse into the direction they are taking.

Domestic automakers

• Chrysler Group LLC, fighting hard for sales and for attention, is hampered by a lack of new models to introduce; the company is not expected to have new products ready until 2012 or 2013.

The most recent sales figures for December are cause both for cautious optimism and concern at the company's Auburn Hills, Mich., headquarters, analysts say.

Eleven Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep models had sales increases compared with December 2008. Also, U.S. sales were up 36 percent compared with December 2008. In addition, inventory was down 55 percent compared with December 2008.

On the other hand, overall December 2009 sales figures were down 4 percent compared with December 2008 results.

Despite the lack of all-new products, each of Chrysler's brands has been heavily revised. The 2010 Caliber, for instance, has an all-new interior. The Dodge Nitro, the brand's entry in the small crossover/SUV market, has revised exterior and interior styling and upgrades in standard features and safety equipment.

The last model exhibited by Jeep at the show will be the Liberty Renegade, a name and theme that dates to 1964.

• Ford Motor Co. got off to a big start at the show by winning both the 2010 North American Car and Truck of the year Awards.

It was only the third time in 17 years that one automaker has won both awards. Honda won both awards in 2006 and General Motors won both in 2007.

The Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Ford Transit Connect were honored by automotive journalists from the United States and Canada who represent magazines, television, radio, newspapers and Web sites.

Ford is unveiling the all-new 2011 Focus, arguably the most important introduction of the show, because Ford is planning to do at least 12 variations of new products based on the Focus.

• General Motors is looking to the show as a way to demonstrate new energy and exciting products, and to distance itself from the old GM.

"What needs to be conveyed now is the four brands -- Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. The focus is on the brands and the products they are bringing to the market place," said GM spokeswoman Carolyn Markey. "The show will be the right place to get the word out to the consumers. Our challenge is to break old misconceptions and do away with old baggage, and get folks to see what winners we have in the marketplace."

Foreign automakers

• Audi is planning to unveil its newest flagship, the 2012 Audi A8. The new model is bristling with technology and an interior that most who have seen it say is stunning.

All eyes will be on the Honda exhibit, where the company will unveil the all-new CR-Z, a sporty two-seat hybrid coupe that will be the first of several hybrids in which sporty design and performance are emphasized. Heretofore, hybrids have been mostly family sedans.

"The Honda CR-Z will expand our lineup of hybrid vehicles and reinforce the fun-to-drive values associated with the Honda brand," said Erik Berkman, vice president of Automobile Corporate Planning and Logistics for American Honda Motor Co. Inc.

For Mercedes-Benz, summer begins in January with the unveiling of the long-awaited E Class Cabriolet, which is designed to be a "four seasons" convertible. Mercedes also will have an all-new version of the svelte CLS four-door coupe.

• Subaru is working jointly on a moderately priced sports model with Toyota. Since its lineup is only a couple of years old at most, chances are that Subaru will unveil a concept vehicle.

• Toyota unveiled the FT-CH dedicated hybrid concept. The CH stands for compact hybrid and it is 22 inches shorter than the Prius, and will be priced lower.

"It's a package Toyota dealers and customers have been asking for," said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, a division of Toyota Motor Corp.

Toyota expects to launch eight all new hybrid models over the next few years.

• Volkswagen is expected to unveil an all-new Jetta, although little has been written about it so far.


Don Hammonds can be reached at dhammonds@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1538. First Published January 12, 2010 5:00 AM


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