Revved up: U.S. automakers have a lot to show off this year

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The North American International Auto Show, which runs through Jan. 27 in Detroit, is the leading showcase of the global auto industry and a reliable indicator of its health. During the depths of the worldwide recession, industry executives had little reason to celebrate. Now, though, the industry -- including the Detroit Three automakers -- is roaring back.

Last year, domestic and import automakers sold 14.5 million new cars and trucks in the United States -- 13.4 percent more than in 2011, and the industry's best performance in five years. Chrysler outpaced the industry, recording a 21 percent sales increase.

Analysts predict even better sales this year, citing pent-up consumer demand and the record average age -- 11 years -- of vehicles on U.S. roads. The show is just the place to whet buyers' appetites for new wheels.

During recent years, the auto show focused on smaller, fuel-efficient cars and trucks. This year, the show is returning to its traditional emphasis on large, profitable pickups and sport-utility vehicles, as well as sports and luxury cars that are designed to give their brands cachet.

The difference is that car companies are touting these vehicles' fuel-saving features and alternative technologies. That shift reflects the valuable collaboration between automakers and the federal government on improving fuel economy without sacrificing performance or affordability -- a useful offshoot of the bailout process that enabled GM and Chrysler to emerge from bankruptcy four years ago.

Competition in the auto industry, both in the United States and worldwide, will get tougher as more car companies chase the same buyers. The European industry remains a mess, with overcapacity and large financial losses. The Detroit Three could once again become victims of their own success, displaying the same sort of complacency and arrogance that preceded previous crises.

That would be a mistake -- for their bottom line and for the faith put in the industry by the American taxpayer.

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