North American International Auto Show dazzles Detroit

Jan. 15, 2013
Automakers unveil new vehicles in race to dominate reviving U.S. auto market.

The gloss appears to be back on the North American International Auto Show, with manufacturers unveiling new vehicles and new concepts at top speed.

Even European car makers who might consider saving their launches for shows in Paris or Frankfurt see the strengthening North American auto market as the place to reach the consumers most likely to be in the showroom.

"I haven't seen it this robust in four or five years," said John R. Pugh, director of the Pittsburgh-based automotive group of the Chicago exhibit business Czarnowski, as he looked around Cobo Center, site of the global auto show that serves as home field for America's big three car companies.

After several quarters of solid sales for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the automakers are feeling better about the future than they did a few years ago. Automotive analysts, who gathered here on the eve of the auto show's media preview, also seem relatively upbeat.

But nobody has forgotten the bad old days of the Great Recession and the auto bailouts, and they are eagerly looking for indications that they've made the right choices for the future.

When the Cadillac ATS was awarded the North American Car of the Year award Monday morning by a group of automotive journalists, the acceptance speech was heartfelt: "Today's a proud day for General Motors. It's a proud day for Cadillac."

Similarly, the win for the Ram 1500 pickup from Chrysler in the category of North American Truck/Utility of the Year brought cheers and even a little boasting: "What a difference three years make."

More indications of where the car companies believe their future lies are evident in the new vehicles being rolled out and the vehicles that are just in the conceptual stage -- as well as some of the services being developed.

At Lincoln, for example, the new MKC Concept vehicle signaled parent Ford Motor Co.'s belief that the small SUV market offers the biggest opportunity in the luxury segment.

But Lincoln won't wait for the MKC Concept to make it through the development process before stepping up its customer experience to include an online shopping service expected to launch in April and even creating a "date night" for its clients.

Chevrolet drew a crowd to see officials pull the cover off the new Corvette Stingray, which can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds. They also claim it will be the most fuel-efficient version of the sports car brand, exceeding the 26-mpg level of the current model, in part because of the use of lighter materials such as aluminum.

Corvette's customer engagement plan doesn't include date nights, but rather free downloads -- starting today -- for PlayStation users to virtually drive the car in the game "Gran Turismo."

Manufacturers are trying to push customers' buttons with everything from energy alternatives -- like those offered in the all-new plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion Energi and the revamped 2014 Mercedes-Benz E Class vehicles that come in diesel versions -- to technology advances that range from making driving easier and safer to just making it easier to get work done on the road.

A Smart Car display for a new generation electric version coming to the U.S. this spring promised a smart dashboard that will send updates on the car's charge level by email and Twitter as well as search for charge points nearby.

The Smart trade show booth also asked the question, "Are you ready to uncar?"

A hostess said that was meant to call out the brand's unique style but it also carried echoes of a concern raised Sunday during a meeting of the Society of Automotive Analysts at Cobo Center.

Itay Michaeli, vice president of Citi Investment Research & Analysis, made the case that American households may not need as many cars per household as in the past. It's a trend that bears watching, he said.

Still, like others at the meeting, he noted the average age of American cars is now 11 years and that could signal an increase in sales in coming years. He believes the light truck market could pick up the pace first because the average vehicle age there is 13.

Car company executives, economists and analysts at the automotive analysts' gathering are tracking the housing recovery, interest rates, the unemployment rate and consumer confidence as they work to understand how the industry will perform in the coming year.

James A. Davlin, vice president of finance and treasurer of General Motors, said his company isn't expecting a speedy rebound in the U.S. economy but it also doesn't foresee a double-dip into recessionary mode.

General Motors is still hopeful it can regain an investment grade rating from agencies such as Standard & Poor's, Mr. Davlin said, adding the company is pleased that the U.S. Treasury's ownership of GM stock should end in the next year or so.

"I think that is a major milestone because we lose the stigma of 'Government Motors,' " he told the analysts' group.

Several speakers at the event discussed the growing importance of emerging markets such as China and Brazil in industry sales, although they also pointed to the weakness of the eurozone as a problem.

That weakness, Mr. Pugh said, might have been a factor in companies like Audi bringing new vehicles to the big U.S. show.

"North America is a place where people are buying cars," he said.

The auto show in Detroit opens to the public Saturday and continues through Jan. 27.

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