Detroit auto show: it’s back to business at auto’s big week


With all three US automakers back in the black, the North American International Auto Show is glitzier and greener

The auto industry’s big show has kicked into a higher gear after pulling through the worst recession in living memory.

The North American International Auto Show opened to the press Monday in Detroit and looks set to be the biggest show in years. All the major manufacturers are now back, with Nissan rejoining its rivals after a three year absence, as the auto industry courts an increasingly confident US consumer.

The show is far glitzier than it has been in recent years. Last year Ford held its press conference on the showroom floor. This year, announcing their largest ever product launch, Ford held theirs inside a mini-stadium. “It’s really a fabulous time for everybody associated with Ford,” said chief executive Alan Mulally after the event.

Ford and the other two big Detroit automakers, Chrysler and General Motors, all logged double-digit sales growth last year, helping fuel a 10.3% increase in the US sales to 12.8m vehicles, the highest since 2008. Both Chrysler and GM were driven into bankruptcy at the height of the recession and were bailed out by US taxpayers.

Unveiling the new Dodge Dart, Reid Bigland, Chrysler’s head of Dodge brand, said: “We are thoroughly thankful for the second chance we have been given. We have been through hell and we don’t need to go back.”

While the industry seems more confident than it has in years, there is also a noticeable change in style. Fuel economy is hip. The Dart is a compact car with flair, a corporate sibling of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Italian automaker Fiat holds a controlling interest in Chrysler and is Alfa Romeo’s parent company. Some versions will get 40 miles per gallon. Back in the recessionary 1970s the Dart was one of Chrysler’s best selling cars and the company hopes it will hit the target again with today’s more cautious consumer.

At Ford’s glitzy press conference, Mulally concentrated much of his talk on the number of new fuel efficient technologies that the car firm is launching. Among other launches, the company added a plug-in electric hybrid version of its best-selling Fusion, known as the Mondeo in Europe. Ford plans to triple production of hybrids and electric vehicles to more than 100,000 in 2013, rolling out five battery-powered offerings.

“The atmosphere is so different to recent shows,” noted Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at auto industry expert Edmunds.com. “It’s like we are getting back to the old days. Car sales were good last year and they ended they year strongly. I think there is a renewed sense of confidence.”

But she added that the industry had changed. Fuel economy was never an issue before the recession, she said. “Now everyone is talking about it. It doesn’t matter what segment you are in, it always gets mentioned. The consumer has changed, those mpg numbers matter now, they’ve seen what happens when gas prices rise.”

This year’s Detroit auto show has also seen a return to luxury. On Sunday night people paid $500 a ticket to see 28 of the world’s most expensive cars in a pre-show show. About $8m worth of car was on display, including a $2m Aston Martin One-77 and a McLaren MP4-12C.

But even in the luxury end of the market, fuel economy is in. BMW, Lexus and Mercedes added hybrids to their ranges too. Detroit may be back in business, but it’s not back to business as usual.

guardian.co.uk

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