The free food was scarce, the stage sets recycled from previous events, and a number of carmakers didn't even both er to make the trip to this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But the ones that did made the best of a bad situation.
General Motors got things rolling with a parade of current and future cars led by Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and rooted on by employees of the company who know too well that their jobs depend on the success of the vehicles. There was a genuine sense of pride and determination from GM CEO Rick Wagoner as he assured the crowd that America’s No. 1 automaker is committed to making the best cars and trucks in the marketplace and leading the industry in the development of fuel efficient and advanced propulsion technology.
Along with a pair of new crossovers from Cadillac and Chevrolet, as well as the 2010 Buick LaCrosse Sedan, GM introduced a 40 mpg subcompact called the Chevy Spark that will go on sale in 2011, and the Cadillac Converj concept, a two-door luxury coupe designed to use the extended range electric power train from the Chevy Volt.
But Bob Lutz, GM’s Vice Chairman of Global Product Development, said that changing the buying habits of the American public is going to be difficult in the face of low gas prices, and it's going to be up to the Obama administration to create an energy policy that gets people interested in buying fuel efficient vehicles.
He told FOXNews.com, “I know the media don’t report on this a lot because it’s not the politically correct thing to say, but it is true that ever since gasoline got back down to under $2 a gallon, in relative terms full size trucks and V-8s have been a much bigger part of the mix again and small cars have been very difficult to sell.”
Ford CEO Alan Mullaly laid out a plan to put electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in showrooms in the near future, before introducing a very conventional, but radically restyled Ford Taurus. The company is banking on the car to turn around the recently disappointing sales of the company’s flagship car. A new 540 horsepower Mustang Shelby GT500 seemed out of place at an event where economy was emphasized over performance, but the audience loved the smoky burnout as it exited the stage, another reminder of the kind of cars that really get people excited. The company’s F-150 pickup was named North American Truck of the Year at the event, alongside the Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan which took honors for Car of the Year, a first for a South Korean automaker.
Chrysler President Jim Press was the only executive from the Detroit Three to specifically mention the auto bailout, thanking America for the $4 billion his company has already received and adding that it is well on its way to meeting the requirements that will allow it to tap into the additional $7 billion it requested to keep it afloat.
But the carmaker let yet another auto show go by without introducing any new production vehicles, aside from a low-volume, heavy-duty pickup truck parked out of sight of the main stage. Instead, three new battery-powered concepts were shown with the promise that one of them would be on sale in 2010, but no word on which one that is.
Lou Rhodes, President of ENVI, the division of Chrysler responsible for electric and extended-range electric vehicle development, says that despite the economic problems the company is facing, the project remains a priority.
“We haven’t diverted from our focus, we haven’t changed our path at all. We are still moving forward with this technology,” he said.
Of the foreign automakers in attendance, Asian automakers went the hybrid route, with the Honda Insight and Lexus HS250h luxury sedan making their world debuts, while the Europeans mostly focused on high-power, high-dollar sports cars -- the most outrageous one on display being the $1 million Mercedes-Benz SLR McClaren Stirling Moss, designed like an open-top race car, but without a roof or windshield. Unfortunately, it will only be available in Europe, which raises a question: why did they bring it to Detroit?