DETROIT - Kicking off the most important auto show of a crucial year, Detroit's Big Three automakers unveiled stylish, fuel-efficient and high-tech vehicles Sunday aimed at winning back customers from import brands and countering doomsayers and critics in Washington and across the country.
"You can't look at the array of cars that we've brought up on stage today and say these guys don't get it, these cars are ugly, and these cars don't perform," said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the Detroit industry's most eloquent champion.
With Wall Street, Washington and many on Main Street questioning their long-term status, Detroit's automakers are under immense pressure to demonstrate at the show that they can become viable companies, able to compete with the world's strongest players on every level.
GM rolled out 16 new models, including an angular Cadillac Converj electric concept and a redesigned Buick LaCrosse sedan during press previews for the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center. Ford Motor Co. outlined a new electric car strategy and introduced a stylish new Taurus sedan. Chrysler LLC showed off a concept electric performance sedan, the Chrysler 200C.
Chrysler and GM are the most vulnerable players financially and have already received a dose of government aid. But all the major players are struggling in a treacherous environment as the industry copes with the deepest downturn in decades.
By contrast with past Detroit shows, where auto executives typically outlined their sales forecasts and set market share targets, nearly all the companies are declining this year to predict how the industry will fare. Last year, U.S. auto sales fell to 13.2 million from 16.1 million in 2007.
Executives pledged to redouble their efforts to produce better, safer and greener vehicles.
"In spite of the many challenges that we face, I can honestly say I have never been more excited about our prospects for the future," said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. as he outlined Ford's electric vehicle strategy.
Among the domestic automakers, Ford has led in developing hybrid vehicles and is now adding ultra-clean electric cars to the mix.
GM's array of new vehicles include the innovative Chevy Orlando, a European-style compact minivan that seats seven, and a study for the next Chevy Spark -- two models that draw on the expertise of the automaker's vast overseas operations.
GM plans to bring the tiny Spark to the U.S. market in 2011 and expects to sell between 40,000 and 90,000 a year, said Troy Clarke, GM's president of North America. The Spark, which will get at least 40 miles to the gallon, was previously considered too small for the U.S. market. "We've been dipping our toe in the water for a while now," he said.
The Converj is based on the same platform as the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car.
"GM showed America exactly what they bought," Aaron Bragman, a Troy-based analyst with IHS Global Insight, said of the parade of GM models. "It was GM's way of saying we're very much viable, and you've made a very good investment, America."
Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecasting at CSM Worldwide in Northville, said both GM and Ford showed attractive, well-built mainstream vehicles as well as clean alternative technologies.
"They did get the memo about fuel economy, and they're adjusting their portfolios," Robinet said.
However, a dearth of new mainstream offerings at Chrysler heightened concerns about the prospects for Detroit's smallest automaker.
Robinet said he was surprised at the lack of new production models at the Chrysler stand. He recalled a Chrysler display in 1992, when the automaker revealed new Intrepid and Concord models outlining its future strategy and direction. "We didn't see that today," he said.
Ford, working with key public and private partners, said it would develop at least four high-mileage battery-powered electric cars to sell by 2012. They will be similar in size to the Focus and Fusion sedans now on the market. Ford also will market a gas-electric hybrid version of the Fusion in the United States in the spring.
"Clearly, 2009 promises to be a challenging year, but it also is an unprecedented opportunity to introduce more customers to the Ford brand," said Ford CEO Alan Mulally.
Ford won a coveted distinction Sunday when its top-selling model, the new Ford F-150 full-size pickup, was chosen North American Truck of the Year by automotive journalists. But "Ford understands that its future hinges on delivering cars that are every bit as good as our trucks," said Mark Fields, president of Ford's Americas region.
Chrysler was expected to show four concepts propelled by electric motors, but surprised the media by adding the Chrysler 200C.
It joined a Chrysler Town & Country minivan, a Jeep Patriot and Wrangler Unlimited in being able to drive 40 miles on electricity alone before a small gasoline engine acts as a generator to maintain the charge of the lithium-ion batteries to travel another 400 miles.
The fifth concept, the Dodge Circuit, is a true electric vehicle. The Lotus Europa body got a new front and rear design to make it look like a Dodge.
The 200C concept uses the next-generation platform for Chrysler's large rear-drive cars, the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, but the design has short overhangs to offer a glimpse of what the smaller Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger might look like.
Among the foreign automakers with a strong presence at the show, Toyota Motor Corp. displayed an electric car concept Sunday and revealed its first dedicated luxury hybrid, the Lexus HS250h.
Toyota plans to launch as many as 10 new gas-electric hybrids in the next five years, including the third-generation Prius, that it will unveil today at the auto show.
Honda Motor Co. showed its new Insight hybrid on Sunday.
Source: Detroit News