Smaller, electric cars reign at Detroit auto show

Last Updated: Monday, January 11, 2010 - 09:15

Detroit: Electric, hybrid and small cars will grab centre stage at the Detroit auto show this week, as the industry adapts to a world reshaped by the Great Recession and environmental worries.

The event will demonstrate just how automakers are responding to this new reality. Ford wants to build on its success in midsize sedans and re-ignite its small car sales, while Hyundai aims to extend last year`s triumph in budget-conscious models. GM and Chrysler will start fresh with electric vehicles but also try to boost their small-car credibility. Toyota hopes to solidify its dominance in hybrids.

The new crop of models must be successful if automakers are to reverse last year`s 21 percent sales plunge. Mounting job losses, GM and Chrysler`s bankruptcy filings and the death of several iconic brands sent sales skidding to their lowest level since 1982.

Americans feel less wealthy — and more certain that the trend toward higher fuel prices remains a threat. It`s a change U.S. automakers were slow to embrace — and it cost them the last two years as gas prices surged and consumers stopped spending. Most Japanese and European car makers were also caught in the sales downdraft, even though they depended less on pickup trucks.

In 2010, with frugality embedded in drivers` minds, automakers want to show off new versions of smaller, less expensive cars, many of which get 40 mpg on highways. That also appeals to motorists concerned about climate change.

The show isn`t exclusively about small cars. Detroit automakers also will try to revive 1960s-style car passion with muscle cars, a niche that`s doing well.

Compared with last year`s stripped-down down affair, the show will offer more glitter. GM will have an elevated floor for new cars, a change from 2009`s carpet-over-concrete that was just about everywhere.

One big display is a 37,000-square-foot "Electric Avenue" on the main floor, featuring 20 vehicles that run on kilowatts instead of gasoline. Electrics were shown last year, but shared the spotlight with cars powered by conventional engines.

"Last year we had that `sky-is-falling` mentality, and everybody was running for cover," says Doug Fox, an Ann Arbor, Mich., car dealer and chairman of this year`s show, officially called the North American International Auto Show. "We are seeing a little more investment made in the actual exhibits than last year."

Although auto sales improved at the end of 2009, the 41 new vehicles to be unveiled at this year`s show will be down from last year`s 50, Fox says.

That`s because Chrysler LLC, which normally shows five or six new vehicles, has no debuts, and GM has fewer new vehicles because it is shedding the Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn and Saab brands, Fox says.

Here are some key trends to watch at this year`s Detroit auto show:

Small is big

Small cars and smaller SUVs — called crossovers — made up only 21 percent of US sales in 2003. But last year, they rose to 32 percent and are expected to grow to 36 percent in 2013. Buyers will see that trend reflected at the show.

General Motors Co. will show off the new Chevrolet Aveo subcompact. The Aveo has been given a more powerful engine, and a lower grille and 19-inch tires for a tougher appearance. The four-door Aveo, along with Ford Motor Co.`s new Focus and Chevrolet Spark minicar, will be part of a small-car blitz. All three will get near 40 mpg on the highway.

"The new paradigm of the American passenger car is no longer great, big rear-wheel-drive luxobarges," says Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst for the consulting firm IHS Global Insight in Troy, Mich. "It`s small, efficient and upscale."
Electric buzz gets louder

Much of the show`s buzz is expected to come from electric vehicles, which have jumped off the drawing board and onto the convention floor. Several big automakers plan to sell them in late 2010, giving the broader public its first chance to buy cars that rely more on electrical outlets than gas pumps.

The big draw is the chance to stop burning gas and drive a more environmentally friendly car, but the cars are expensive.

Nissan Motor Co.`s rechargeable Leaf, due in showrooms late this year, will make its first appearance inside a US. auto show. The Leaf is purely electric, using just a rechargeable battery for power. But its expected cost is about $30,000. Chevrolet`s Volt, unveiled three years ago and for sale this fall, will make a reappearance at the show. It costs about $40,000, although there are up to $7,500 in tax credits available.

China`s BYD Co. LTD, which has the backing of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, plans to show the F3DM plug-in hybrid compact sedan and the new e6 that could come to the U.S. late this year.

Among the Europeans, BMW AG will unveil an electric concept car.

Toyota, whose Prius has dominated gas-electric hybrid sales across the globe, plans to show a new hybrid car.

Unlike the last few years, Chinese automakers largely will skip the show, perhaps because they`re focusing on their own country`s explosive sales growth. Still, any car maker that wants to grow must focus on the U.S., where Asian manufacturers collectively grabbed a bigger chunk of the market than Detroit manufacturers for the first time last year.

One floor below the main level, people can ride with a professional driver in electric cars on a tree-lined course, another sign of the dramatic transition from internal combustion engines to electric.

Swing back to 60s muscle

Muscle cars, while a small part of the market, sold relatively well last year with the Mustang outdueling the Camaro for the top sales spot. Each automaker sold more than 60,000 of the cars.
Ford will put a bigger, more powerful V-8 into the Mustang, while GM plans to show a Chevrolet Camaro convertible muscle car and a sporty GS version of the Buick Regal midsize sedan.

New designs for both small and performance cars generally are following trends toward smaller windows and higher door lines that rise from the hood to rear. Side and hood creases in the sheet metal are designed to make cars appear as they are moving even while still.

Bureau Report



First Published: Monday, January 11, 2010 - 09:15

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