Column: On the Road

Signs of life at the Detroit auto show
Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

The media days preceding the 2010 North American International Auto Show in downtown Detroit kicked off to a pace that indicated far more optimism than the subdued, wake of an auto show that ran in 2009. At last year’s show, little did we know what was in store for us in the coming months – GM and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy, the lowest vehicle sales in 25 years – and it isn’t likely 2010 will be any less entertaining.

Optimism, though, seems to permeate through the show this year. Ford Motor Co., the only domestic automaker not to take bailout loans from the government, swept the North American car and truck of the year for the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid and 2010 Ford Transit Connect. Only two other automakers have taken the double header in the 17-year history of the award.

And GM’s chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre told reporters at the show that the federal government “had made a great investment” in effectively purchasing GM, and that he expected some $6.7 billion in loans to be paid back this year.

There still are sobering issues to deal with, though, and product will trump any good intentions as the year winds on.

For the Detroit show, GM unveiled two concepts: the Buick Regal GS concept car and GMC Granite concept crossover. Concepts are meant to show GM’s design direction on new product moving forward, but the final production models are what sells.

And Ford clearly has struck a positive cord with its new 2012 Focus due to go on sale early next year. If Americans are going to start buying compact cars from domestic automakers, this is it. The Focus has been referred to as “stunning” by some automotive pundits and I’m not inclined to argue. Ford says it is using a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with direct gasoline injection with its Ecoboost system to boost performance while cutting fuel consumption. The combination of outstanding design and competitive fuel economy is likely to win some converts from foreign competitors like Toyota and Honda who have dominated the compact car segment for decades.

Chrysler Battles Back … Slowly

And then there is Chrysler. Still a mystery with its plot yet to unfold, Fiat executives who are now squarely entrenched in the day-to-day activities opted not to hold a press conference largely because the Chrysler stand did not have any significant new product. Executives insist the first big wave of new activity will come from Chrysler later this year. It remains to be seen if that will be soon enough.

That didn’t mean the Chrysler stand was empty – far from it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke to reporters from the Chrysler stand, effectively confirming the government’s decision to step in on GM and Chrysler, and saying she was returning to Washington D.C. “with great optimism.” It wasn’t clear if Ms. Pelosi ever finds herself behind the wheel of a vehicle, or has any real grasp of the auto market and the possible roadblocks ahead to recovery, but like a veteran politician her spin was upbeat and completely void of any facts.

Another politician arguably more in tune with the trials of the auto business also visited the stand. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm took a few minutes to chat with Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and grabbed some photo opportunities.

But Chrysler made the most news off the show floor at a dinner during the Automotive News World Congress at the Marriott, where no less than three different individuals heckled Marchionne for a range of perceived transgressions, from a plant closing in Italy to a car-hauling deal gone sideways with the Teamsters, to a woman who blamed the company for the untimely demise of her spouse. Benvenuto a Detroit.

Other carmakers were more subdued – in particular the Japanese and Koreans, who are likely to wait until other auto shows later this year to unveil major product, given the immense focus on Ford, GM and Chrysler this year in Detroit. But they were far from silent. Honda introduced a new hybrid, the 2011 CR-Z two-door hatchback, designed to give a little zing into the otherwise staid hybrid sedan market. And Toyota looks like it may be expanding its hybrid/Prius line with the introduction of a FT-CH hybrid concept that, if or when in production, would come in under the current Prius as an entry-level variant.

From Germany, with Love

The Teutonic automakers appear to be embracing the concept of electric vehicles, despite their continued push to sell more diesels here and their long history of selling exceptional diesel powertrains all over Europe. BMW announced the ActiveE, an electric-powered vehicle based on its one series, following suit with BMW Group’s MINI-E introduction last year (BMW Group owns the MINI brand). The vehicle will use lithium-ion batteries and BMW says it has a cruising range of 100 miles.

And Audi rolled out the E-Tron “Detroit Concept,” which is a smaller variant of its E-Tron concept rolled out in Frankfurt last year. Nomenclature aside, the concept sports two electric motors to drive the rear wheels, putting out 204 horsepower. The car also is listed as putting out 1,995 foot-pounds of torque, representing more of a mathematical interpretation of a torque curve rather than the possibility of snapping your neck in two at every traffic light. But Audi insists these EVs will be rolling into production in 2012, getting 150 miles on a single charge.

If 2009 is remembered as a disaster for the auto industry, perhaps 2010 will mark the beginning of the recovery from that disaster, with the byproduct being a better industry with new, innovative models that reduce the auto industry’s footprint on the environment.

Or it will be the year where the industry misses real opportunities to change for the better, and the status quo simply comes back as sales volume rises. If that’s the case, we can expect another catastrophe somewhere down the line.

Editor’s note: The 2010 North American International Auto Show runs through Sunday at Cobo Center in Detroit.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

One Comment

  1. By Ed Fenton
    February 12, 2010 at 8:20 am | permalink

    Hows your Toyota doing now? Drive American !