"Back to business" theme at Detroit auto show

Jan 11, 2011

The 2011 North American International Auto Show is in a decidedly upbeat mood.

After two years of somber shows, automakers are rolling out new products and showcasing an unusual level of variety and innovation. And they're bullish about how consumers will respond to all those new choices.

Chrysler might be the poster child for the resurgent feeling at this year’s show.

Last year, the automaker barely had a presence, and Chrysler Brand President Olivier Francois remembered how that felt.

“I remember the feeling I had leaving this place one year ago," Francois said, as Eminmen's comeback anthem "Lose Yourself" throbbed in the background. "I remember leaving a booth with no new products…”

Of course, Francois’ sad story had a happy ending: Chrysler’s return to this year’s show with a completely revamped lineup. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne calls Chrysler’s return to the U.S. car market after bankruptcy nothing short of a “resurrection.”

"One day, after I retire, someone will write a story about what we’ve lived through the last 18 months," Marchionne says. "We’ve been through some pretty strange places. Because this was by definition 'Mission Impossible.'”

While certainly in much better shape, Chrysler still lags behind domestic rivals GM and Ford. GM started the show strong. Its pioneering electric car, the Chevy Volt, took home the North American Car of the Year award. But GM CEO Dan Akerson says the company, fresh off a successful public stock offering, has larger aspirations.

“We’re building on this momentum, growing Chevrolet’s presence around the globe to assure a sound and vibrant future for the brand and for GM.”

Akerson says the Volt is “just a glimpse” of what Chevy and GM have to offer in terms of electric cars. But if it wants to be seen as the “greenest” American carmaker, GM faces heavy competition from crosstown rival Ford.

Ford unveiled three new hybrid or electric cars at the show. Last week it debuted the Ford Focus, set to become the first mass-produced pure electric car from an American automaker.  

Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. says his company is the global standard-bearer for green cars:

“We certainly believe we are," Ford says. "We believe our strategy is quite different from what other manufacturers have taken in electric vehicles. [But] Ultimately the customer’s gonna decide that.”

Of course, the Detroit Three aren’t the only companies offering new, innovative cars to consumers this year.

Toyota rolled out new additions to its Prius brand, saying it wants to parlay the popular hybrid-electric hatchback into a larger hybrid family. And the fast-growing Korean automaker Hyundai is offering a new three-door model called the Veloster. That’s right, three doors.  

“It has one on the driver’s side and two on the passenger’s side. It’s got a small engine and gets 40 mpg, but it’s super light and should be fun to drive,”says  Aaron Bragman, senior automotive analyst for the firm IHS Global Insight.

He says in 2011, showrooms will be full of unusual cars like that; and car buyers will also face more choices than ever before.

Bragman says carmakers clearly think American consumers are ready to embrace smaller, cleaner, different kinds of cars. But he notes automakers and consumers may see things the same way. 

“There’s going to be an interesting test coming, I think this year and next year especially," Bragman says. "In that we’re going to see consumers’ desires versus what the automakers are offering. And we hope they line up, but at the moment it’s still a bit of a crapshoot.”

Bragman says the automotive market right now is “a changing market at all levels.” But like most other analysts, he’s optimistic that a combination of new products, good deals and a recovering economy will pull American consumers back into showrooms in 2011.

IHS Global Insight predicts US consumers will buy 13.1 million cars this year, up from around 11.5 million last year.