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2009 Detroit Auto Show - Thoughts From "Our" Optimist

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The Views of an Optimist
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked my opinion about the likelihood of survival for the Detroit Three automakers. (You’ll no doubt notice that we no longer talk about the Big Three, since Chrysler hasn’t been big for a long time, GM continues to dice with Toyota around who is the biggest, and Ford . . . well, they continue to shrink as well.)

It’s a tough question to answer. I’m a car guy – not a business guy. I know a bit about government and business; certainly not enough to predict how that entanglement will relate to survival. But, I’d sure like to say something about the cars.

Here at the Detroit auto show – the North American International Auto Show, that is – the Detroit Three are showing lots of great products. To those who continue to pontificate about Detroit not building cars people want, I can only proclaim . . . “BS!” Not only have the US automakers been selling nearly 50% of the cars and light truck bought in the US – and that constitutes millions of units – they have been winning design, quality and other awards hand-over-fist for years now; and deservedly so. The product turnaround began slowly in the mid 90s and now the products match any in the world.

This is not the product environment of the 1980s and 90s. Sure, they all made dismal products back then. I had some of them. They deserved the reputation they earned. Now let’s give them credit for what they are earning now – top marks.

GM is making the strongest showing in Detroit this week. At their first press conference they paraded across the stage more than a dozen products of which they are justifiably proud – products that are right in the meat of the market, fuel efficient, designed for the customer and priced right. Some of those are not surprises like the retro-cool Camaro – which, by the way, gets well over 20 mpg in V-6 configuration – and the Cruze, new small car getting nearly 40 mpg. The Volt will be out in about a year-and-a-half with the potential of redefining the commuting vehicle. We’ve seen many of these cars coming down the product pipeline and we’ve driven some. All are impressive.

The just-announced new version of the Chevy Equinox, small crossover, which gets over 30-mpg, is so vastly improved in sophistication both inside and out that you’ll have to be impressed. More power, better mileage, much richer materials and utility the equal of anything in this overcrowded market segment, make the Equinox a worthy competitor.

The all-new Buick La Crosse represents the next generation of the architecture that underpins the award-winning Malibu and many other GM models. A bit conservative on the outside, LaCrosse still makes a statement about modern styling and proportions. It’s a real knock-out on the inside especially. GM is designing interiors that have substantial panache and functionality.

Cadillac is making an even bigger statement showing great confidence in the upscale, luxury market. The evolution of Cadillac’s bold design language is complimented by amazing performance. The second generation of the crossover SRX and an entirely new CTS Sportwagon look much alike when seen separately but distinguish themselves from one another when side-by-side. Both translate the Cadillac character to utilitarian purposes. And they do so with aplomb.

Chrysler’s product reveals here in Detroit centered on electric vehicles – and lots of them. They’re taking seriously the admonitions of an ignorant Congress and seem to be putting all their eggs – fragile though they are – in the EV basket. I’m not sure how much substance is under the skin but they’re obviously on the popular bandwagon adding plug-in EV versions of many existing vehicles. Most impressive is what appears to be the next generation of the ground-breaking, full-size sedan that took the industry by storm a few years ago, the 300C. This new one is called 200C EV – another striking sedan design from the nearly-deserted Auburn Hills studios. If Chrysler survives long enough to build the new sedan, and if they manage the quality, they’ll be garnering more accolades.

At Ford and Lincoln (the name Mercury, by the way, was not even mentioned this week) we find a huge emphasis on interactive technology but not as much emphasis on electrification of the automobile’s powertrain. Ford has most, but not all, of its powertrain eggs in the basket they call EcoBoost™, the essence of which is direct injection teamed with turbo-charging to gain V8 performance in smaller, usually V6, packages.

A large crossover version of the Lincoln MKS, called MKT, encompasses all the cutting-edge technology like parking assist, lane change warning, blind spot monitoring, interactive communications and all the hot stuff out there into a stylish, high-quality package with great style, design and aesthetic appeal.

Then, there is the “Lincoln C Concept” - a high-tech, compact, luxury urban conveyance with a 1.6-liter, inline-4, EcoBoost engine projected to get 42 mpg on the highway. Electricity isn’t the only way to go, after all.

Ford also seems not to have lost its sense of fun. They introduced the new generation of the venerable Mustang in Los Angeles a few months ago and topped that with a new Shelby GT500 in a shocking robin’s egg blue. Carroll Shelby himself, amazingly fit at age 88, came to hype the new screamer.

So, perhaps my first career in social work led me to look for the best in people and things around me. There are auto and business writers who take pride in how critical they can be and they relentlessly search out all the chinks in the armor. I’m not one of those.

I think GM and Ford will make it through this dismal market. And, I agree with the majority of pundits that Chrysler will not – at least not in the present form.

I’ll attest, though, that they are all making wonderful products that I’d like to have in my driveway.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved