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2009 Detroit Auto Show: Which Cars Can Save the Detroit Three?

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SEE ALSO: Complete Coverage - 2009 Detroit Auto Show

By Henny Hemmes
Senior European Editor
Amsterdam NL Bureau
The Auto Channel


DETROIT January 14, 2009; Back in Europe, I had mixed feelings about going to Detroit. Not so strange, when you realise that for more than 20 years I have covered the American car industry and visited both the auto shows in Detroit and Los Angeles each and every year. I was there when Detroit became ‘ international’ and Los Angeles had to fight for attention. I saw the NAIAS become one of the most important shows of the year. And Los Angeles getting better and better, especially since it has been moved from January to a date in November.

But with the down turn of the economy, the 2008 LA Auto Show marked a depressed atmosphere. I vividly remember entering the show floor on the Chrysler exhibit, where it was dark and no single soul was to be found. Only later in the afternoon the lights were turned on, but the flashy presentations of Audi, BMW and the likes could not change the feeling.

Now, a mere two months later, with the car industry in deep trouble, what could I expect of the first show of 2009? The bad shape of the Big Three made me fear I was preparing for a funeral.

But upon touch down at the Detroit Metro Airport, the snow enlighted the world and driving a non-AWD Scion xB, cheered me up quite a bit. And the next day, with a considerably smaller media crowd swarming over Cobo Hall, the well lit exhibit looked inviting and optimistic.

The set up was good, the feel was optimistic and it looked like business as usual.

Soon I realized some things had not changed, as I was not allowed into the Arena for the Ford presentation: I was too late and could not convince the people in charge to open the doors.

This is a media day, so why….? But Ford had filled the arena up with employees to cheer for the new models on stage. The political show came first and I would be able to see the new models later at the Ford exhibit.

Nevertheless Ford may have the best cards to come out of the crisis. Ford has hybrid models, but they can not save a car manufacturer. A model for mass production can. Will the brand new Taurus be able to sell in big numbers, in 200,000 plus units? May be a combination of the Taurus and the smaller European Mondeo would be able to do the job? At least the Ford Ecoboost power plants are a realistic move of downsizing the engines and fuel efficient gasoline engines will attract buyers.

Let’s look at Chrysler.

Three months ago its employees feared there would be no show for them at all. But Chrysler confirmed there will be a slew of new production cars within the next 24 months.

Sadly, the cars on stage were concepts. Not at all ready for production anytime soon. Although Chrysler calls them Electric vehicles, two of them are not. An EV is a pure electric vehicle.

The Jeep EV and the Chrysler 200C are hybrids. They have an electric motor plus a gasoline engine. Hybrids, but not ready for production any time soon. Too bad, as especially the 200C has the good looks and the right size. It should have been on stage with a fuel efficient gasoline engine and been announced for production. ‘Electrifying’ is only a political issue.

The all electric Dodge Circuit concept tells exactly what it is, but we cannot expect an all electric car within the next couple of years. The batteries are not reliable yet. There are safety issues, due to heating of the individual lithium ion cells, that have to be solved. Production of the batteries is not ‘ green’, while the issue of recycling has not been resolved either.

This also applies to GM’s new hope, the Chevrolet Volt. It is not an electric car but a hybrid and it will not arrive before the end of 2010 as a 2011 model. I am irritated and asks myself what we are talking about. I should admit: GM has done a brilliant marketing en public relations job as everybody, also journalists, is talking about the electrical Chevy. It is a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid and with a possible price of around $ 40,000 it will be too expensive.

What about the hybrids GM already has on the market? They have not been proven to be extremely successful and can not save GM.

In the meantime Toyota rolled its new Prius on stage. It was postponed for nearly a year, because the lithium ion batteries were not up to the standards of the Japanese manufacturer. So the third generation will come on the market later this year with the current battery from the outgoing Prius. The Prius has been on sale since 1997 as the first mass produced gas electric hybrid and is on the American market since 2000. The Honda Civic followed in 2003. Toyota says it hopes to sell 180,000 units..!

So, where is GM’s main stream fuel efficient sedan that can…? The great Camaro will not sell in a big volume and even the good looking new Buick Lacrosse won’t be able to save GM.

What is needed is a main stream, affordable car. Such as Opel in Europe of which some models are rebadged as Saturn in the US. But why not bring in the Opel brand to the U.S., build its models in some of the recently shut down plants and get America going.

But other brands will have to go: Saturn, Hummer and may be Pontiac will probably have to follow Oldsmobile into the history books.

In Europe, over the past thirty years, we have seen problems like the US has now. On a smaller scale but with the same impact. In England a slew of nameplates has disappeared: Morris, Austin, Triumph, Rover, Sunbeam, MG, Wolsey, Rover. The German car industry saved the Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Mini nameplates while Jaguar and Land Rover were taken over from Ford by the Indian Tata.

Given this, the Big Three will have to get back to the business of producing cars that people can afford, build cars, small or larger, that excite buyers. Their business has to be driven by compassion and technical innovation, not mainly by financial aims.

They should not mislead the public with mileage numbers that are based on highway driving, but like in Europe mention the average between city/highway. And may be somebody will realise what the difference is with the successful European brands. BMW, Mercedes, Audi all have board members that are driven by technical innovation, moreover, they have passion for cars and that is what is making them strong.

I believe the near future is not looking too well for the Big Three, but when they have enough time they may be able to escape Chapter 11 or go out of business completely. Better still, they need people to lead their company, flexible people who are willing to look around in the world and prepared to admit that others are sometimes a step ahead.