Updated: Mon, 11 Jan 2010 22:41:59 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Detroit auto show goes lean, green

Detroit auto show goes lean, green

The North American International Auto Show kicks off in Detroit on Monday, and after a year of bankruptcies and bailouts, there are a lot fewer bells and whistles on display.

The major North American automakers unveiled their latest offerings at the marquee automotive showcase, eager to strike a cautious yet optimistic tone and leave the stench of a disastrous 2009 behind.

"Last year we had that 'sky-is-falling' mentality, and everybody was running for cover," said Doug Fox, an Ann Arbor, Mich., car dealer. "We are seeing a little more investment made in the actual exhibits than last year."

Americans who formerly loved to have large gas-guzzlers in their driveways are now open to smaller, more efficient cars, a testament to the sea change the industry is facing. Much of what is on display this year tends toward the lean and green, as electric, hybrid and small cars take centre stage.

"They are still small in terms of what the average person will go out and buy, but they loom very large in terms of what government wants this industry to provide to people," automotive journalist Alisa Priddle said. "It really is more of a statement than something you can run out and buy."

For the major North American automakers, the new models have to be successful to reverse the recent sales slide. Domestic U.S. auto sales plunged to 10.4 million in 2009, 39 per cent below a peak of 17 million in 2005. For the first time last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest auto market. In a reversal of recent years, tellingly, no Chinese automakers are on hand in Detroit this week.

Nightmare scenario?

China's emergence at the expense of the U.S. is truly the elephant in the 39,000-square-foot showroom this year. Sinking North American car sales during the disastrous economic year of 2009 might be understandable, auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers said. But the industry needs to turn that trend around, and quick.

"The serious concern is whether it continues into a second or third year," DesRosiers said. "If this continues into a third or fourth year, this is what we call the nightmare scenario."

The major players seem convinced that if they build it green, the buyers will come. Ford is on hand, eager to build on its success in midsize sedans. The company's Fusion Hybrid midsize sedan was named North American car of the year as the conference opened.

And Hyundai hopes to further its breakout year with more success in selling budget-conscious models. GM and Chrysler will start fresh with electric vehicles but also try to boost their small-car credibility. Toyota is hoping to solidify its dominance in hybrids by unveiling the FT-CH compact car and announced the popular Prius name will soon be expanded into an entire line of hybrid vehicles.

The event will have its share of new models shown, but overall, only 41 will be unveiled — down from 53 last year.

One of the largest automakers, Chrysler LLC, normally shows five or six new vehicles at the annual event. But this year, Chrysler has no debuts at all, although the automakers did say the company soon will be hiring temporary and other workers to revamp its U.S. product mix.

General Motors also has fewer new vehicles to show off because it is shuttering the Pontiac and Saturn brands and trying to sell Hummer and Saab brands.

GM did say Monday that strong sales of the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Cadillac SRX crossover vehicles and the Buick LaCrosse sedan have opened to door to the possibility of reopening idled factories, as existing sites can't keep up with demand for the four models.

The Terrain and Equinox are made at a factory in Ingersoll, Ont., while the LaCrosse is built in Kansas City, Kan. The SRX is made in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.

Car buyers are hotly anticipating the launch of the Chevrolet Volt. When it goes on sale in November, it will be the first mainstream electric car on the market. But it won't come cheap — the price tag will be $40,000 US, according to most recent estimates.

The mood is subdued but optimistic inside the Cobo Centre in Detroit, a contrast to the somewhat contentious scene outside. A small gathering of United Auto Workers rallied outside the building to remind lawmakers of the need for further support for the industry. They were met by a small but vocal group of Tea Party protesters demanding an end to taxpayer-funded auto bailouts.

The U.S., Canadian and even Ontario governments all took equity stakes in GM and Chrysler in 2009 when the two automakers were on the verge of collapse.

With files from The Associated Press

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