A revved up sense of optimism has filled the Detroit auto show as the industry looked forward to a recovery from one of its worst years on record.
Detroit show revs up carmakers
Automakers are still reeling from a collapse in sales to levels not seen since 1983, bankrupting General Motors and Chrysler and dethroning the Detroit Three as the biggest sellers in the US market.
China also surpassed the United States for the first time as the world's biggest vehicle market, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers announced in Beijing Monday.
But the overall mood is significantly more upbeat than a year earlier when GM and Chrysler's very existence was in doubt as Congress sparred over providing billions of dollars in emergency loans.
"Today is a new beginning for the automotive industry," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters.
"When people have an opportunity to see the kind of products that are now being manufactured and will be on display, they will realize the auto industry is manufacturing products people want to drive."
Focus on efficiency
Ford, GM, Toyota and Honda kicked off the show by highlighting their focus on fuel-efficient vehicles.
Ford - which managed to both stay afloat without a government bailout and increase its piece of the shrunken US market in 2009 - introduced a much-anticipated update to its compact Ford Focus sedan.
"Companies have to pay attention to the three Es: economy, efficient and the environment," chairman Bill Ford said as he touted the automaker's new global vehicle platforms, which will radically reduce costs.
Toyota unveiled a prototype of a compact dedicated hybrid vehicle - the FT-CH - while Honda revealed a hybrid sports coupe - the CR-Z - that will hit US showrooms later this year.
GM introduced a boxy, low-lying new compact sport utility vehicle, the GMC Granite, a "concept" aimed at young, urban drivers if it ends up being tapped for mass market production.
The automaker also introduced several smaller cars to be sold under its Chevrolet brand, including the Spark mini car and a sporty Aveo prototype.
Notably absent from the schedule was Chrysler, which had little to present after the turmoil of a painful divorce from Daimler, a brief takeover by private equity group Cerberus and a quick spin through bankruptcy that left the number three US automaker under the management of Italy's Fiat.
Yet new chief Sergio Marchionne was on hand to speak with the media and give lawmakers a tour of the scaled-back Chrysler display, filled with aggressive trucks, muscle cars, shiny new sports cars and - thanks to the alliance with Fiat - Maserati, Ferrari and the Fiat 500 minicar.
Something for everyone
A congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw a strong emphasis on small cars and fuel efficiency at the show, with a 3 440-square-meter exhibit of 20
different electric vehicles replete with a tree-lined test track.
There were also plenty of luxury vehicles on display despite the poor economy and a host of trucks and sport utility vehicles to tempt consumers who are less environmentally conscious.
"What we saw here today was vibrant, optimistic leadership to leapfrog over the competition and to keep America number one," Pelosi said.
"Our hopes are riding on the auto industry succeeding in our country and we thank all those who are making the progress possible."
Yet in a sign that competition is going to be fierce in 2010, optimism was also being voiced by international manufacturers bent on snagging greater market share here.
Nissan hopes to take advantage of a weakened Detroit to grow its share of US sales with eight products hitting the market in the next 12 months, including a high-profile electric car, the Japanese automaker's top US executive told AFP.
"2010 is going to be for us a very strong year in terms of product," Carlos Tavares, executive vice president in charge of the Americas, said in an interview Monday.
Most analysts forecast a moderate rebound in US auto sales to between 11 and 12.5 million vehicles this year after dropping 21% to 10.4 million in 2009.
That will still be drastically below the 15 to 17 million range posted in each of the previous 15 years and sales could be sharply hit should the economy take another bad turn.