January 8, 2012 4:15 pm

Detroit auto show to highlight US revival

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This year’s Detroit auto show, which starts on Monday, will highlight America’s resurgent car market and the transformed fortunes of the home town producers General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler.

Three Januarys ago, the show was overshadowed by the financial crisis, which sent GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy court and the country’s car sales down by more than a third, allowing China’s market to outgrow it for the first time.

In 2009 Chrysler’s display comprised a dimly lit row of vehicles on a nondescript brown carpet at Detroit’s Cobo Hall.

This year’s show will feature a much more confident domestic industry that is profiting from a leaner cost base and rising demand in the US, especially for high-margin pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles, a segment that the Detroit companies still dominate.

With demand for cars due to cool in 2012 in emerging markets such as China and Brazil, forecasters predict that North America will be one of the fastest-growing regions in the world for car sales this year.

America’s market for light vehicles, including cars and commercial vehicles, grew at about 10 per cent in 2011, roughly double the rate in China. LMC Automotive (formerly JD Power Automotive Forecasting) predicts that the US market for light vehicles will grow about 9 per cent, on a par with China’s, in 2012.

With consumer confidence reviving and the labour market improving, the consultancy expects US consumers to buy 13.8m light vehicles this year, still well below the market’s pre-recession peak, but an 8.8 per cent rise on 2011.

Among the resurgent Detroit carmakers, Chrysler, which repaid its remaining $7.6bn of US and Canadian government bail-out loans last year, will unveil the Dodge Dart, a new compact car engineered by Fiat – its new owner – based on Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta model. Chrysler’s US sales soared 26 per cent in 2011, surpassed only by Japan’s Mitsubishi and South Korea’s Kia.

GM’s offerings include the Cadillac ATS, the smallest model in its premium brand’s stable. The ATS marks Cadillac’s first attempt to compete head-on – at least in North America – with BMW’s tremendously popular 3-series.

Ford sees its new Fusion midsized saloon as a challenger to Toyota’s Camry, still the US’s top-selling car.

Foreign carmakers, some of which relegated the Detroit show to second-tier status during the credit crisis, will be strongly represented this year. Nissan is returning after a three-year absence. It will present a “concept” electric van, meant to preview plans for the second electric vehicle to join its line-up after the recently launched Leaf. Toyota and Honda, which each had their US sales sink by almost 7 per cent last year after Japan’s earthquake severely disrupted their supply chain, are hoping for a better year in their biggest market.

“I’m happy to see 2011 behind us,” Jim Lentz, Toyota’s US sales chief, said last week.

Toyota and its two sister brands, Lexus and Scion, plan to unveil 19 new or substantially refreshed models this year in an attempt to recapture their past glory. Among those to be shown this week are two new plug-in hybrids. One of the most closely watched new cars at the show will be a “concept” for the next version of Honda’s Accord, its top-selling model in the US.

Honda’s upscale Acura brand, which is in the doldrums, will unveil three vehicles this week – a compact sedan; a redesigned version of its RDX SUV; and a concept design for its next NSX high-performance car.

Electric and plug-in hybrid models will generally feature prominently despite, or perhaps because of, their slow start in the marketplace over the past year. In addition to Nissan’s electric van prototype, Ford will lift the wraps on an all-electric version of its small Focus saloon. Volkswagen will unveil an electric concept car and a hybrid version of its Jetta saloon.

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