This week’s Detroit auto show is expected to produce a new high-water mark in efforts to make Americans love international vehicle designs, analysts and executives have predicted, as manufacturers import designs from struggling European markets.
Among the vehicles to be unveiled at the show, which opens to the media on Monday, will be new models in the Fiat 500 range that was one of the big successes of last year’s US car market. Chrysler, which Fiat controls, will also show a new version of its Dodge Dart, based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Ford will introduce a number of light commercial vehicles based on its European Transit vans.
The high number of international vehicles reflects both the growing US market for smaller, European-style cars and carmakers’ efforts to cut development costs by building several models on a single basic set of components, or platform.
Dan Akerson, chief executive of General Motors, said the company was seeking to get on to global platforms “as much as possible and as quickly as possible”. While not launching any new international cars for the US market at the show, GM’s Chevrolet brand will show its Malibu, Sonic, Spark, and Cruze models based on international platforms, while Buick will show the Encore.
“I constantly remind myself and the team that we have to think globally, not eye it through the spectrum of a North American overlay,” Mr Akerson said.
Bill Visnic, a senior editor for Edmunds.com, the car information site, said different carmakers were taking different approaches to trying to homogenise their products.
But he went on: “They’re all under way with fairly aggressive global strategies to reduce the number of platforms.”
Ford said that 87 per cent of the vehicles it sold globally were now based on one of a small number of global platforms. Many of the passenger cars it sells in the US – including its Fusion sedan and the Fiesta compact car – are barely distinguishable from their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
The Transit van will replace Ford’s E series North American vans in its line-up, while the Transit Connect light commercial vehicle fills a niche that has previously barely existed in North America.
Chris Preuss, a product spokesman for Ford, said the company’s platforms were flexible enough for some regional variations to be built in as required. “You’ll see us doing more common volume going forward,” he said.
The better economics of introducing new products based on common, global platforms had helped carmakers to withstand some effects of slumping European car demand, Mr Visnic said.
Sluggish growth in China’s vehicle sales and the declines under way in Europe mean that this year’s Detroit show will be particularly important for European and Asian carmakers. The US, where 2012 vehicle sales were 13 per cent up on 2011’s, is currently much the fastest-growing big car market in the world.
Yet, while carmakers remain keen to make the most of the growing segments of the US market that welcome European and Asian vehicles, the show will still retain some distinctively North American elements.
Tony Cervone, a spokesman for the US arm of Germany’s Volkswagen, one of the pioneers of the global platform trend, said it would be showing a concept for a seven-passenger sport utility vehicle designed specifically for the US market.
“The challenge has always been, ‘Can you differentiate enough while still leveraging enough value from the common platform to create the true efficiencies from a cost of capital standpoint?’ ” Mr Cervone said.
The continuing role of some distinctively American vehicles will be even clearer in General Motors’ product launches. In spite of the company’s enthusiastic embrace of common, international platforms for many passenger cars, it will stage a high-profile launch at the Detroit show for the new Chevrolet Silverado, a pick-up truck meant to challenge Ford’s long-popular F150. Pick-up trucks, which barely feature in the European and Asian markets, accounted for about 11 per cent of US light vehicle sales in 2012.
Mr Akerson, meanwhile, did little to conceal his excitement over the show’s highest-profile launch – a new version of the Chevrolet Corvette sports car that GM first launched 50 years ago. Although the vehicle is likely to be only a modest seller, analysts expect the new version to be a powerful advertisement to the American public of GM’s recovery following its 2009 bankruptcy.
“The C7 Corvette is, I think, one of the most beautiful cars that this company has ever made,” Mr Akerson said.
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