The Star Of Detroit's Auto Show? Fuel Efficiency

Automakers seek to make a splash at the Detroit Auto Show by unveiling new models and cars. This year, the unexpected star of the show is fuel efficiency. Compact cars are taking center stage. NPR's Sonari Glinton talks to Audie Cornish.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The glam is back this year at the auto industry's premiere fashion event. The annual North American International Auto Show, otherwise known as the Detroit Auto Show, opened its doors to the public this week. And a year of healthy sales has inspired the auto companies to strut their stuff.

Sonari Glinton covers business and the business of cars, and he joined me earlier from the floor of the Cobo Convention Center, to describe the scene there this year.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Well, what you're seeing at the auto show this year is luxury. All the luxury brands have seen their sales increase by double digits. And the lavish displays are back. So, I'm standing at two-story display that has about 25 cars. These individual displays cost about $7 million and up.

Now, GM and Chrysler are more subdued, but they are here and they even have concept cars. Last year or the year before, it wouldn't have made sense to have, you know, spend $500,000 on a car that was never going to go anywhere. So, this is a very different tone than the last few years.

CORNISH: So, Sonari, what are the trends that you're seeing at the show this year?

GLINTON: Well, the big trend this year is the return of the passenger sedan, the car, which is kind of funny and I'm new enough to this beat to still find that a bit ridiculous that the car companies would find religion and go to cars. But for so many years, the American carmakers especially focused on SUVs and trucks, and now they're really making a go at the regular car.

Because of the economy, Americans are, you know, stepping down. They're stepping out of their SUVs into cars and fuel economy is playing a big role. Each automaker has at least one car that gets 40 miles per gallon. Chrysler has a new Dodge Dart. Ford has a brand new Fusion. Even Cadillac has a fuel efficient car. That's the ATS.

So, the compact and mid-sized sedan market, which was normally a place that the American automakers didn't even compete in because that was the sole territory of the Japanese. They're competing in it for real right now.

CORNISH: And, of course, it was a tough year for Japanese carmakers last year. So, what messages were they sending at the car show?

GLINTON: Well, the real message is that they're back. You know, the earthquake and tsunami severely hurt Toyota and, to a greater degree, Honda, which cut down its production by about 200,000 cars. The best way to get the message is from one of the executives. Let's listen to John Mendel. He's with American Honda.

JOHN MENDEL: Many of our competitors were enjoying the race with Honda running at half throttle and they temporarily picked up a lap or two in the process while we were in the pits. We're here to serve notice to the competition. We're back to full power and we're again racing with a vengeance.

GLINTON: OK. I speak fluent car exec and that means, don't mess with us, guys. Honda and Toyota - they're like the Lakers. You know, they don't always make it to the finals, but they almost always make it to the playoffs. And so, if I were Honda's competition or Toyota's competition, I would be taking them very, very seriously.

CORNISH: Sonari, you said you're new to the beat, but I know you're having a lot of fun. What do you consider the most fun part of the auto show this year?

GLINTON: Well, Audie, in honor of your first week at the show, I am standing at the Audi booth and in the luxury car division. This is where all the fun seems to be happening. You know, I'm looking at Bentley, which - the new Bentley Continental, which I'm going to get some quality time to sit in. Mercedes is nearby. They have a hybrid. Even Cadillac has some new interesting cars. Mercedes is over the way, so that's the fun part. The luxury part is definitely where the fun is and where the interesting stuff is going on.

CORNISH: NPR's Sonari Glinton joined us from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Thanks so much, Sonari.

GLINTON: You're welcome.

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