Detroit Auto Show: Post GM, Chrysler Bankruptcies

The North American International Auto Show opens this week in Detroit. For Chrysler and General Motors, this is the post-bankruptcy auto show where the companies need to persuade potential customers that more than $60 billion in federal bailout money was well spent.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Oh, the annual auto show kicks off in Detroit this week, and never have Americans been more invested in the products there - literally invested. Last year, the government spent more than $60 billion in tax money to keep General Motors and Chrysler alive. This week, well get to see where the companies have put some of that money. Frank Langfitt covers the car business for NPR News, and hes going to the shows press preview this morning in Detroit.

Frank, good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you expecting to see?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, this is the post-bankruptcy auto show. And what these companies need to do is kind of persuade consumers to come back into the showrooms, take a look at their vehicles and also really work on their image. I mean, it was a terrible year last year for the car business, and they really have to improve it.

Now, looking at GM, they have to convince people that theyve really got good product to come back to. As you know, many years ago, they had a lot of quality problems. They lost a lot of customers. Chrysler sort of has to convince people they can really survive. I mean, they had the toughest year of all.

And Ford, interestingly enough, is kind of seeming to try to separate itself from these other two. You know, Ford didn't go bankrupt, didn't take federal bailout money. And I was talking to an executive last week who said, you know, to some degree, they don't think of themselves as much of the Detroit Three anymore. They think of themselves as a different group of three, and that includes Honda and Toyota.

INSKEEP: Oh, theyre the Detroit one, I suppose, or something to that effect.

LANGFITT: Think to that effect.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned General Motors. What are they going to actually put on the showroom floor, so to speak?

LANGFITT: Well, one of the ones - I saw this car last year, and I want to take another look at it. Its the Cruze. Its a sub - its a compact car, could get up to maybe 40 miles to the gallon, and really, I think, important for the company financially. Its going to compete against the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.

And this is a segment, as they say in the car business, where you can sell a lot of units and where traditionally, GM just gets clobbered. So with all of this, you know, federal investment that weve all made to this company, if GMs going to profitable, the Cruze really has to be a success. So watch for that sometime later this year as they come out, see what the reviews are and see what the sales are like.

INSKEEP: So the Chevy Cruze is critical for General Motors. And then theres Chrysler. Now theyve done some big, showy things at this auto show in the past. They sent a herd of steer onto the floor, if Im not mistaken (unintelligible)...

LANGFITT: Well, that was actually outside. That wouldve really messed up the floor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: But it was outside of the Cobo Center, but it caught a lot of peoples attention.

INSKEEP: OK. But what are they going to do this year? I mean, what other animals are they going to put on display, if any?

LANGFITT: Actually, youre not going to see any animals.

INSKEEP: Ah, Im disappointed.

LANGFITT: You're not going to see much of anything. Well, this is a real down -back-to-business show. This is a company thats really strapped for cash. It has the worst sales of the three Detroit companies. There are no big launches of new products that were going to see.

And frankly, theres a lot of skepticism around Michigan about the future of the company. Last year, when I was interviewing people, there were a lot of analysts who felt that it couldnt compete in the global marketplace and that it actually should be wound down.

Now, today, Sergio�Marchionne is the CEO of Fiat, he now really runs Chrysler. Hes going to be out on the floor today talking to reporters, trying to convince us and convince the people listening, you know, around the country that he can turn this company around. He did it with Fiat in Europe, and hes going to try to convince us that with Fiat technology, he can build small, affordable cars that people want to drive.

INSKEEP: Frank Langfitts line is breaking up just a little bit, but we can hear you for a few more seconds, I think, Frank. I suppose its no surprise that a number of congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, are going to be Detroit. Why would they not go check on their investment, I suppose? Or our investment.

LANGFITT: Well, exactly right. They are going to check on it. Theyre going to be looking at fuel efficient technology that the government is actually creating loans for. And they want to see if these companies are no longer going to be making gas guzzlers as they did in the past, and kind of becoming greener.

INSKEEP: Right. Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPRs Frank Langfitt is about to attend the press preview for the Detroit auto show today, and well have more throughout the day.

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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