As Detroit Auto Show Opens, Bailout Funds Examined

The Detroit Auto Show opens this week, and today, reporters got a preview of what's coming to showrooms later this year. Joining the journalists are members of Congress, who are there to see how General Motors and Chrysler are spending tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money. Robert Siegel talks to NPR's Frank Langfitt.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Detroit Auto Show opens this week. Today, reporters got a preview of what's coming to showrooms later this year. So did a group of congressional leaders. They are there in Detroit to see how General Motors and Chrysler are spending all that taxpayer money they've received.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is on the floor at the Auto Show. And Frank, what can you see from where you are now?

(Soundbite of crowd)

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, I'm right now, I'm at the Ford exhibit and I would say so far, this has been Ford's show, at least of the Detroit Three. They won the North American Car of the Year and the Truck of the Year this morning. As you remember, they didn't take that bailout money and they've kind of enjoyed a bit of a halo effect with customers because of that. So, they've been kind of doing better. And they just launched the Ford Focus, which I'm looking at right now. It's a compact - pretty sleek looking car for a compact. And they're going to put it up against the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla later this year.

SIEGEL: No halo effect over at General Motors, I guess. GM went through bankruptcy. It also had two CEOs who were forced out in just eight months. How does GM look at the Auto Show? What do they have on display there?

LANGFITT: Well, they are looking better. They've got some nice things coming from Buick. They're also going to be launching the Cruze, it's a Chevy. And they say it's going to get up to 40 miles to the gallon. It's also a compact and again, is going to go up against the Focus. But the design, when people look at it, analysts, other people who focus on those things, they don't think the design is all that strong. And there is a sense that GM is doing better, but still trying to find its way. And it has been, as you said Robert, a really turbulent year.

(Soundbite of train)

SIEGEL: What was that noise, Frank? Sounded like car.

LANGFITT: Well, that's a train that goes over the Civic Center. Every now and then, you hear it running nearby.

SIEGEL: That's mass transit at work is what you're hearing.

LANGFITT: Indeed.

SIEGEL: Now, Chrysler is obviously the weakest of the U.S. automakers. In years past they've had some really elaborate and expensive displays. Now they are owned by Fiat. Is there a different feel from Chrysler this year at the Auto Show?

LANGFITT: A totally different feel. And if you'll wait with me for a moment, Robert, I'm going to walk over to Chrysler and describe what it looks like now.

ROBERTS: Okay, you walk across the floor and we'll hear what it looks like this year at Chrysler. This moment requires a bit of suspension of disbelief.

LANGFITT: Well, Robert, I'm over at Chrysler now and you wouldn't really recognize it from last year. There are - is no press conference. There isn't much at all in the way of new product. And there is kind of a schizophrenic feel. I mean, you see they brought in a lot of the Italian cars that Fiat makes, including, they have over here a convertible Maserati with a very long leggy model in it. And next to it is the Dodge Grand Caravan. So, a lot of people in Detroit are looking at Chrysler and trying to figure out where this company is going. They are not showing us new product and people are a little worried because Chrysler, of course, has had the worst sales at the Detroit Three. And people are questioning whether they can really make it.

SIEGEL: Now, the delegation at the Auto Show from Washington includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also Hilda Solis, the secretary of Labor. Have you run into them and can you get a sense of what they're interested in at the Auto Show?

LANGFITT: Well, Nancy Pelosi has been walking around. I actually also ran into Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. He was looking at a lot of the electric vehicles and he was looking at the Nissan LEAF, which they say, they are going to launch it pretty soon, I guess later this year. They say it'll get up to -will be able to drive for a hundred miles on a single charge. But Secretary LaHood also asked about infrastructure, you know, people, if they live in apartments, will they be able to charge these cars? So, he was also raising some of the basic infrastructure questions surrounding electric vehicles.

SIEGEL: One coincidental bit of news: It turns out last year, the market for autos, for new cars in China actually became larger than the U.S. market for cars. So, I wonder, is the North American International Auto Show as the Detroit show is called, is it suddenly the second most important auto show in the world, next to one that they have over there?

LANGFITT: Well, that's a great question and China is on everybody's minds here. Certainly BYD, it's an electric carmaker out of China, they are having a press conference tomorrow that I think most people will go to. And when people talk about the global market, Ford, when they were launching the Focus just earlier this morning, they are all talking about the importance of China and the importance of continued growth there. So, I think as people build cars here in Detroit, they are really looking across the Pacific to the consumers there.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt at the Annual Auto Show in Detroit.

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