Big Three's Tough Sell: We've Turned Things Around

Ford Motor Co. President of the Americas Mark Fields i

Ford Motor Co. President of the Americas Mark Fields holds up the 2010 North American Truck of the Year award and Car of the Year award Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Carlos Osorio/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Osorio/AP
Ford Motor Co. President of the Americas Mark Fields

Ford Motor Co. President of the Americas Mark Fields holds up the 2010 North American Truck of the Year award and Car of the Year award Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Carlos Osorio/AP

The nation's auto companies are working hard to put their best faces forward at this week's Detroit auto show, but it's not an easy task.

Last year was one of the worst in Detroit's history, with two bankruptcies, three CEOs and a massive infusion of $60 billion in taxpayer money.

Auto executives are spending a lot of time trying to make the case that a turnaround is well under way.

"Going through the crucible for Chapter 11, it really did permit us to fundamentally fix the company," General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told NPR's Morning Edition. "We were able to get rid of a lot of our legacy costs; we were able to improve the balance sheet. We got rid of a lot of debt."

GM and Chrysler took federal bailout money last year, but the company that is now widely seen as the strongest of the Detroit Three is the one that didn't: Ford.

Ford has been the big winner in the auto show so far, collecting awards for North American truck of the year for the Ford Transit Connect and car of the year for the Ford Fusion Hybrid. It's only the third time that one company won both truck and car of the year at the competition.

Ford also launched the new Focus, a sleek, compact car. It is designed to steal customers from Toyota and Honda, companies that have traditionally stomped Detroit's small cars.

Auto analysts are giving the Focus strong marks, noting that Ford is much further along in revamping its product lines than the other carmakers.

"Ford, I'd say, is about a year, or even two years, ahead of the curve," says Jessica Caldwell, an analyst at Edmunds.com, the car consumer Web site. "Even when you look at their sales, I think they are even going to challenge Toyota for the No. 2 spot."

That's in the United States, where GM retains the top spot in car sales. It's also launching a new compact model called the Chevrolet Cruze. The car is aimed at reversing GM's reputation of building small cars that are too cramped and cheap.

Margaret Brooks, head of marketing for small vehicles at Chevrolet, says the Cruze is the exact opposite of that stereotype.

"It offers the roominess and amenities of a midsize car, with the fuel economy and price of a compact," Brooks says, adding that it gets up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

But many analysts find the exterior of the Cruze — which has a honeycomb grill — a bit dull.

"I think the Cruze played it a little bit safe from a design standpoint," says Rebecca Lindland of IHS Global Insight, a financial analysis firm.

Chevrolet still has a "perception issue," Lindland says. "A lot of people feel like they have to explain themselves when they buy a Chevy."

GM's cars have improved in quality, but many consumers still won't even take a look at them. In taking huge sums of money from the government last year, the company only reinforced those old resentments.

But if GM still faces perception issues, Chrysler has become opaque. The company used to stage all kinds of stunts at the auto show, including once herding steers outside Detroit's convention center.

But this year, the company — now run by Fiat, the Italian carmaker — had almost no new products to show.

"There is definitely a bit of a dip in the pipeline for Chrysler, which is a huge concern," Lindland says. "I think the industry consensus is that we've got to get them through 2010 and 2011, and then we'll start to see some better and more improved product in 2012 and 2013, but the next 24 months are going to be really tough for this company."

The auto show also had some newly prominent visitors this year: lawmakers from Washington, who served as a visible reminder of Detroit's troubles. Members of Congress toured exhibits and tried to sound upbeat about the car companies they recently helped to bail out.

"We've been impressed. We're optimistic as we go back," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "We have confidence in what has been accomplished, and we'll be back next year again."

NPR correspondent Kevin Whitelaw contributed to this report.

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