A Look At The Detroit Auto Show

Members of the media got an early glimpse at the annual Detroit Auto Show Sunday. How are U.S. automakers displaying their newest wares amid difficult financial circumstances?

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. The Detroit Auto Show opened its doors today, and the outlook for the auto industry is almost as bleak as the snowy weather outside. GM and Chrysler are still in business, but just barely, thanks to billions of dollars in taxpayer loans. At a show that's usually glitzy with big trucks and pyrotechnics, those are out. Electrics, hybrids and frugality are in. NPR's Frank Langfitt is one of the reporters who got a first glimpse of the show. And he joins us now from the convention. Frank, you know, if people haven't been to the auto show before, it's huge, it's a huge production. Is it different this year?

FRANK LANGFITT: It's very different, Rebecca. You know, the spectacles are gone. I mean, last year, Chrysler had this cattle drive through the streets to support the Dodge Ram, and a waterfall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: This year, it's just a screen of hanging electric cords signifying the electric cars. And Chrysler, you know, it's the weakest of the Detroit companies. Many think it could be broken up, and pieces could be sold off like Jeep. When I went to their presentation today, there were a lot of empty seats. It was almost funereal. And instead of talking about cars, they actually started talking, first off, about how many jobs they cut and the cost of savings they've had. It was really more like a Wall Street analysts' meeting.

ROBERTS: And what are you seeing with General Motors?

LANGFITT: Well, with GM, they've also had to borrow from the government, but they were a lot more upbeat. They had workers with signs cheering, saying, you know, 40 miles per gallon, we're electric. You can hear them right here.

(Soundbite of GM workers cheering)

LANGFITT: They've got some interesting offerings. They've got a Chevy Spark. It was - it looks like a Smart Car. It's this lime-green, little car; you can put your groceries in the back. They've got the Cruze. It's a smaller car that'll compete with the Toyota Corolla. Ford is sort of in the strongest position of the three. They have more money, and they kind of are little further along in their turnaround. One thing, they have a new Taurus. It's quite sporty-looking, very different from those old, 1980s, oblong cars.

ROBERTS: And General Motors begins contract talks tomorrow with the United Auto Workers. They're going to be asking for some more concessions to meet the terms of the federal loan agreement. Are the auto workers there at all, at the convention?

LANGFITT: Well, they're not in the convention, but they're right outside, picketing out front. Some of them say they want to fight some of these concessions. They seem to accept some changes, but they feel that they've already made a lot of concessions over the years, and they also feel like scapegoats. There were people out there who had placards saying, you know, no cars, no country. And it was an interesting contrast with these salaried GM workers inside, these cheerleaders, who we just heard from. And so, you know, whether you're inside the hall or outside the hall, you sort of can't escape the economic reality that these companies are facing.

ROBERTS: Another odd reality: The show opened with the North American Car of the Year Award and this year, it went to this luxury sedan from Hyundai. Really - Hyundai?

LANGFITT: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, what's really interesting about that is that's kind of the story of the car industry over the years. There's this intense global competition. I mean, you go back to when Hyundai first came here. It was like a punchline. But they improved their cars. They offered 100,000-mile warranties. And it's kind of a reminder that these Detroit companies don't just have to compete with the Japanese. They have to deal with the Koreans and who knows? Maybe soon the Chinese.

ROBERTS: NPR's Frank Langfitt at the Detroit Auto Show. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rebecca.

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Auto Industry Crisis Casts Shadow On Detroit Show

GM's Bob Lutz introduces the Cadillac Converj electric concept vehicle. i i

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors, introduces the Cadillac Converj electric concept vehicle Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
GM's Bob Lutz introduces the Cadillac Converj electric concept vehicle.

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors, introduces the Cadillac Converj electric concept vehicle Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
An autoworker pickets Sunday outside the auto show at Detroit's Cobo Center. i i

An autoworker pickets Sunday outside the auto show at Detroit's Cobo Center. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
An autoworker pickets Sunday outside the auto show at Detroit's Cobo Center.

An autoworker pickets Sunday outside the auto show at Detroit's Cobo Center.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

U.S. Auto Sales Plummet: Where Is The Bottom?

The new Dodge Circuit EV electric concept vehicle is displayed at the Detroit auto show. i i

The new Dodge Circuit EV electric concept vehicle is displayed at the Detroit auto show. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
The new Dodge Circuit EV electric concept vehicle is displayed at the Detroit auto show.

The new Dodge Circuit EV electric concept vehicle is displayed at the Detroit auto show.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Battered U.S. automakers are putting on a show this week, though it's clear they've already had enough drama.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit is a chance to show off an industry whose business is evaporating. In the industry's annual showcase of new products, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler focused on humility — and sustainability.

They emphasized more fuel-efficient cars. And they avoided big publicity stunts. Last year, Chrysler kicked off the auto show with 130 head of longhorn steer accompanying a Dodge Ram pickup through the streets of Detroit.

This year, everything was different. Instead of a waterfall that spelled out Jeep, there was a curtain of electric cords signifying the company's electric car offerings.

Jim Press, Chrysler's co-president, acknowledged the contrast. "Probably like me, you're looking to see if the cows are behind me," he said.

The company's financial crisis hung over the event like a cloud. Chrysler had to borrow $4 billion from the government last month just to keep operating.

Press tried to joke about it while introducing company executives, including the chief financial officer. "The government checks go right to Ron Kolka so if anyone needs a loan, see Ron Kolka," Press said.

Frank Klegon, who oversees product development for Chrysler, introduced three new electric vehicles, including the Dodge Circuit EV. A tangerine-colored sports car appeared from beneath a sheet. It looked good. But like Chrysler's other offerings, it's just a prototype.

Can Chrysler Survive?

Many doubt Chrysler will end this year intact. They expect another company will buy its valuable brands, including Jeep, and the rest of the firm to disappear.

After the unveiling, Chief Executive Officer Robert Nardelli took questions — not about the vehicles but Chrysler's future. "You know, a lot of people, some naysayers, maybe would like to see Chrysler go away. But we're her to tell you that we're going to prove them wrong," he said.

The scene over at General Motors was more upbeat. Company employees gathered to greet the new models. They waved blue and green signs that read, "40 Miles a Gallon" and "Here To Stay."

Soon, the new GM cars came rolling down the carpet. GM executive Bob Lutz introduced the star of the show — the Cadillac Converj concept car, an electric sedan. The car was silver and creased in the back. Up front, it had a grille that smiled like the Cheshire cat.

Autoworkers Question Concessions

While GM's white-collar workers were cheering inside Detroit's Cobo Center, their blue-collar counterparts were protesting across the street in the frigid air.

The car companies are pushing the United Auto Workers for more concessions. It's part of the loan agreement GM negotiated with the White House.

Frank Warren, 49, who works at a GM transmission plant, said the autoworkers have given up enough. "We've given up positions that it's taken 30 years to get," he said. "We've got workers coming into our doors now making $14 an hour without health care. Can you support your family on $14 an hour and pay a mortgage? I don't think so."

Foreign Competition

Of the three Detroit companies, Ford is probably in the strongest position. It has more cash and is further along in its turnaround. At the show, it also had some strong new models, including a sportier, redesigned Taurus that looks nothing like its oblong ancestor.

But Sunday there was also a reminder that Ford and other U.S. companies face increased competition from all over. The car of the year award went to the Hyundai Genesis, a luxury sedan.

Hyundai once prompted laughter in the U.S. Now, it's a serious company — and one more worry for the Detroit Three.

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