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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Deborah Amos, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

If you happen to be anywhere near Detroit, you should feel comfortable dropping by the North American International Auto Show. After all, you - yes, you, Deborah Amos - are the owner of two big automakers.

AMOS: Thats one of the big changes since the last auto show. The government has dramatically increased its investment in GM and Chrysler. So its not surprising that top lawmakers drop by to check on the governments investment.

INSKEEP: Heres another thing that has changed in the past year. After one of their worst years ever, automakers have a slightly easier time imagining the future. We'll talk about what they see in this part of the program.

AMOS: In a moment, well hear from GMs vice president, Bob Lutz, about the largest car market in the world - not the U.S.

But first NPRs Frank Langfitt has this report from the auto show.

FRANK LANGFITT: The North American International Auto Show is a place for car companies to differentiate themselves from the competition. And Ford, widely seen as the strongest of the Detroit three, did that first thing yesterday morning.

Unidentified Male: The winner, North American Truck of the Year for 2010, is the Ford Transit Connect.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Male: Ford collects for the Ford Fusion Hybrid.

LANGFITT: For only the third time at the show, one company won both truck and car of year. Yesterday Ford also launched the new Focus. Its a sleek compact car, and its designed to steal customers from Toyota and Honda, companies that have traditionally stomped Detroit's small cars. Auto analysts gave the Focus strong marks. Jessica Caldwell works for Edmunds.com, the car consumer Web site. She says Ford, which did not take federal bail out money last year, is farther along in revamping its line than the other Detroit companies.

Ms. JESSICA CALDWELL (Edmunds.com): Ford, Id say, is about a year or even two years ahead of the curve. And even when you look at their sales, I think they are going to even challenge Toyota for the number two spot.

LANGFITT: Thats in the United States. General Motors is still the biggest selling company here and its launching its own new compact, the Chevy Cruze. In the past, critics complained that GMs small cars were cramped and cheap. Margaret Brooks says the Cruze is the exact opposite. She is head of marketing for small vehicles at Chevy, and she is pitching me the car.

Ms. MARGARET BROOKS (Chevrolet): This is the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, and it offers the roominess and amenities of a midsized car with the fuel economy and price of a compact.

LANGFITT: Brooks say that Cruze will get up to 40 miles a gallon on the highway, and it is roomy. I climb inside and push the seat all the way back.

Unidentified Woman: I dont know if...

Unidentified Man #2: Push it all the way back.

LANGFITT: Oh, wow.

Unidentified Woman: Good, okay.

LANGFITT: Thats very long leg room.

I'm about 6' 2" and could extend my legs all the way to the pedals, but analysts find the exterior of the Cruze, which has a honeycombed grill, a bit dull.

Ms. REBECCA LINDLAND (IHS Global Insight): I think the Cruze played it a little big safe from a design standpoint.

LANGFITT: Thats Rebecca Lindland. She works for IHS Global Insight, the financial analysis firm.

Is the Cruze gonna be able to compete with Hondas and Toyotas?

Ms. LINDLAND: I think for a driving and engineering standpoint, I think it will be able to. I think...

LANGFITT: How about from a selling to customers standpoint?

Ms. LINDLAND: Well, they still have a perception issue. You know, a lot of people feel like they have to explain themselves when they buy a Chevy.

LANGFITT: Although GMs cars have improved in quality, many consumers wont look at them. In taking huge sums from the government last year, the company only reinforced old resentments. If GM still faces perception issues, Chrysler has become opaque. The company used to stage all kinds of stunts at the auto show, including herding steers outside the convention center here. But this year, the company, which is now run by Fiat, the Italian car maker, had almost no new products to show and held no formal press conference. Again, Rebecca Lindland.

Ms. LINDLAND: There is definitely a bit of a dip in the pipeline for Chrysler, which is a huge concern. I think the industry consensus is that we've got to get them through 2010 and '11 and then we will start to see some better and more improved product in 2012 and 2013, but those, the next 24 months, are going to be really tough for this company.

LANGFITT: Congress members toured the Chrysler exhibit and many others yesterday. They tried to strike an upbeat tone in what was otherwise a subdued affair. At day's end, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared the show a success.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): We've come, we've been impressed. We're optimistic. As we go back, we have confidence in what has been accomplished and we'll be back next year again.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.

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