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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

The last few years have been dismal for many carmakers at the big auto show in Detroit. Here's Chrysler head Olivier Francois this week.

M: I remember...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

M: ...the feeling I had leaving this place one year ago. I remember leaving a booth with no new products, finding my 300 in the basement and driving out into the cold.

SIEGEL: Well, Chrysler and Mr. Francois came in from the cold this week and brought new models with them to this year's auto show. So did other automakers, but not just Ford, Toyota and GM. Think upscale: Porsche, Bentley.

As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports, now that the economy is showing signs of recovery, so are the highest of the high-end luxury cars.

SONARI GLINTON: I'm standing on the floor of the North American International Auto Show. It's better known as the Detroit Auto Show. And the question is: How is this year's show different than, say, last year's? Well, I can find one of the answers here at Bentley.

M: So I'm Alasdair Stewart, and I'm the board member for sales, marketing and after-sales for Bentley.

GLINTON: Bentley, the British luxury carmaker was here at the Detroit Auto Show last year, but they had nothing new to show. This year, things are different. There are three new models completely redesigned. The starting price? About $150,000. So who's putting that kind of money down in this economy?

M: People that absolutely recognize the value of a car like this - the beautiful craftsmanship, you know, this sort of sensuous refinement, if you like, in the car, and you've got authenticity.

GLINTON: How are sales doing now?

M: Sales are good. We had - we're about 11 percent up.

GLINTON: Sales aren't just up at Bentley; they're up at other luxury carmakers.

For the past three years, the auto market was so weak Porsche didn't even attend the auto show. Today, sales are up 30 percent. With their big sales increase, they've come back with new models and even introduced a brand-new racing concept car. It's a hybrid.

Steve Janisse is with Porsche. Janisse says it was more than just a bad economy that hurt Porsche.

M: The ones who are buying the cars still had the capability and the capacity to buy a luxury sports car. However, it was more of a mind-set.

GLINTON: Yup. Remember the disdain for conspicuous consumption?

M: They didn't want to be seen as the one on the block who just went and bought a new Porsche or a new Ferrari or a new Bentley, whatever it may be, if, you know, maybe their neighbor just lost their job or something like that.

GLINTON: That's not necessarily to say conspicuous consumption is roaring back. Janisse says Porsche's SUV and four-door sports cars are driving sales. A four- door Porsche is less ostentatious than a two-seater, he tells me.

Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, says buyers of luxury brands are trying to be more subtle.

M: People are coming in and ordering the exact same car, just a new version of it, so that people don't know that they've gotten a new car, which I thought was very symbolic.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: Lindland says, to be clear, the high-end luxury market is just a small sliver of the overall car business worldwide. The luxury brands, put together, sell tens of thousands of cars. The big automakers sell millions.

But auto show veterans say combine the luxury brands with a return to health of the giants and you see a much improved industry.

Bob Lutz has been going to auto shows for decades and decades. He's worked at Ford, Chrysler, BMW, and he recently retired as vice chairman of General Motors. Lutz says this show is different.

M: Comparing to recent ones, it's a lot more upbeat. There's more color, more light, more new models. And I think this is the show that will be remembered as when people first understood that the domestic automobile industry is back to being number one.

GLINTON: Back up in the luxury car department, Alasdair Stewart with Bentley says he's cautiously optimistic about the future of high-end brands and the economy. Stewart reluctantly let me get behind the wheel of Bentley's $280,000 car - yup, $280,000.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

M: So you can immediately hear the quiet and the calm of the inside of the cabin.

GLINTON: Well, Mr. Stewart, thank you so much.

M: All right. OK. Thank you very much, indeed.

GLINTON: From inside a Bentley, Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit.

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