This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

The Detroit Auto Show is opening later this week, and usually it's a big blowout where American and foreign car makers show off their future models and dream cars. But this year's show comes during the worst sales in decades, and two of Detroit's Big Three companies, GM and Chrysler, would probably be bankrupt by now were it not for government loans. NPR's Frank Langfitt covers the auto industry, and he's going to the show's press preview today. Hi, Frank.


GREENE: So what are we expecting to hear when you head to this press preview? And I guess, how is the show going to differ from what we've seen in the past?

LANGFITT: Well, as you know, David, this is a lot more than just a trade show. This is the biggest event in Detroit's social calendar. It's a big extravaganza usually. It's a kind of Vegas comes to Motown. Last year, Chrysler had a herd of cattle. They ran them downtown to promote the upcoming Dodge Ram. Well this year, it's going to look a lot different. I think it's going to be a lot more subdued and frugal. Nissan has actually pulled out. We're not going to see the big parties and the free drinks. And one of the major reasons is these three Detroit companies, they're scrimping. They don't have a lot of money. GM and Chrysler are now operating with billions of dollars in taxpayer loans from the Bush administration. And right now, most of the plants around here, they're shut down because just not many people are buying cars.

GREENE: Well, tell us what kind of products we might see coming out of the show, and maybe if any of these products might help the auto industry pull out of this slide over time.

LANGFITT: Well, you know, given the high fuel prices from the summer, and of course our economy, there's going to be a big emphasis on smaller cars and alternative energy. Chrysler might have an electric concept car. We'll be probably seeing a plug-in from a Chinese company. Also seeing some next-generation hybrids like the Prius. I talked to Sean McAlinden this weekend. He's the chief economist at the Center for Auto Research in Ann Arbor, it's a think tank. And here's how he described the industry's mindset going into the show.

Mr. SEAN MCALINDEN (Chief Economist, The Center for Auto Research): They're sticking to their green guns, there isn't any question about it, and their small-car guns. Ford has a tremendous product plan on small cars. There's even rumors they'll get styling right a little bit.

LANGFITT: You know, Sean just mentioned Ford, and that's a company I'm very curious about. It's the healthiest of the Detroit Three. They have some money. They're not - they don't have a government loan, and they're further along in their turnaround plan. One thing we will see is a redesigned Taurus. You remember, that was a really successful car. It competed well against the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. But they allowed it to languish, and it nearly died.

GREENE: When we talk about the health of these companies, I guess Chrysler is known as the weakest of the Detroit Three. Any idea what they're going to be doing at the show?

LANGFITT: You know, I don't know what to expect. I'm really - that's one I'm very curious about as well. Most analysts think Chrysler is going to be broken up. It's not really big enough and doesn't have enough strong brands to compete, and the owner, the private equity firm Cerberus, most people here think they're just looking for a buyer right now to kind of get out of what's turned out to be a bad investment. So I hear they're working very hard on this show, but I kind of wonder how the company is going to manage all this uncertainty and gloom, you know, in a public arena.

GREENE: Well, you said it's a big social event. Maybe the show could distract some people away from their economic troubles in a good way. That's NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from Detroit. Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

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