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U.S. automakers put on a show this week, though it's clear they've already had enough drama. The Detroit Auto Show highlights an industry whose business is evaporating. Plenty of auto workers have time to attend, since the auto makers extended their holiday shutdowns in many plants.
In its annual showcase of new products, GM, Ford, and Chrysler focused on humility and sustainability. They emphasized more fuel-efficient cars, and they avoided big publicity stunts. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on the contrast with just a year ago.
(Soundbite of last year's Detroit Auto Show)
Unidentified Man: In just a few seconds, they're going to show the all-new Dodge Ram pickup. We're expecting a cattle drive down the street, and it should be really exciting. Chrysler never disappoints.
FRANK LANGFITT: That's how Chrysler kicked off last year's auto show. 130 head of longhorn steer accompanied the truck through the streets of Detroit. This year, everything was different. Instead of a waterfall which 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.
Mr. JIM PRESS (Vice Chairman and President, Chrysler): Probably like me, you're looking to see if the cows are behind me.
LANGFITT: 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.
Mr. PRESS: The government checks go right to Ron Kolka.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PRESS: So if anybody needs a loan, see Ron Kolka.
(Soundbite of clapping)
LANGFITT: Frank Klegon, who oversees product development, introduced three new electric vehicles.
Mr. FRANK KLEGON (Executive Vice President, Product Development, Chrysler): So let's see it now, the Dodge Circuit EV.
(Soundbite of music)
LANGFITT: A tangerine-colored sports car appeared from beneath a sheet. It looked good, but like Chrysler's other offerings, it's just a prototype, not something the company is ready to build. Many doubt Chrysler will end this year intact. They expect another company will buy its valuable brands like Jeep, and the rest of the firm will disappear.
After the unveiling, CEO Robert Nardelli took questions not about the vehicles, but Chrysler's future.
Mr. ROBERT NARDELLI (CEO, Chrysler): You know, a lot of people, some naysayers maybe would like to see Chrysler go away. But we're here to tell you that we're going to prove them wrong.
(Soundbite of cheering)
LANGFITT: 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.
Mr. BOB LUTZ (Vice Chairman, General Motors): Ladies and gentlemen, the Cadillac Converj concept.
LANGFITT: It was an electric Cadillac sedan. The car was silver and creased in the back. Upfront, it had a grill that smiled like the Cheshire cat.
While GM's white-collar workers were cheering inside, 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 the company negotiated at the White House.
Frank Warren is 49 and works at a GM transmission plant. He says the auto workers have already given up enough.
Mr. FRANK WARREN (GM Employee; United Auto Workers Member): We've given up positions that it's taken 30 years to get. We've got workers coming into our doors now making $14 an hour without healthcare. Can you support your family on $14 an hour and pay a mortgage? I don't think so.
LANGFITT: Of the Detroit companies, Ford is probably in the strongest position. It has more cash and is further along in its turnaround. Yesterday, it also had some strong new models, including a sportier, redesigned Taurus that looks nothing like its oblong ancestor.
But yesterday, there was also a reminder that Ford and the other U.S. companies face increased competition from all over. The show's 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.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit.