Saturday, January 26, 2013

Auto show debuts go for flash, fuel efficiency


Greg Garner, Detroit Free Press

Four years ago, no one would have imagined the U.S. as the global auto industry’s hot spot, but the 2013 North American International Auto Show offers convincing evidence that designing and making flashy, fuel-efficient and fun vehicles is cool again.

Detroit has come through the wrenching makeovers of General Motors and Chrysler, and the bootstrap turnaround at Ford. The Japanese have overcome an epic earthquake and tsunami to recover their mojo in the U.S. German automakers are taking refuge in the U.S. from a nagging economic malaise in Europe.

All competitors are investing in U.S. plants and workers. Japan-based supplier Denso said Tuesday that it was weighing a plan to add 400 jobs in Michigan, and another 800 elsewhere in the U.S.

Automation and the array of global options mean the industry probably never will employ as many people as it did 25 years ago, but this is still where every automaker wants to make its mark as fuel-efficiency standards increase and demand for vehicles rises with the improved economy and housing market.

“We are seeing firsthand that the auto industry is back after some tough years,” said Larry Dominique, executive vice president at True-Car.com. “It’s important for manufacturers to continue to innovate and build products that consumers will buy. Many of the concepts we saw this year prove that.”

There’s something for everyone at the show, which opens to the general public Saturday, from the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette to Mercedes-Benz’s E-Class cars to the plug-in Cadillac ELR to the artful BMW 4-Series concept. None will be mega sellers on their own, but they reflect a deep well of creativity.

Every automaker now talks about fuel economy with the same boastful superlatives once reserved for horsepower and torque. The federal government, with the industry’s support, has set a standard for 2025 that will force every company to nearly double their fl eet’s average fuel economy between 2010 and 2025. The government will revisit that standard in 2017, but automakers agree that they need to employ an array of technologies now to meet future miles per gallon standards.

That means hybrids, turbocharged gas engines and, to a lesser extent, diesels will grow more common. There’s also natural gas and pure plug-ins. Jeep doesn’t have an all-new product to trumpet this year, but by adding the option of a diesel engine for its best-selling Grand Cherokee, it will enable off-road and fuel-efficiency to be used in the same sentence.

Pushing the edge of the fledgling electric car market, Tesla brought its Silicon Valley bravado to show a concept of its Model X all-electric crossover and bragged that it has 13,000 orders for its Model S sedan, which can run 265 miles between charges.

One way this year’s show is different is that there are more cars aimed at people younger than 50, or at least to stir their dreams. Every luxury carmaker is offering small cars and crossovers.

Baby boomers will account for a disproportionate percentage of new car purchases for the near future. Millennials love their smartphones, tablets and bicycles. But when younger buyers decide they need and can afford four wheels, the industry is providing ample choices.

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