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Monday, January 18, 2010
Automakers: Performance will not be sacrificed


Green is the theme at this year's North American International Auto Show, set to run through Jan. 23 at Detroit's Cobo Center.

Racing cars are virtually extinct at the NAIAS, and the show's annual Racing Day is a thing of the past as manufacturers increasingly turn to hybrid and electric technology in an effort to boost fuel economy.

Ford
Mark Fields, executive vice president at Ford Motor Co., holds up the 2010 North American Truck of the Year award (Ford Transit Connect) and Car of the Year award (Ford Fusion Hybrid) Jan. 11 in Detroit.

Although not as subdued as a year ago, the Detroit Show in 2010 is still a pretty quiet place compared to recent times. The swagger so often exhibited on home turf by America's Big Three automakers is conspicuously absent -- not to mention the massive trucks and SUVs that have dominated the U.S. transportation market for decades.

The combination of a reeling domestic auto industry and rising gas prices has resulted in a massive shift in priorities for the Detroit automakers.

The star of this year's Detroit show is the third-generation Ford Focus, which was developed by Ford's European division for worldwide sale.

It's hugely significant that Ford not only engineered one of its most popular and important models for an international market, but that it chose to debut the new design in Detroit instead of one of the European shows like Paris, Frankfurt or Geneva.

Ford executives are riding high thanks to sweeping the North American Car and Truck awards with its Fusion and Transit Connect models, and the company invested far more money and effort in its NAIAS display than did its domestic competitors, General Motors and Chrysler. Ford's other major news was the introduction of a punched-out 5.0-liter V-8 engine and trim package for the Mustang.

GM's stand featured minimal frills, with the focus devoted to the cars and trucks sold by its remaining brands (Chevrolet, Buick/GMC and Cadillac). Key new production models on display include the American-spec Chevrolet Cruze and the latest iteration of the Buick Regal. The Cruze is GM's chief competitor for the Ford Focus, while the Regal is a badge-engineered version of the Insignia sedan produced by GM's European brand Opel. Another important model for GM is a two-door coupe version of the popular Cadillac CTS, which was also shown in CTS-V trim.

Chrysler's lack of fresh upcoming product was painfully obvious. A curious addition to the Mopar display was a lightly worked-over Lancia Delta hatchback, rebadged as a Chrysler. Other indications of Chrysler's ties to Fiat Auto included a pair of Fiat 500 micro-cars the company hopes to pitch as a rival to premium small cars such as the Mini and the Volkswagen Golf.

VW put on by far the most ostentatious presentation to the estimated 5,000 media representatives on hand for the opening show, featuring strobe lights, smoke machines, thumping music and dancers. From a product standpoint, VW unveiled the New Concept Coupe, a Golf/Jetta based two-door notchback similar to a Honda Civic or BMW 3-series coupe.

In fact, the German manufacturers dominated the show with an impressive display of hardware and hubris. Separated only by an aisle from its former partner Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz debuted the E-Class convertible and showed off the AMG SLS supercar with its gull-wing doors. BMW rolled out its funky hatchback 5-series GT, while Audi previewed the sports coupe of the future with its electric e-tron concept car, believed to be a near-production-ready design to be sold as the R4.

The Detroit show used to be famous for its over-the-top concept-car offerings, especially from Chrysler. This year, at a show almost fully devoid of future preview machines, GM grabbed the spotlight with the Cadillac XTS Platinum, a large sedan set to replace the existing STS and DTS lines.

Whereas recent Cadillac show cars were powered by fantasy league V-16 powerplants, the XTS features a direct injected 3.6-liter V-6 with hybrid capability. All in all, the XTS is a surprisingly accurate glimpse into the future of the large American luxury sedan.

At the other end of the spectrum, Honda unveiled the CR-Z coupe, intended to inject some fun into the hybrid market while still providing upward of 40 mpg. The CR-Z is the first hybrid vehicle available with a six-speed manual gearbox.

The message coming out of Detroit was clear: Although fuel economy has become the priority, performance will not be sacrificed. American consumers should just expect to get their horsepower in the form of turbocharged or supercharged four- and six-cylinder engines rather than the traditional V-8.

In that respect, American automakers are simply -- or, to be more accurate, finally -- falling in line with the rest of the world.