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Tue, Jan 11, 2005 - Page 12 News List

US automakers makers go green

CAR SHOW The US' Big Three firms are rolling out energy efficient and hybrid models as they move to counter market share gains by Asian competitors

AFP , DETROIT, MICHIGAN

The General Motors Graphyte hybrid concept vehicle is unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

The Detroit auto show opened on Sunday with US carmakers showing off increased muscle and green technology to fight fierce competition from Asian rivals.

The North American International Auto Show, which runs through Jan. 23, features 65 new models, from concept cars using battery power to sleek and powerful roadsters, along with rugged trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The show opens after a glum year for US automakers. The market share of the Big Three -- General Motors, Ford and the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler -- fell to an unprecedented 58.7 percent last year, even while overall car sales edged up slightly.

The Japanese Big Three of Toyota, Honda and Nissan all posted record sales last year to increase their combined share to 26.3 percent.

South Korea's Hyundai and its Kia affiliate also had record years, grabbing more than four percent of US sales combined, as the Asian total of the US market share surged to 34.6 percent.

The current landscape leaves the US automakers looking for a spark to catch up with their Asian rivals in the area of quality perception and in new technology, including hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles.

Hybrid technology -- using electric and gasoline engines -- was red-hot as the show opened, as evidenced by the Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle which was named "truck of the year" by auto journalists. The Chrysler 300 sedan was voted "car of the year."

Ford division president Stephen Lyons said the firm is having trouble keeping up with demand for its first hybrid model and the first US gas-electric hybrid after the technology was brought to the US market by Toyota and Honda.

"It's the first SUV hybrid," Lyons said. "It's unique. You get all the advantage of hybrid fuel economy and the practicality of an SUV."

Lyons noted that it is an advantage to be first to market with a hybrid SUV, ahead of Toyota and General Motors, which are planning to introduce their own models to the US this year and next year.

"Very clearly there's a demand way beyond what we thought," he said, noting that the 20,000 units planned for US production this year "won't be nearly enough."

Additionally, he said consumers are willing to pay the premium of US$3,000 to US$3,500 per vehicle.

General Motors said it too is working on hybrid engines but sees this only as a step to even better fuel technology.

"Hybrids represent a bridge to the long-term solution of hydrogen fuel cells," GM chairman Rick Wagoner said in the opening presentation of the world's number one automaker at the show.

Nonetheless, Wagoner said the automaker is working on new hybrid engines, including as part of a joint venture with DaimlerChrysler.

Wagoner, who unveiled the company's prototype fuel-cell vehicle called Sequel, noted that GM is introducing hybrid on its largest vehicles first, including trucks and buses. The first large-scale consumer rollout of GM hybrids for the US consumer market will be next year.

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