US automakers were on the defensive at the Detroit Auto Show as Asian rival Honda captured the prestigious car and truck of the year awards and disgruntled auto workers protested outside.
In a year when Ford is planning to announce major layoffs and plant closures, and analysts are speculating that General Motors could declare bankruptcy, domestic automakers offered vague financial forecasts to journalists at one of the most important auto shows of the year.
GM chairman Rick Wagoner would say only that his company would return to profitability "as soon as we can." Ford chairman Bill Ford told reporters he hoped to "stabilize our market share this year."
Those weak assurances meant little to the hundreds of auto workers who braved bitter winds on Sunday to remind the executives inside the Detroit auto show that their restructuring plans have a human cost.
"We can't buy what we build with a 60 percent pay cut," said Michele Carriere, 46, who works for auto parts supplier Delphi, which is also threatening to default on its pension obligations as a means to emerge from bankruptcy protection.
"It's not going to stop with Delphi. It's going to go to GM and to Ford and it's already happened with some companies like the airlines," Carriere said.
While GM and Ford tried to focus attention on a slew of new vehicles being presented, Toyota forecast that US sales this year would surpass the 2.3 million vehicles it sold last year.
Analysts are expecting Toyota to overtake top-ranking GM in global sales volume this year, and it ought to get a big boost from the introduction of a hybrid version of its popular Camry this week, already the best-selling vehicle in the US.
Honda meanwhile forecast growth of about 3.4 percent in the US to 1.5 million vehicles this year with a nice boost coming from the prestigious car and truck of the year awards, a first for the Japanese automaker.
"It will be a great plus in terms of marketing," chairman Takeo Fukui said in an interview.
The auto show opened for press previews just days after annual sales figures showed that Asian automakers now command 36.5 percent of the massive US market.
One reason for their success has been a sharp drop in demand for gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles, a mainstay of now-struggling Ford and General Motors.
That trend is set to continue in the new year, Volkswagen chairman Wolfgang Bernhard said.
"We see the American consumer is going to buy more small, fuel-efficient vehicles," he said on the sidelines of the show.
"That means cars are making a comeback and crossovers are coming back, and anyone who's positioned for that is going to do well," he said.
China is also ready to dive into the US market. Private carmaker Geely is exhibiting at the show, a first for Chinese automakers