With sales tanking and General Motors (GM) and Chrysler struggling for their very survival, the Detroit auto show promises to be a subdued and tense affair as automakers launch new models to compete for an ever-dwindling number of customers.
Some 58 new models — including 44 worldwide debuts — will be introduced in the coming days as the manufacturers vie for the attention of nearly 7,000 journalists from more than 60 countries at press previews.
Daimler was the first to launch its latest high-ticket vehicle, the new Mercedes E-class luxury sedan, at an invitation-only cocktail reception on Saturday night.
“Despite the enormous pressures that our entire industry is under these days, we are facing the year 2009 with measured confidence,” Daimler chief executive officer Dieter Zetsche said.
“The best way to master a crisis is driving the change instead of being driven by it,” Zetsche said, adding that “there will be a bright future for innovative car companies ... and I most certainly include Daimler among them.”
Prominent among the new offerings are a host of ready-for-market hybrids and experimental electric vehicles that were to start zipping around a tree-lined track set up in the basement of the Detroit convention center yesterday.
The testing track surrounds two ponds with waterfalls and will showcase zero-emission electric prototypes by GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Tesla.
Ford will also be introducing two new hybrids that it said got better fuel economy than Toyota’s popular Prius.
Refusing to be upstaged, Toyota will launch an improved version of its Prius and a new dedicated hybrid for its luxury Lexus brand and said on Saturday that it would launch a two-seater electric car by 2012.
China’s BYD Auto will be showing the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid that went on sale last month in China and is slated to hit Europe next year.
Honda will also enter the fray by unveiling its reintroduced dedicated hybrid, the Insight hatchback.
But in a sign of the troubled times, the Japanese automaker canceled a press conference for the Insight, which was to make its worldwide debut without fanfare in the Honda booth when the show opened yesterday.
And a number of automakers decided to skip the show altogether this year, including Nissan, Suzuki, Porsche, Ferrari and Land Rover.
“Beyond the products and the lights and the glitz, everyone is in a holding pattern,” said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of the automotive Web site Edmunds.com. “Uncertainty is the underlying tension.”
A financial crisis, credit crunch and deepening recession pushed US sales down 18 percent last year, in the steepest decline in 29 years and to the lowest level since 1992.
This year is expected to be even worse, with US auto sales forecast to fall by another 1 million or 2 million vehicles to around 11 million to 12 million vehicles.
Sales have not been below 12 million since the recession of 1982, when the US had 74 million fewer people than today.
While nearly every automaker posted significant losses and has announced major production cuts last year, Detroit’s Big Three were the hardest hit and saw their combined US market share fall below 50 percent for the first time.
Their US market share topped 60 percent as recently as 2004 and was 71.2 percent just 10 years ago, Ward’s Auto said.