The glint of a host of greener cars failed to lift the pall hanging over the Detroit auto show on Sunday, as the industry faced tanking sales and General Motors (GM) and Chrysler fought for their very survival.
In a city once known for its gasoline-guzzling trucks and sport utility vehicles, automakers from across the globe tried to one-up each other’s fuel efficiency and commitment to sustainability.
There was even a tree-lined track, set up around artificial lakes and waterfalls in the basement of the convention center, so people could test-drive a host of zero-emission prototypes by GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Tesla.
GM promised to bring a mini car, the Spark, to the US market by 2011 and unveiled a prototype of a Cadillac extended range, plug-in hybrid amid a moving fashion show of its latest offerings, which it said “underscores GM’s ongoing commitment to emotionally compelling design, leading fuel efficiency and advanced technology.”
Chrysler unveiled three plug-in, gas-electric, hybrid prototypes — a sedan, a Jeep and a sports car — which it said “clearly demonstrates that we are well on our way to bringing electric vehicles to our consumers’ garages.”
Ford entered the electric fray with a promise to bring a collection of electric vehicles to market by 2012 and introduced two new, production-ready hybrids.
Refusing to be upstaged, Toyota said on Saturday it would launch a two-seater electric car by 2012 and introduced a new dedicated hybrid for its luxury Lexus brand on Sunday. It was to unveil a revamped version of its popular Prius hybrid yesterday.
China’s BYD Auto will be showing the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid, which went on sale last month in China and is scheduled to hit Europe next year.
And Honda unveiled its reintroduced, dedicated hybrid, the Insight hatchback, which goes on sale in the US in April.
But with industry sales forecast to collapse worldwide amid a financial crisis and deepening recession in several key countries, financial issues were the focus of most questions during the press preview.
GM and Chrysler, which recently obtained US$8 billion in loans from the US government, must present plans by Feb. 17 detailing how they will achieve long-term viability.
Both are hoping to obtain more money from the government to help them survive the next year, when US sales are expected to fall to between 10.5 million and 12 million vehicles from recent averages of about 16 million.
GM plans to “dramatically accelerate and expand the restructuring that we’ve been driving in North America and around the globe for the past several years,” chief executive officer Rick Wagoner said.
“That’s a big job, to be sure, but there’s even more than restructuring that we can and will do starting here this morning,” he said as he introduced the new models.
Chrysler chief Bob Nardelli admitted that this year would be “very challenging,” but insisted that the company would be able to get through the downturn and repay the loans.
Ford, which had initially asked for a government loan but then said it had sufficient resources to get through the downturn, said on Sunday it was “in good shape in the financing of our plan.”
European automakers were also cautious about the global outlook.
Daimler chief Dieter Zetsche said the German automaker was preparing for a “very difficult year,” but that it is “strong and powerful to go through a crisis.”