US carmakers sparkle in feel-good Detroit

Renascent American industry wins praise at auto show

Detroit, for so long a rusty symbol of America’s industrial decline, was looking unusually shiny this week as host of the North American International Auto Show.

At the entrance to the show floor at the Cobo Centre, visitors were greeted by three young women with teased hair and tight miniskirts who gyrated and vamped to Motown hits. Inside, the event’s two press days were at times as crowded and cacophonous as the auto shows in Beijing and Shanghai – the global car show circuit’s benchmark for pandemonium, noise and bling. Even the weather played along, as if in keeping with a theme of balmier economic times in the US: Detroit, normally blanketed in snow in January, was this week mostly sunny and mild.

The city’s three local carmakers, General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler, were in the same spirit, mounting large, lavish exhibits showcasing their rejuvenated product lines.

With lower costs achieved through a deep restructuring that included GM and Chrysler passing through bankruptcy protection in 2009, the industry is profiting from a renascent US automobile market that is growing faster than China’s. As US consumers begin to reopen their wallets and replace their ageing vehicles, car and light truck sales in the US increased by 10 per cent last year to 12.8m and analysts reckon they will rise further this year to about 14m.

Among cars unveiled at the show, few won more praise than Ford’s latest Fusion midsized saloon, which in Europe will form the basis of its forthcoming new Mondeo. The company hopes the car, with a fuel-efficient engine and jaunty styling – including a front grille reminiscent of an Aston Martin – will challenge Toyota’s Camry as America’s top-selling family car.

Chrysler used its exhibit to display the output of its partnership with Fiat, which took control of the company as it exited bankruptcy. The centrepiece was the Dodge Dart, the revival of a vintage US small car but reborn with Italian styling: the vehicle shares its architecture with Fiat’s Alfa Romeo Giulietta but its price will start at just under $16,000. Nearby was the Maserati Kubang, a sports utility vehicle to be built by the Fiat-owned marque at Chrysler’s Jefferson North plant – one of just two factories still building cars in Detroit.

Two days before the show began Chrysler announced it would add a third shift and another 1,100 workers at the plant. It also said it planned to reopen its Conner Avenue plant in the city, which was mothballed in 2010, to build its SRT Viper high-performance car.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat and Chrysler – whose US market share rose 1.2 percentage points to 10.6 per cent last year, a faster rate than any other carmaker – declared the company was now “out of the doghouse”. “Our canine days are over,” Mr Marchionne told the Financial Times. “We may not be a fully grown, acceptable species, but . . . we’re trying to build on what we’ve got so far.”

If America’s car industry is in rude health, it is only because the sector closed dozens of plants and agreed with unions on more flexible work practices and lower wage rates. By bringing their capacity more in line with demand, US carmakers now have greater pricing power, enabling them to scale back – at least for now – the discounts and incentives that corroded their profits in past decades.

This brightening picture extends to the foreign transplants who now make more than half of the cars Americans buy. On Thursday BMW announced it would invest almost $900m in its global SUV plant in South Carolina over three years, raising the facility’s capacity to 350,000 vehicles a year, from 276,000 in 2011.

Rival premium carmaker Audi said it was scouting for sites to build its first plant in North America, which could be building vehicles – most probably the A4 saloon or Q5 SUV – by 2014. Daimler staged a lavish reception at Detroit’s recently renovated Book Cadillac hotel and unveiled a sleek, lightweight new version of its Mercedes SL convertible sports car.

Hyundai, which saw its US sales surge by 20 per cent last year, said constraints on capacity at its plant in Alabama would cool its growth this year.

While Detroit’s auto show has never had a reputation for revealing the hottest new technologies, the US industry was keen to show off its credentials in innovation – a global selling point for cars.

Tesla Motors showed the production version of its Model S electric saloon, due to make its debut this year, a seven-seater with an unorthodox interior: it includes space for two rear-facing passengers in the boot area. With no engine needed under its bonnet, the car’s storage space is there instead.

Ford’s exhibit included a theme park-style attraction that strapped visitors to a circular platform and whooshed them to a “cloud” in the ceiling. There, they were shown a film about future cloud computing-equipped cars capable of booking restaurant reservations, turning lights off at home or even monitoring the driver’s blood sugar levels.

Subscribers to the theory that short skirts correlate with exuberant markets would have noted with interest the preponderance of leggy models – until recently politically incorrect in Detroit – on the carmakers’ stands.

The upbeat mood in Detroit rubbed off on Wall Street investors this week. Automotive stocks rose sharply, partly in response to the optimistic presentations by industry executives at the show. “The industry is ploughing money into the product and it shows,” Credit Suisse’s Chris Ceraso wrote in a note to clients.

One of the sector’s strongest performers used to be one of the US industry’s most distressed: Delphi, the Michigan-based supplier group formerly owned by GM, which underwent a top-to-toe restructuring after filing for bankruptcy protection in 2005. In the past two weeks its shares have risen above last November’s IPO issue price of $22 for the first time.

Industry bosses now point to Europe as the weakest link in the global car industry. Ford and GM have complained about the pressure industry incentives are putting on their regional operations.

Toyota’s US boss Jim Lentz said that in America, where the industry is projected to grow by about 1m units a year for the next three to four years, it would be “crazy” to go back to competitive discounting. “There may be incentives wars but it’s years, not months, into the future,” he said.



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