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Not even Toyota, owner of the Scion brand, is immune to the economic slowdown. The parent company expects to report a US$1.7 billion (Dh6.24bn) loss in this financial year, and Scion's stand was a little subdued at the Detroit show.
Not even Toyota, owner of the Scion brand, is immune to the economic slowdown. The parent company expects to report a US$1.7 billion (Dh6.24bn) loss in this financial year, and Scion's stand was a little subdued at the Detroit show.

Boxing clever?

Slide show Very little good news trickles out of Motown these days, but in spite of the gloom, the Detroit motor show must go on.

Very little good news trickles out of Motown these days, especially with the city's 'Big Three' car makers bogged down by bailouts and the threat of bankruptcy. And yet, in spite of the gloom, the Detroit motor show must go on. Detroit is hurting. The car industry, the city's lifeblood, needs an urgent financial transfusion. Plenty of shops are having bargain basement closing down sales and even more sit empty, emblazoned with giant "for lease" signs. The people of Motor City are still friendly, but quick to tell you how bad times have become since the true extent of the Big Three's fiscal woes made headlines.

But the show must go on, albeit it in a far more restrained form. The media stunts of past North American International Auto Shows were conspicuously absent from the Big Three's presentation this year. Meanwhile it was clear, if only by the quality of the coffee and cakes on the stands, that other car makers had a bit more cash to splash on their motor show presence, but perhaps out of respect for the struggling brands, nobody was in the mood for flashy exhibitionism.

The one common theme, however, was a determination by virtually every automaker to prove that they are the greenest of them all. Whether any of the manufacturers will play a genuine role in saving the planet is still unclear, but the message was unmistakable - everyone wants to jump on the eco-friendly bandwagon, or at least appear to doing so. The drastically scaled-back press conferences for the "Big Three" automakers were still optimistic in tone. General Motors, one of the recipients of an early loan by the US government, held a press conference with the ambience of a high school pep rally. GM staff and even Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm were on hand to cheer everything CEO Rick Wagoner had to say, and they even held up baseball game-style banners bearing slogans such as "Here to stay" and "We're electric".

Just how soon GM will be truly electric remains to be seen. The Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid petrol-electric car and a showstopper in Detroit last year, still has not gone into production but Wagoner says: "We are working to bring it to the market by the end of 2010." GM will be keeping production of the Volt's batteries in Michigan, a much-needed shot in the arm for the beleaguered state. GM presented 16 cars. Much fanfare was made about the Cadillac SRX, the Chevrolet Equinox and the Buick Lacrosse crossovers, with Troy Clarke, GM's North American president, claiming all three had segment-leading fuel economy.

The most eye-catching car was the Converj concept, an electric luxury vehicle introduced by Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman of global development. It runs on a lithium-ion battery with the 65km-range extended by a four-cylinder petrol engine. "The appeal of this car is based on beauty and proportion alone," said Lutz. "I think people will want this car regardless of the drive system and the electric drive system will just be a bonus."

Ford made its announcements to a crowd, again largely made up of staff, packed tightly into stadium-style bleachers, with CEO Alan Mulally arriving in a lime green Ford Fiesta. It was equipped with the Ecoboost system, which uses a combination of direct injection and twin turbochargers for better efficiency. Ford promises it will be on all models by 2013. Ford also debuted its all-new Taurus, a larger four-door saloon that looks nothing like the version it replaces - in a good way.

A Fusion hybrid will join the Escape SUV hybrid in Ford's range, and the company has plans for a fully electric Fusion and Focus, cars described by chairman Bill Ford as "the next big step in achieving our green vision." Ford promised that 2010 would be the year that a commercial electric vehicle would be released for the fleet market and a pure electric small car can be expected by 2011. Like the Chevrolet Camaro muscle car at the GM presentation, the appearance of two Shelby GT 500 Mustangs seemed a little bit beside the point amid all the green talk. It was with a giggle that Mark Fields, Ford's president of the American market, said that the new Mustang achieves an extra two miles per gallon compared with the last one.

Chrysler, the most troubled of the "Big Three", held a bizarre press conference. While last year the company had the Dodge Ram launched with a cattle drive through the streets of Detroit, this year's event starred the double act of vice chairman Jim Press and joint vice president Tom LaSorda. They read a scripted routine that made them look like Stadler and Waldorf, the two old coots from the balcony seats in The Muppet Show.

To cope with the expected financial rigours of 2009, Chrysler has cut 3,200 jobs, reduced the fleet sales volume by 200,000 units, removed 12 per cent of stock from dealerships and eliminated four models. Chrysler has already been loaned US$4 billion (Dh 14.7bn) by the US government. Whether these measures will be enough is a matter of much debate. Chrysler used Detroit to launch three electric vehicles - the Dodge Circuit EV sports car, the Jeep Patriot EV four-door SUV and the Chrysler 200C EV, a luxury saloon. However, the strongest indication that Chrysler is a brand in serious trouble came when there was no production date announced for any of these three cars. "Coming soon" was all Nardelli and LaSorda could say.

While Detroit is suffering, places such as Stuttgart and Gothenburg are not in quite as much pain. In his address to a function that was upscale yet not outlandish, Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz cars, said 2009 would be a tough year but the company is "financially stable" and the research budget would not be cut. Continuing to be innovative while introducing new cars to the market appears to be the Mercedes strategy with three Detroit launches.

The limited edition SLR Stirling Moss, a two-seat roofless roadster, dazzled the crowd from a catwalk. Only 75 of the final SLR version from Mercedes will be produced, with all of them being sold already and eight going to buyers in the Middle East. On the eco front, Mercedes launched the Concept BlueZero, a completely electric, zero-emissions vehicle with three different versions of varying ranges. Later this year, the first production fuel cell cars will be manufactured in low volumes for Mercedes and fully electric cars will go into low-volume production next year.

The third launch for Mercedes was the new E-Class, the latest for this large saloon. It's loaded with innovative safety features such as adaptive full-beam headlights that dip automatically, a system to detect driver fatigue and Pre-Safe brake, a system that can detect an imminent collisions and automatically apply the brakes. Volvo, while receiving financial aid from the Swedish government in December, is confident of weathering the financial storm this year. Steven Armstrong, the company's COO, says that, despite global sales falling from around 458,000 in 2007 to 374,000 in 2008 and 4,500 jobs cut in the wake of the slowed economy, Volvo "must continue to push cars into the market."

Sales for 2008 were up in the UK thanks to the success of the V50 and C30 and the Middle East is a "reasonably bright" market for Volvo with the XC60 and XC90 proving popular, according to Armstrong. The S60 concept was unveiled in Detroit, a sharp new saloon with angular styling and discreet sliding rear doors to create a coupé feel. "It's a good indication of the next S60," says Armstrong. "it should come to the market in mid-2010."

Along with Mercedes and Cadillac launching luxury hybrids, Toyota's luxury brand Lexus used Detroit to go green and high-end as well with the 2010 HS 250h. Not surprisingly, it sports a refined version of the electric drive system found in the Toyota Prius, a new model of which was also launched in Detroit. Toyota also showed its tiny FT-EV, a two-seat electric car. The company says it will unleash the FT-EV globally by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Sportback Concept TDI is part of Audi's clean diesel plan. The company also launched the petrol-powered R8 V10 5.2 FSI, curiously described by Audi's chairman of the board, Rupert Stadler as "very heartbeating". Perhaps he was referring to the car's top speed of 313 kph. BMW and Volkswagen also jumped on the diesel bandwagon with the BMW 335d sedan and Volkswagen's Concept BlueSport roadster.

The crisis in the American car market has made an impact on almost everyone in Detroit, even those who aren't on the factory floor or the administration offices of the "Big Three". Deborah Erdman is a cheerful, middle-aged sales assistant in the upmarket Somerset Mall branch of Macy's, the famous department store. With a ready smile, she encouraged me to buy a second pair of jeans and thanked me profusely when I did, telling me, "this city needs all the help it can get."

"Thank you so much for writing about the auto industry," she said as she processed my card. "It has been so bad as everybody has been affected." It was Saturday when I met Erdman and, despite the snowfall, you'd expect more people to be shopping in a heated mall on a weekend during sale time. But while the bargains are good, there is no jostling for space in the food court like the average UAE mall. Outside, the car park is carpeted with snow but only sparsely populated with vehicles.

Bob Morris, meanwhile, probably had a lucky escape when he lost his job at Chrysler 20 years ago. The forthright 71-year-old driver was fired after getting into a fight with a co-worker. "He was just too much, a much bigger guy than me, but none of us could take his mean ways anymore," he says in his languid southern drawl. He has lived in Detroit for more than 40 years but originally hails from New Orleans. "If I stayed with Chrysler, I would have been retired by now for sure," he says.

After he lost his job at Chrysler, he started driving a taxi and now he gets to do corporate driving jobs. Morris, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, considers himself fortunate to still be working and says he enjoys his job. "Nice talking to you," he said as he returned us to the hotel. "It doesn't cost a thing to be nice." Unfortunately for Detroit, it is going to cost a lot more than niceness to get the industry back to profitability.

The North American International Auto Show continues until Jan 25. glewis@thenational.ae

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