Detroit is back

I have my own economic indicator for the health of the U.S. auto industry: Every year since the 2008 economic crisis, I have been able to park directly across the street from the convention center hosting the Detroit International Auto Show during press unveilings. This time, I was forced to park some distance away.

Yup, the automakers are back.

Announcements during the event back up this analysis. Last year, Toyota had it's best sales since 2007. Chrysler was up a double-digit percentage. Ford and GM both did better in 2012 than in 2011. Nobody was ready to pop Champaign bottles over their results, but there was certainly an air of confidence in Detroit that has been missing in recent years. That might be simply because automaker employees are beginning to figure they'll likely still have jobs this time next year.

During the recent downturn, green powertrains got a lot of the limelight at automaker press conferences. Fuel mileage and electric vehicles still got some play during this year's event, but it seems automakers have decided that styling sells more cars than trumpeting fuel ratings that have been boosted by three miles-per-gallon. In that regard, there were plenty of concept vehicles in evidence that were just empty shells and done as styling exercises. That's a change from recent years where most concepts were closer to production vehicles, complete with powertrains. The impression one gets is that automakers now have enough of a financial cushion to be comfortable investing dollars into blue-sky ideas that look nice.

And SUVs seemed to have rotated back into political correctness, though the SUV moniker has not. "Crossover" is the new name for this category of vehicle. Automakers were unapologetic when introducing such platforms for people who rank high MPG below the need for hauling around half a soccer team and groceries.

Even electric car maker Tesla Motors seemed to sense a need for bigger conveyances. Prominent in its Detroit stand this year is the Model X, a six-passenger crossover billed as blending the best of an SUV with the benefits of a minivan. The X can carry two electric motors for all-wheel drive, but that feature didn't get as much attention as the car's gull-wing doors. (Tesla calls them falcon wings which, one might say, is certainly better than calling them chicken wings from the standpoint of marketing.)

All in all, there was just more swagger amongst automakers as they unveiled their new ideas, especially in expensive high-end cars. Lincoln, for example, now courts potential buyers by offering them the keys to one of its offerings for a weekend, no strings attached, and will even buy them dinner at an expensive restaurant.

I had just heard Lincoln's scheme when I happened to run into an engineer at the show from an automotive OEM. He mentioned that all the engineers he worked with owned cars that had at least 150,000 odometer miles, and none of them were planning on trading in anytime soon. The latest figures for the average age of cars in the U.S. I've seen now put that figure at over 11 years. If even automotive engineers aren't jumping at the chance to upgrade their wheels, who is buying all these shiny new chariots?

Perhaps the more affluent like, say, the 535 members of Congress. If so, the choices Washington legislators make about their own vehicles confirm Detroit's view that style is more important to consumers than a green powertrain. According to a report on the Torque News website last August, only three of our federal legislators own plug-in EVs.

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