Detroit Auto Show: Big sales, new models

The 7th-generation Chevrolet Corvette, the C7, is revealed to the media at the Russell Industrial Complex January 13, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.

The North American International Auto Show has kicked off in Detroit this week. Last year clearly showed the big-three U.S. automakers were back -- after GM and Chrysler got bailouts, and Chrysler also got new investment and leadership from Fiat. Auto sales were the highest since the recession began.

Facing ambitious new federal mileage standards (fleets have to average 54.5 mpg by 2025), and higher gas prices, automakers are touting ‘fuel efficiency’ at the auto show.

And no longer is it just for mid-market compacts. Even pickups, and sports cars like the new Chevy Corvette, brag on their gas mileage.

The new Corvette -- with styling like the Stingray of the 1970s, after which it is named -- came out from under the fancy tarps yesterday at the show. GM says it’ll get much better mileage than the previous version, which did 16 mpg in the city.

Many of the premier GM, Chrysler and Ford brands are now considered as reliable and well-engineered as European and Japanese performance cars -- and they tend to be cheaper.

Hybrid gas-electric car sales were up nearly 70 percent in the U.S. last year.

But automakers are also pushing higher fuel efficiency in conventional gasoline engines. They’re using lighter metals like aluminum, magnesium, and ultra-strong plastics. Also, there are ever-smarter computers in car engines that get more ‘oomph’ on a four-cylinder engine. Diesel vehicles, which can get better mileage and have become much more clean-running, are also gaining traction in the U.S. market.

One thing that’s changed from decades past, says auto analyst Paul Eisenstein at TheDetroitBureau.com: The domestic car market has become truly international.

“Does Detroit still matter as the dominant player in the U.S. auto industry?” asks Eisenstein. “No. There’s competition from all over the world that’ll continue to grow.”

But Eisenstein says there’s a flip side -- GM has to compete with Hyundai or BMW here. And those companies have to take the U.S. automakers seriously abroad.

“Chevy had record sales last year -- significant enough,” Eisenstein says. “But 60 percent of their volume took place overseas. And a good portion of that took place in all the emerging markets, like China, Brazil and Russia.”

Automakers could have record profits this year, and luxury cars are expected to fly off showroom floors. This year at the auto show new luxury models are on display from Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, Bentley, Audi, Acura, and Maserati.

Germany’s BMW is predicting record sales again this year. Ford is predicting luxury sales will be up 7.5 percent this year -- almost double what the company anticipates for its mass-market models.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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