In hard times, auto show must go on

Rick Wagoner, General Motors Chairman and CEO, introduces a lithium-ion battery (not pictured) that GM will manufacture for the Volt electric car during a press preview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.


CORRECTION

This report incorrectly stated the branch of government responsible for directing some of the $700 billion bailout to General Motors and Chrysler. Congress did approve the bailout money, but it was the Bush Administration that decided the auto makers would get some of it.


TEXT OF INTERVIEW

TESS VIGELAND: Bring on the pow. Bring on the zow. The great North American International Auto Show opened over the weekend and . . . OK, maybe not so much pow and zow this year.

After all, this is an industry that not so long ago got rotten tomatoes thrown at it by an angry Congress, which then turned around and gave it a big check. And, well, what would it look like if the proceeds of that check went for pretty girls in long satin dresses?

Micheline Maynard covers the auto industry for The New York Times and joins us from Detroit. Welcome back to the program.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Thank you, Tess.

VIGELAND: Well, it's been kind of a downer year for Motor City, so what's the vibe like at this year's show?

MAYNARD: Well, I think the vibe is much more serious than the car shows I've been to in the past. I mean, last year Chrysler put on a cattle drive on Washington Boulevard in front of the show. We've had Jeeps crashing through fake plate-glass windows. We've had cars dropped from the ceiling. And nude models and all kinds of things like that. I think Mercedes had an ice rink last year. But we don't have any of that this year. It's definitely an all-business show in Detroit.

VIGELAND: Well, one of the big concerns that Congress had when they agreed to bailout General Motors and Chrysler was that there would be real promises to turn out more fuel-efficient cars. Is there any sense that the automakers are starting to follow through on that?

MAYNARD: Well, absolutely. Every carmaker here pretty much -- at least the Detroit carmakers -- has made a real effort to demonstrate that they have seen the future and it's hybrid electric and electric and alternative-fuel vehicles. And not to be outdone, Toyota on Monday introduced the third generation of their Prius. And Honda has the Insight, which brings back the name of their original hybrid-electric vehicle. So everywhere you look at the show there are vehicles that are going to use a lot less gasoline.

VIGELAND: Well, you mentioned the Prius and the Insight. I wonder if the impression that all these companies are trying to give is, you know, all this fuel efficiency. What is the reality for the other companies?

MAYNARD: Well, what you have to remember is that General Motors is talking a lot about the Chevrolet Volt, which is a hybrid-electric car that it plans to put on sale in late 2010. Ford was talking about a new electric vehicle that won't be available for a year or so after that. So, we have a present that is still filled with big sedans and SUV's and crossover vehicles. While the future looks like it'll be hybrid electrics and other cars like that, the present is still filled with those big vehicles, and they're going to have to find a way to sell them until the future arrives.

VIGELAND: Mickey, I wonder if there is any discussion there in Detroit about whether the fact that we're seeing oil prices come down so far. Is the consumer still going to have the real desire to buy these fuel-efficient cars?

MAYNARD: Robert Lutz, who is the vice chairman of General Motors, raised that issue here on Sunday. He said that, "We are doing our job in developing electric vehicles, and developing hybrid-electric vehicles." But gas is below $2 a gallon in a lot of the country. It's just starting to creep up now. He said, "We're going to have to have some help from the government. We'll develop all these vehicles if they want us to, but they need to also give us help in getting people to buy them when gas prices are low.

VIGELAND: So, for good or for bad, green really is the theme for this year, for everyone, huh?

MAYNARD: The Los Angeles auto show has traditionally been the green show, because California is so interested in the environment. But this year for sure, and for the first time I can remember, there's green enveloping Detroit.

VIGELAND: Micheline Maynard writes about cars for The New York Times. Thanks so much, and enjoy the show.

MAYNARD: My pleasure. Happy New Year!

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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