Detroit dresses up for its big show

Kai Ryssdal Jan 8, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL:Make or break might be too strong a characterization. But the Big Three U.S. carmakers have a lot riding on the Detroit car show that opens later this week. The actual name is the North American International Auto Show — which is convenient, since most of the competition is coming from overseas. Ford, GM and Chrysler have been losing market share to Japanese companies for years.

Dan Neil’s the car critic at the Los Angeles Times. He’s in Detroit today. Hi, Dan.

DAN NEIL: Hey Kai.

RYSSDAL: Lots of sound and fury coming out of Detroit, Dan, about how important this car show is. Are these guys raising the bar, though? Are they gonna meet the challenge?

DAN NEIL: Well, they have to meet the challenge or they’re going to have to, you know, turn off the lights in Detroit. The domestics have lost close to three points of market share in the past year and it was a good year for car sales overall. So there is definitely a sense of urgency here and I think you see that in some of the products that are being trotted out.

RYSSDAL: Well, what’s out there? We’ve got this thing called the Volt, right, from Chevy?

NEIL: Yeah, this is the thing that turns me on the most about the show. The Chevy Volt is an electric vehicle with a gas, backup generator. And the idea is that people can plug it in at night and drive it for up to 40 miles on all-electric range. And if you use it for your commuter car, it’s conceivable that you’ll never use any gas. Now it’s a great idea. It’s very exciting. I’m kind of a happy idiot on this score. I really think that General Motors is going to do it. On the other hand, people have followed GM down the primrose path before — they haven’t set a target date for market, price, volume. So there’s a little bit of skepticism out there on the floor, but I personally think this is the coolest thing at the show.

RYSSDAL: But if GM and the rest of the Detroit car makers were really serious about making this move to alternative fuels and trying to get consumers back, wouldn’t they sort of stop fighting government regulation on fuel standards and back out of some court cases?

NEIL: Well, that’s a very pretty point you bring up, because the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is getting a new president in February. And I think that it’s fair to say if the Big Three want to gain any credibility on environmental issues, they may indeed have to reduce their profile fighting over CAFE. Plus we have a new Democratic Congress, and I think things are changing underfoot.

RYSSDAL: Let me talk to you about Ford just for a second. Over the weekend a spokesman came out and said Jaguar — one of Ford’s premium product lines — absolutely not for sale.

NEIL: Yes.

RYSSDAL: And yet we have talked, you and I, about what Ford has to do to sort of get things going again, and divesting was one of them.

NEIL: Well, we know that Aston Martin is for sale. And then, as far as Jaguar is concerned, they introduced the concept car, the CXF. And it’s just a gorgeous car. But if this car isn’t a success, then I think that you’re almost certainly looking at Jaguar being divested from Ford before the end of the decade.

RYSSDAL: How many years you been going to big car shows like this?

NEIL: About 15 years.

RYSSDAL: Any sense of deja vu here this year?

NEIL: Oh, yeah. I could just care less about the next 500-horsepower German sedan. I think that there is a lot of denial in the industry as far as the challenges facing the automobile. There is some acknowledgment, some acceptance, some progress. But, unfortunately, I think, like the Chevy Volt and other hybrid projects, they’re all occurring at the margins — no big mass-production of these important vehicles.

RYSSDAL: Dan Neil writes on cars for the Los Angeles Times. He’s spending the week in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show for us. Thanks a lot.

NEIL: Thanks, I’ll make a snow angel for you, Kai.

RYSSDAL: Yeah, you do that. See you.

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