NAIAS 2009 Preview
By Bill Moore
I am writing this from the 27th floor of the Marriott Detroit at Renaissance Center. As a guest journalist of General Motors, I have just flown into the city to attend the opening of the 2009 North American International Auto Show. And to quote Dickens, it is likely to be "The Best of Times and the Worst of Times."
To be honest, I am still puzzling over why GM wants me here. I have to say I am honored to have been asked -- one of about 90 international journalists invited to attend at the carmaker's expense -- but I am, nonetheless, a bit perplexed. They are planning unveilings of pair of new Cadillac models, a Buick LaCrosse and 4-cylinder Chevrolet Equinox, but officially nothing as exciting as the Volt or jaw-dropping as the AUTOnomy of previous Detroit shows.
Still, it's hard to pass up an opportunity like this in what is shaping up to be a transformative year for the auto industry, a year in which a perfectly (urgly and disruptive) storm of converging forces -- a collapsing global economy, plummeting auto sales, galloping unemployment and sub-$2 a gallon gasoline -- could trigger the economic equivalent of an earthquake that would shake a century-old industry to its very foundations.
Two of the Motor City's "Big 3" have until Spring to come up with viable business plans to become leaner and much greener, otherwise they will find their federal funding jerked out from underneath them, or at least that's the threat... in theory; and one of them is my host. Thank you, American taxpayers... (oh yeah, that includes me).
So, what can we expect to find inside Cobo Hall starting tomorrow?
Let's start with General Motors. Officially, based on advanced press releases, the focus of their exhibit will be the Cadillac STS Sports Wagon and SRX Crossover, broadening the offerings of this luxury car line. The Buick brand is showing a redesigned LaCrosse, with three V-6 engine options. The 2010 Chevy Equinox will come with two engine options: a 2.4L four-cylinder with an estimated EPA highway fuel economy of 30 mpg. GM calculates "consumers who drive the 2.4L-equipped Equinox 15,000 miles per year will save 134 gallons of fuel or about $270 to $400 annually (assuming gas prices of $2 or $3 per gallon as compared to 2009MY Equinox)."
What this seems to signal is General Motor's pragmatism: with low fuel prices, people aren't buying hybrids, so let's give them the option of slightly improved fuel efficiency without the hybrid cost premium.
It also suggests that GM sees profits still to be had among the affluent, and probably with good reason. On my flight into Detroit, I started reading Planet India by Mira Kamdar. I came across an interesting observation she makes on page 40.
She cites a study by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California and Thomas Piketty of École Normale Supérierure that "found the share of aggregate income going to the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans doubled from 8 percent in 1980 to over 16 percent in 2004."
If the rich -- those that didn't invest with Bernie Madoff -- still have money, then get them thinking Cadillac and Buick instead of Lexus and Mercedes.
If GM isn't going to roll-out any Volt-like surprises this year, Mercedes is. They are planning to show three electric-drive concept variants of its B-Class sedan.
Lexus is showing the 250h, the fourth model to with Toyota's Synergy Hybrid-electric drive option.
Its parent company, Toyota will be unveiling its third-generation Prius, said to be larger and more powerful, but still stingy on gas. Unlike the transition between the first generation Prius and the current model, the 2010 model will likely -- based on what I saw secretly in Japan in 2007 -- retain the line's signature styling cues, with obvious refinements.
The company also announced that it was going to debut an all-electric concept car, revealing only the car's marque prior to the show.
Honda's green center piece will be its new Insight sedan, which it first showed at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.
Ford will have their 2010 Fusion/Milan Hybrids on display and promised me a possible "surprise."
Fisker will be showing a production version of their Karma plug-in hybrid electric sedan, as well as a new concept car called the "Sunset."
China's BYD is planning to have their F3DM plug-in, extended-range electric car on display and its e6 all-electric car. Taking part in their presentation will be David Sokol of MidAmerican Holdings, a unit of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which invested $230 million in BYD.
There are likely to be some surprises, which is what makes the Detroit Auto Show always interesting.
Who won't be here is equally instructive, a list that includes the likes of Nissan and Mitsubishi; at least nine companies in all. They decided to skip the show this year, which caused the driver that brought me in from the airport to observe that he hoped the show would continue to be held in Detroit.
If it weren't, that would signal a serious tremor. So, watch these pages for breaking news.
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