DETROIT - Auto shows tend to be an all-out assault on the senses, and the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit is no exception. This was supposed to be the year that the automakers donned sackcloth and ashes. The raucous rock of yesteryear would be turned into a funeral dirge.
The third-generation Toyota Prius: one of the show's big stars. (Jim Motavalli photo)
It doesn't really seem like that. I'm attending the press preview days before the show opens to the public, and covers are still being ripped off cars, with beautiful spokesmodels standing by. It's as noisy as ever.
The austerity talk is kept to the beginning of automaker presentations, which for the most part are...amazingly green. Yes, Detroit may be on the ropes, but it is finally getting the environmental message that some foreign carmakers (Honda and Toyota chief among them) have been peddling for years. Battery cars, hybrids and plug-ins make up the bulk of new car introductions. Sales of SUVs may be up around the country since gas plunged to below $2 a gallon, but very few new ones are rolling out in the Motor City this year.
Mercedes showed off three environmentally themed prototypes based on its B-Class cars: a fuel-cell vehicle, a pure battery car, and a "range extender" electric with a small gas engine. It will bring an electric version of its even smaller A-class onto the market next year, though it isn't saying where it will be offered.
Chrysler used the bulk of its press event to tout four green cars that it says it will eventually build. It's rather dizzying; there is an electric Dodge Circuit sports car (based on a Lotus design), Jeep Wrangler and minivans with extended-range hybrid drivetrains, and now the Jeep Patriot with a system similar to the Chevrolet Volt.
Last year, Chrysler made a splash by driving a herd of cows through the city streets. This year, Chrysler's Jim Press spent his opening remarks staving off talk of bankruptcy. The company ended 2008 with $2 billion in cash, he said. It's expecting an additional $3 billion in U.S. government loans and is eligible for up to $7 billion. "We're in a really good financial position," he assured the media. "We have the best dealers in the industry."
Perhaps the most ominous sign for the established automakers was a relatively bare-bones press conference by Chinese carmaker BYD. After unveiling the world's first plug-in hybrid, selling for just $23,000 on the Chinese market, it showed off a battery-only car in Detroit with an impressive 249 miles of range and a zero to 60 time of less than eight seconds. It can recharge to 50 percent of its capacity in 10 minutes.
BYD impressed investor Warren Buffett, who bought a substantial stake. The company wants to sell cars in the U.S. as early as next year. That's fast work.
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