COMMENT: Detroit's 2005 auto show is much ado about almost nothing

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

At this year's Detroit auto show, Chrysler counted on the power of rock 'n' roll and US racing legend Richard Petty (200 victories, seven NASCAR championships) to attract attention.

General Motors made almost as much noise when it unveiled three "muscle cars" and then two hybrid cars that almost had a military look.

There was no shortage of entertainment in Motown at this year's show.

Mercedes boss Eckhard Cordes, for example, dragged an ancient couple on stage that had driven a million miles with their 40-year-old 280 SE.

Audi announced another US model offensive by beating a gigantic drum.

However, the deafening sound that traditionally accompanies carmakers' vehicle presentations in Detroit's Cobo Hall didn't seem to improve the mood of industry visitors.

The atmosphere somehow seemed to be low-key despite all the entertainment and the introduction of 65 new models.

One reason probably was that some of the vehicles that debuted, such as the new VW Jetta or the new M class by Mercedes-Benz, had already been shown at other events.

The real eye-catchers were concept cars that have no chance of going into series production, such as the Jeep Hurricane, which has four-wheel steering and is powered by two engines.

In retrospect, the Hurricane's ability to spin on its axis could be symbolic. The US market currently doesn't seem to be evolving.

Last year there was hardly any growth, only a few shifts. Expectations for 2005 are cautious.

And US manufacturers are rotating around themselves with ever more new retro cars. It is only a question of time until Ford revives the Model T.

Two years ago German automakers were still bragging about magnificent growth targets. Now they have become much more careful, if not meek.

Even the professional optimists at the German Automobile Association, the VDA, did little more than tell everybody to hang in there.

At an improvised press conference, the VDA said the market still has a lot of potential, but it won't be realized without a fight.

The discount wars of the past three years, the continuously weak dollar, capricious US consumers and increasingly aggressive manufacturers from Japan and South Korea have put a noticeable damper on German car managers' fantasies.

Shanghai and Beijing are currently more interesting to some of them than Detroit and Los Angeles.

In view of the vast number of prototypes with hybrid propulsion that were presented in Detroit, it is doubtful whether the second stage of the diesel strategy that was announced by the VDA will really make a breakthrough.

If diesel continues to cost 14 percent more than unleaded gasoline in the US, then new diesel models that Mercedes, VW and Audi are aiming at US consumers face a tough, uphill battle.

It probably also would put an abrupt stop to the diesel boom in Germany.

German manufacturers have completely missed the trend toward hybrid vehicles -- just as General Motors has.

And even now, their investments in this technology are moderate. They believe that there is, at best, a market for such vehicles in California.

The first hybrids made in Germany probably won't enter the market until 2007 or 2008. It is likely that by then, Toyota will have launched its third generation.

Tags: Automakers

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