Best of Detroit awards: advice, clarity and a smile

I love auto shows. It's not so much all the shiny new cars – well, actually, they're really nice – but what I learn.

On that score, Detroit is tops because it's a two-fer. First press-days interviews, then the Automotive News World Congress.

A target-rich environment: people who know stuff, and want to talk.

This year, I picked up so much, I have my own awards.

First, for “Best Advice”

The nominees are:

AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson, for advising automaker executives to develop “a new skill set” and build relationships with dealers.

Analyst John Casesa for warning manufacturers to hedge their bets on alternate-powertrain technology to avoid getting stuck with a technology that flops. “Potential disruptions are impossible to predict, so diversify your portfolio.”

And the winner is … Penske Corp. Chairman Roger Penske, for advising fellow dealers that the ability to finance customers will define winners and losers. “Dealers, keep close to your lenders.”

“Moments of Clarity”

The criterion here is reducing complexity, cutting through to a truth. Some are cool. Some are, frankly, grim. But lots of folks delivered clarity this year, and I thank them. The nominees:

IHS Global Insight analyst Rebecca Lindland, on seeing lots of EVs and few crossovers at Detroit: “I'm not sure the show reflects what people are buying.”

Investment banker Justin Mirro of Moelis & Co.: Lenders will keep avoiding the auto industry. Suppliers can talk recovery, but banks just see the 2009 crisis as further proof the industry destroys value.

Dow Kokam CEO Ravi Shanker: The stampede of electric-vehicle technology startups will become as bloody as the first decade of the automobile, full of abandoned technology, buyouts and busts: “Some will be bought by others, but many will simply fail.”

Neil De Koker, head of the Original Equipment Supplier Association: A real recovery is only when the industry's image attracts new talent … “if those already in the industry tell their sons and daughters to enter it.”

Consumer Reports' top auto tester David Champion, noting Hyundai and Kia don't restrict changing existing models to the mid-cycle facelift like most rivals: “It's not just year after year, it's mid-year changes.”

And the winner is … Analyst Casesa, explaining that auto companies that still honor their debts will get clobbered by those that shed debt in bankruptcies: “Leveraged companies are at a great disadvantage to restructured companies.”

And “Best Lines”

Finally, the top bon mots of the week. The nominees:

Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, for explaining that having French and Austrian parents, Italian birth and Canadian upbringing was not a prerequisite to run an international company: “You don't have to be ethnically confused to do this.”

General Motors Vice Chairman Robert Lutz, on his outspoken nature forcing, um, career changes: “I have been just two steps ahead of the sheriff, but I've never actually been dismissed.”

And the winner is … Marchionne again, on what he really told U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week: “Thanks for the chance to fight.”

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