Finally, auto industry sheds the gloom
Jason Stein is editor of Automotive News.
DETROIT -- Design directions, not double dips. Products, not Nancy Pelosi.
Last week, government intervention, tsunamis and recalls finally stepped aside for a four-letter word: buzz.
The North American International Auto Show in downright balmy Detroit represented a thawing of hardened sentiment, as if an industry, for years stuck in a deep freeze of discontent, had finally found the heater.
Toyota predicted a "banner year" -- just months after slogging its way through a two-year muck of problems. Supplier executives talked of order banks that are full to bursting. The nation's biggest retailer, AutoNation, declared that the industry is on a "journey back to 16 million units."
And get this: At the Detroit auto show, which used to be dominated by big, honking trucks, no one debuted any trucks.
(Apologies. One company did: Smart.)
Ghosn: “A great deal of optimism”
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
"There is a great deal of optimism," Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn said. "You are going to see a healthy market."
After the shocking financial collapse of 2008 and the massive collateral damage to the auto industry, the New Normal may have arrived. And it looks pretty darn good.
Take Ford, for example. When was the last time the darling of the Detroit show was a mid-sized sedan from a Detroit car company? This year the sleek, stylish and expensive-looking Fusion had everyone talking.
"It's an absolute knockout," said Hyundai U.S. boss John Krafcik, who collected his own hardware with the North American Car of the Year award for the compact Elantra. Krafcik, a former Ford executive, couldn't resist a jab and joked that with the very Aston-like Fusion, he understood why Ford sold its Aston Martin brand -- "so that they can crib the design and not feel guilty. Very clever strategy."
It was a week rich in resiliency and optimism.
Sales predictions were bold -- some executives said their companies' sales will be up 20 percent; others predicted 30.
Sales bosses, in a refreshing twist, were bold and feisty.
Said Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Steve Cannon: "For every one customer that leaves and migrates to Lexus, four migrate from Lexus and come to us."
In discussing domestic introductions, BMW of North America chief Ludwig Willisch said: "We don't produce trucks, nor taxis or buses. We don't produce sofas on wheels -- and we don't take mass-market vehicles and rebadge them as premium."
Ouch. Fightin' words, indeed.
Automakers such as Chrysler, Nissan and General Motors promised to introduce an unprecedented string of new cars and trucks over just a few months. And Toyota Motor Corp. will deliver 19 new or updated models this year. Everywhere you looked it was product, product and product!
To be sure, all skies are not clear.
Chrysler-Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne, the unofficial spokesman for the industry, talked of dark clouds on the horizon, given a still fragile U.S. recovery and a debt-saddled Europe.
But he also talked about his company's achievements.
"All of our people," he said, "have worked together with unwavering dedication to bring Chrysler back from the brink."
Suppliers talked about profits and realistic orders from their automaker partners.
"I think the supply base is getting stronger every day," Nissan purchasing boss Rebecca Vest told the audience at the Automotive News World Congress. "But the ability to keep up with all of our increased demands is getting tougher for everyone."
And, three years after the collapse, some concerns have vanished, at least for the moment.
"We expect 2012 to be a banner year for us," Toyota sales boss Bob Carter told the audience at the Automotive News World Congress. "The consumer is looking for different things and the competition is heating up."
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