Image: Chrysler 300 sedan unveiled on the opening day of the Detroit Auto Show
Tony Ding  /  AP
Chrysler, the most troubled of the Detroit carmakers, finally revealed the long-awaited 300 sedan, its once and future flagship car, at the Detroit auto show Monday.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, msnbc.com contributor
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/10/2011 4:37:28 PM ET 2011-01-10T21:37:28

When the doors open at Detroit’s Cobo Center on Monday, Motor City’s automakers will be hoping to get a home field advantage — and some investors will even be betting on it.

The annual North American International Auto Show will kick off with a grueling, all-day media preview expected to bring up to 5,000 journalists and industry analysts into town. The largest and most influential auto show on the continent, this year’s Detroit auto show will debut more than 30 new cars, trucks, concepts and crossovers.

Significantly, some of the car brands that walked away from the show as the economy — and car sales — entered free fall several years ago will return. That list includes Nissan. The Japanese automaker’s new Leaf battery car was a contender in the coveted North American Car of the Year trophy, but lost out to Chevy’s Volt Monday morning.

Story: GM’s Chevy Volt named 2011 Car of the Year

In the two decades since a traditionally local car show was transformed into a signature international event, organizers have struggled to make the Cobo Center a sort of neutral zone, even though the sprawling convention center is just a slingshot’s distance from the General Motors headquarters in the Detroit Renaissance Center.

But despite a long list of import carmakers at the show, don’t be surprised to see Detroit dominate this year’s headlines. And new product is only part of the reason.

After being slammed hard by the recession, the Motown carmakers are showing an unexpected resilience that is silencing skeptics and leading analysts, investors — and most importantly, car buyers — to give General Motors, Ford and Chrysler a closer look.

For the first time since 2005, the Detroit “Big Three” gained market share last year, and a new survey by KPMG finds 200 global auto industry leaders predicting that trend will continue.

While Chrysler is still struggling, GM and Ford wrapped up 2010 comfortably back in the black and showing signs they could report record earnings even if the current economic cycle doesn’t see the U.S. auto market return to the 17-million levels of a decade ago.

That prompted a record IPO by General Motors in November, and has driven the value of Ford shares to levels not seen in years. Significantly, analysts at Goldman Sachs has issued a recommendation that investors should buy option “straddles” — which anticipate volatility in a stock — prior to the upcoming NAIAS.

“This year’s auto show is likely to be more important than most given the significant investor focus on a continued recovery in the U.S. auto industry after historically depressed auto sales,” wrote analysts John Marshall and Maria Grant in a recent report.

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Will the domestic makers live up to these lofty expectations?

GM’s four surviving North American brands will underscore the maker’s shift from gas-guzzling trucks to fuel-sipping passenger cars. GM’s debuts include the new Buick Verano compact, which is designed to add to the momentum of a brand until recently written off for dead. Chevrolet will focus on the new Sonic minicar, while GMC will explore the market for a more compact and efficient truck.

Story: This time, Ford is preparing to handle success

Ford will offer up an array of battery-powered offerings, with models that include its first battery-electric sedan, the Focus Electric, and the C-Max plug-in hybrid. The launch of both a conventional and battery-based C-Max is itself a significant move, underscoring the maker’s One Ford strategy. This 7-passenger microvan was developed in Europe and it shares the same underpinnings as the Focus. Ford plans to launch 10 different “top hats,” or body styles off its Global C-Car platform, driving up economies of scale to the point it can deliver more content — at a lower cost to customers — while earning a profit on a market segment that historically ran it deep into the red.

Life Inc.: Big Three were buzz brands in 2010

Chrysler, the most troubled of the Detroit carmakers, finally revealed the long-awaited 300 sedan, its once and future flagship car, at show Monday.

The outgoing model was a true benchmark for exterior design, but this time it features an interior that even leaders like Audi may come to envy. Along with updated (and in some cases renamed) models, like the Chrysler 200, Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee, the debut of the 300 could help Chrysler win some respect as it moves forward with an aggressive turnaround plan with Italy’s Fiat.

Story: Chrysler hopes to rev up comeback with 300

And, indeed, there’ll be plenty on offer from European and Asian carmakers. Porsche’s preview is expected to spotlight a new high-performance sports car. Volkswagen will preview its all-new midsize sedan at a special, invitation-only gathering Sunday night. Audi will reveal an all-new A6, while BMW previews a trio of new products, including the next-generation 6-Series Convertible.

Expect a sizable crowd when Honda gets its turn in the spotlight, as it will debut a thinly disguised concept set to reappear, later this year, as an all-new Civic. Toyota will emphasize green technology with an all-new hybrid that will join the newly created family of Prius-badged products. And the Koreans, growing bolder by the model-year, will vie for attention with a mix of production vehicles and concept cars, including the Hyundai Veloster and Kia KV7.

Story: From Bentleys to bikes: What politicians drive

Of course, one thing the Detroit auto show has been known for is delivering the unexpected. So who will walk away with the big headlines — and generate the sales — remains to be seen, but this year the event could prove to be the Detroit Auto Show in more than name alone.

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Photos: Production models

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  1. Volvo’s C30 electric crash test display is shown during the media preview of the 2011 North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Arena in Detroit. Volvo is hoping to burnish its reputation for car safety at the event, which features over 30 debuts of vehicles made by automakers from around the world. The show is open to the public from January 15 to 23. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model poses in front of an Audi A7 during the media previewfor the show. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The 2011 Jeep Compass is unveiled. Chrysler Jeep is celebrating its 70th year in 2011. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Chevrolet Corvette, right, and a 2011 Corvette ZR1 sit on display. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The 2011 Ford Explorer, winner of the 2011 North American Truck of the Year award, on display at the 2011 North American International Auto Show. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Volvo’s Electric C30 car is powered by a lithium-ion battery and can be charged from a household power socket. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Venturi’s high-voltage buggy concept includes a 300-horsepower engine. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The new Dodge Ram 3500 truck is equipped with a powerful 350-horsepower engine. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The 2011 Camaro RS convertible. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A model poses next to a Dodge Charger Hemi. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The new Chevrolet Sonic small car will go into production later this year for the 2012 model year. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Porsche returns to the 2011 North American International Auto Show with the Cayman R sports car. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The new Bentley Continental GT will launch from standstill to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds and has a top speed of 197 mph. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Toyota Executive Bob Carter introduces the Prius V midsize hybrid-electric vehicle, left, and the Prius C concept, right. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ford's Mark Fields introduces the Ford C-MAX electric vehicle. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of Volkswagen Management Group, introduces the new Volkswagen Passat. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Porsche 918 RSR sports car Has a V8 engine that delivers 563 horsepower and can jump to 767 horsepower with the push of a button. (Friso Gentsch / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Audi introduces the new A6 Hybrid. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A model poses next to the Ferrari 458 Italia. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The BMW 650i convertible is unveiled. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG E-Cell has four electric motors (one for each wheel) and can accelerate to 60 mph in 4 seconds. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Ford’s President and CEO Alan Mulally presents the Ford Focus ST. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford introduces Ford’s electric lineup: (Left to right) the C-MAX electric car, the Transit Connect electric truck, the Focus electric car and the C-MAX hybrid. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The interior of the Buick Verano, GM’s first upscale compact car for a luxury brand, is shown. The Verano is GM’s only new model to debut at the event. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The Chrysler 300, once a hot-selling sedan, is redesigned with a sleeker look. (Tony Ding / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Tom Stephens, vice chairman of General Motors, holds up the 2011 North American International Auto Show Car of the Year trophy, which this year was awarded to the Chevrolet Volt. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Two of the new Mercedes Benz C Class vehicles are shown at a Mercedes Benz event the night before the official start of the media preview event. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Michael Price cleans a Cadillac CTS-V coupe race car on the show floor. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) On the catwalk in Detroit - Production models
  2. Image: GMC Sierra All Terrain HD Concept
    Paul Sancya / AP
    Slideshow (12) On the catwalk in Detroit - Concept cars

Explainer: The best cars of the decade

  • Image: Ford Focus
    Ford Motor Company  /  Ford Motor Company
    When the European-developed Focus replaced the long-overdue-for-retirement Escort (which itself debuted at a world car when it replaced the Pinto) in 2000 critics cheered its superior combination of small car practicality, handling and efficiency in a crisply styled package.

    Every year, the North American International Auto Show (better known as the Detroit auto show) kicks off with the announcement of the North American Car of the Year.

    The award is based on factors such as innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction and value, and it’s determined by a group of about 50 (currently there are 49 jurors) U.S. and Canadian journalists representing newspapers, magazines, and websites across the continent. (Full disclosure: this includes msnbc.com in the form of this humble contributor.)

    The jury whittled down a list of all the all-new and mostly-new cars this year to three finalists: The Chevrolet Volt, Nissan’s Leaf and the Hyundai Sonata.

    The Volt, the centerpiece of GM’s comeback, was named winner for 2011. A list of past winners shows the only predictable pattern is that excellent cars usually win the competition.

    Here’s a look back at the winners over the past decade.

  • 2011 Winner: Chevrolet Volt

    Bill Pugliano  /  Getty Images

    Jurors appreciated the Volt’s ability to drive long distances as needed using gasoline power, making its 40-mile all-electric range practical in a car that can serve as the driver’s sole source of transportation. General Motors’ Voltec electric drive system will proliferate to variety of models and body styles, making the Volt a significant milestone. GM has been on a roll in recent years, winning North American Car of the Year in 2008 with the Chevrolet Malibu and in 2007 with the Saturn Aura.

    Story: GM’s Chevy Volt named 2011 Car of the Year

  • 2010 winner: Ford Fusion Hybrid

    Ford  /  Wieck

    The 2010 Fusion Hybrid was judged to be the best hybrid yet, with a winning combination of spaciousness, price and overall normality in a thoroughly efficient family sedan. Buick’s superb LaCrosse sedan and Volkswagen’s always-fun Golf were runners-up.

  • 2009 winner: Hyundai Genesis

    embedded
    Paul Sancya  /  AP

    Hyundai heralded its advancing engineering and design prowess with the launch of the aptly-named Genesis premium sedan, a feat which earned the company a North American Car of the Year victory. The car was praised for its comfort and build quality, which were unprecedented for the Korean company. Runners-up were the label-defying family box Ford Flex and the surprisingly zoomy Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

  • 2008 winner: Chevrolet Malibu

    GM  /  Wieck

    General Motors won for the second year in a row with almost the same car. The Malibu is built on a lengthened version of the same platform as 2007 winner Saturn Aura. The Chevy offers more space at a family-friendly price. The sporty Cadillac CTS and Honda’s ever-popular Accord family sedan were the other finalists.

  • 2007 winner: Saturn Aura

    WIECK/GM  /  AP

    General Motors showed that it was serious about the U.S. car market with the lavishly appointed Saturn Aura. Although the brand didn’t survive GM’s subsequent bankruptcy, the Aura signaled that GM had the ability to produce superior cars, and not just trucks and SUVs. The 2007 runners-up were the Honda’s return to the subcompact segment with the Fit and Toyota’s top-selling Camry family sedan.

  • 2006 winner: Honda Civic

    Honda

    Although the new Honda Civic debuting at this year’s Detroit auto show promises to be more exciting, the outgoing model had the poise, performance and efficiency to win 2006 North American Car of the Year. The Civic features a broad model lineup, including coupe and sedan body styles and hybrid, gasoline and natural gas powertrains. Runners-up that year were the not-quite-great ’06 Ford Fusion (the improved ’10 model won the award in hybrid form) and the Pontiac Solstice sports car.

  • 2005 winner: Chrysler 300

    Chrysler  /  Chrysler

    Muscular, almost menacing styling, Hemi V8-powered vroom and Mercedes-Benz-based underpinnings made the Chrysler 300 popular with celebrities, consumers and with North American Car of the Year jurors. They chose the 300 over the Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang, making 2005 a celebration of American muscle.

  • 2004 winner: Toyota Prius

    Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images

    The second-generation Prius marked the car’s growth from tinny plaything for greenies to a real car with broad appeal to a cross-section of consumers, thanks to its increased power, space, and efficiency. Hatchback lovers were also glad to see the practical body style appear in an appealing vehicle. The Prius won over a couple motor-journalist favorites that consumers snapped up by the hundreds, the Cadillac XLR and Mazda RX-8 sports cars.

  • 2003 winner: Mini Cooper

    AP

    If you packed fun in a box and bolted wheels on the bottom, you’d have the Mini Cooper. North American Car of the Year jurors and consumers both found the Mini irresistible thanks to its responsive handling, fuel efficiency and ease of parking in crowded urban streets. It prevailed over essentially two versions of the same car, the four-seat Infiniti G35 Coupe and the two-seat Nissan 350Z.

  • 2002 winner: Nissan Altima

    Mike Ditz  /  Nissan

    Nissan shrugged off its also-ran status in 2002, introducing a new, larger and more competitive Altima family sedan to challenge to reigning duopoly of Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Altima’s success showed consumers were still willing to shop at other dealers, presaging the later success of mainstream sedans by Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai. Runners-up in 2002 were the Cadillac CTS, which showed GM’s earliest efforts at regaining relevance and the short-lived Ford Thunderbird, which signaled the beginning of the end of the retro fad.

  • 2001 winner: Chrysler PT Cruiser

    David Zalubowski  /  AP file

    The PT Cruiser marked the apogee of the retro “heritage” car trend, and it did so for the right reasons. The car was memorably styled, immensely practical, fun, efficient and — this is unusual for such a popular car — affordable. The PT Cruiser was an unqualified home run for Chrysler, but subsequent retro models would never quite capture the zeitgeist the way the PT Cruiser did. Even during the SUV boom, the green movement was laying the groundwork for a return, and the first hybrids sold in the U.S., the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius were the other 2001 finalists.

  • 2000 winner: Ford Focus

    Ford Motor Company  /  Ford Motor Company

    Ford’s current One Ford strategy is only the latest incarnation of the company’s repeated attempts to develop models it can sell all over the world. When the European-developed Focus replaced the long-overdue-for-retirement Escort (which itself debuted at a world car when it replaced the Pinto) in 2000 critics cheered its superior combination of small car practicality, handling and efficiency in a crisply styled package. Speaking of styling, few had ever seen the likes of the audacious Audi TT, which was a finalist, along with Ford’s Lincoln LS, which borrowed hardware from global subsidiary Jaguar.

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