Image: Volt named 2011 Car of the Year
Mark Blinch  /  Reuters
GM’s Vice Chairman of Global Product Operations Thomas Stephens accepts the North American Car of the Year Award for the Chevrolet Volt at the Detroit auto show Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/10/2011 4:38:32 PM ET 2011-01-10T21:38:32

The North American International Auto Show opened Monday with fresh signs the comeback by U.S. carmakers is gaining traction.

In the first big event of the show, the Chevy Volt, the centerpiece of General Motors' return from bankruptcy and already the winner of both Motor Trend Magazine's car of the year and Green Car of the Year awards, was named 2011 North American Car of the Year award, beating out rival vehicles from Japan's Nissan Motor Co Ltd and Korea's Hyundai Motor Co.

The latest version of Ford Motor Co's Explorer sport utility vehicle, meanwhile, was named 2011 North American Truck of the Year — the third year in a row that Ford has dominated the category.

The U.S. sweep of the awards, which are voted by a panel of 49 automotive journalists, provided an encouraging auto show kickoff for Detroit's Big 3 automakers. The show is the first in a string of trade events where automakers clamor to build buzz for vehicles months before they hit showrooms.

"The Volt, it really represents the soul or the essence of the new General Motors," Tom Stephens, GM's vice chairman for global product operations, said as he accepted the award.

The award, Stephens said, was a recognition of the "the creativity, the perseverance and the dedication of thousands of employees" which continued "even during GM's darkest days."

The U.S. auto industry snapped a four-year sales decline in 2010, including three consecutive sales months above the 12 million unit annual rate to close the year. Most analysts expect double-digit growth in 2011 and further gains in 2012.

The last time the U.S. auto market saw three consecutive years of substantial sales growth was in the late 1990s when Detroit automakers were still riding high.

James Paulsen, chief investment strategist for Wells Capital Management, believes U.S. sales could reach annualized rates of 15 million to 16 million units by the end of 2011.

Other analysts have offered a more conservative outlook on 2011, given persistently high U.S. unemployment rates and a still-uncertain outlook for the housing market.

Jeff Schuster, director of forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates, expects U.S. auto sales to reach 12.8 million vehicles in 2011 and rise to 15 million in 2012.

The 2011 forecast could increase, he added.

"I think coming off the momentum we had in the fourth quarter there's more likely to be upside risk than a downward revision," Schuster said at a Society of Automotive Analysts meeting in Detroit on Sunday.

Happy days are here again, almost
If austerity was the watchword at the Detroit auto show for the past three years, then growth and new investment aimed at capitalizing on the still-developing upswing dominate presentations this year.

One sign of the industry's renewed confidence: vehicle debuts are expected to roughly double at the Detroit auto show this year to as many as 40 all-new vehicles, up from 18 in 2010.

Story: Big Three poised to dominate at auto show

Another major theme: the rollout of new small cars, electric vehicles and hybrids that major automakers have readied at a time when oil prices — and gasoline prices at the pump — are heading higher.

Those include a larger version of Toyota's market-leading Prius hybrid, the first-ever compact sedan for General Motors' Buick and a boxy concept known as the Curb from Hyundai.

The Korean automaker grew at more than twice the rate of the overall market in 2010 at 24 percent, seizing market share from rivals with competitive pricing and a reputation for sharply better quality.

The Detroit auto show also represents a major milestone for Volkswagen. The German automaker plans to show off a new version of its Passat that will be built at its first U.S. plant since the 1980s. The $1 billion plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is near completion and will begin operations later this year.

The Detroit show is also significant for the U.S. automakers, which are in varying stages of a comeback in sales and in profitability.

GM completed its public share offering in November, the largest ever, and its shares are up 18 percent from the IPO price. Chrysler is expected to launch its own IPO in the second half of 2011.

Ford passed Toyota as the No. 2 U.S. automaker in sales behind GM in 2010 and its stock has risen more than 80 percent since the start of last year.

Ford posted a 19 percent U.S. sales gain in 2010, its largest percentage increase since 1984.

A KPMG survey found a much higher percentage of senior automotive industry executives expects global market share growth from Ford than Toyota in 2011.

"Ford in one year essentially eclipsed Toyota, which is a big change in one year," said Gary Silberg, who leads KPMG's auto consulting business in the United States.

After massive recalls and U.S. market share losses in 2010, Toyota aims to turn the tide by expanding its Prius hybrid into a family of vehicles in a bid to enhance consumer perceptions that the automaker is a leader in "green" technology.

Story: Chrysler hopes to rev up comeback with new 300

Separately, a top Ford executive said on Monday that the strength of pickup truck sales in the first quarter will be a key early signal for the overall 2011 U.S. auto market.

Global sales and marketing chief Jim Farley said that Ford for now is maintaining its annual sales forecast of between 12.5 million and 13.5 million, up from 11.5 million in 2010.

Speaking on the sidelines of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Farley declined to give a specific forecast for Ford sales, other than to say the automaker is just as optimistic about 2011 as it was in 2010 when its sales increased 19 percent. Last year was Ford's largest year-on-year sales increase in its home market since 1984.

"We'll look at pickup segmentation," Farley said on the key to early signs of 2011 industry sales strength. "How strong is the pickup market in percentage of the market is important. Pickup trucks were around 12 percent of the industry [in 2010]."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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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