Big 3 hope to lure drivers with American style

The Big Three plan to show an array of bold new vehicles at the 2007 Detroit auto show, including Ford’s Interceptor concept car.
The Big Three plan to show an array of bold new vehicles at the 2007 Detroit auto show, including Ford’s Interceptor concept car.AP file
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After years of losing ground to Asian brands, the Big Three U.S. automakers will roll out a bold array of new vehicles in coming days, aiming to lure buyers back into their showrooms with styles that are manifestly American.

Just like last year, when Chrysler and General Motors displayed “retro” versions of the Dodge Challenger and Camaro to critical acclaim, the overriding theme of this year’s Detroit auto show will be the boldly styled American cars, analysts say.

“This year’s show will be a celebration of the American car — real American cars for real Americans,” said John Wolkonowicz, senior auto analyst for North America at Global Insight, a consulting company. “It’s all about the return of the American car.”

For too long, America’s domestic automakers have created clones of popular Japanese vehicles, hoping to copy the success of Toyota and Honda, which have seen their U.S. sales soar at the expense of GM, Ford and Chrysler, Wolkonowicz said. Now the Big Three are daring to step out of the mold.

“It’s about doing what only the American car companies can do well,” Wolkonowicz said. “They should be creating aggressive cars with attitude and a hint of the golden era of the American car. If you want a Toyota, just buy a Toyota. I think the Big Three have finally figured this out. These will be the cars that get all the excitement in Detroit.”

To win back U.S. share, the Big Three are going to have to reclaim part of the passenger car business. For this reason, one of the most important new car models on display in Detroit will be the redesigned 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, which is intended to compete with the most popular midsize cars — the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

With a wheel base that is three inches longer than the Camry and a modern interior, GM’s new Malibu is drastically different from previous models, which were generally seen as small and boxy. GM hopes the updated model will steal a chunk of the market from the Camry — the top-selling car in the United States for eight of the past nine years.

“This car has a really nice interior, and it doesn’t look cheap. It’s the kind of styling in a midsize sedan we haven’t seen from a domestic manufacturer for quite some time, and so I consider it to be a very significant for GM,” Wolkonowicz said.

Another important GM product to debut in Detroit will be the 2008 Cadillac CTS, which will herald a new design direction for the brand and potentially refashion the image of a Cadillac  from an old man’s vehicle to a young person’s car. Cadillac reportedly will add a coupe and wagon to its popular CTS lineup, going up against German rivals BMW and Mercedes.

Ford will be looking to revitalize its troubled Lincoln brand with the MKR concept car, which the company says “expresses Lincoln’s future design strategy.” The car boasts “guilt-free” luxury, according to Ford, including environmentally friendly components and renewable resources such as a re-engineered oak instrument panel, mohair carpet and soy seat foam.

Ford will also show off its Interceptor concept, a car than hearkens back to the sporty elegance and muscle of 1960s sedans. Ford’s head of design J Mays, best known for the 2000 redesign of the Volkswagen Beetle, is responsible for the Interceptor, which Wolkonowicz calls  the first truly exciting car that Ford has introduced since the Mustang.

“If Ford is going to succeed, the company needs to cater to people who want to buy a Ford, not the people who want a Toyota, and this is an American car with real swagger,” he said. “There has been some question as to whether Ford’s product development capability was intact, and I think the Interceptor shows it definitely is. They say there are no plans for production, but I don’t believe it for a minute. This is good news for Ford.”

Chrysler is betting on the trusty old minivan and plans to show new versions of its Town and Country and Dodge Caravan versions in Detroit, even as GM and Ford abandon the segment, opting to focus on crossover vehicles. That leaves Chrysler to compete mainly with Toyota and Honda in the sector.

“Chrysler has to reassert itself in this market,” said Tom Appel, editor of Consumer Guide Automotive. “They are the last U.S. automaker that is taking the minivan seriously, and it’s funny because American automakers practically invented the minivan, and now they have handed the business over to the Japanese.”

Japanese automakers will be unveiling some important vehicles in Detroit too, of course, including the Honda’s futuristic new Accord and Toyota’s redesigned Camry. Nissan will unveil two new vehicles — the Rogue crossover and an advanced design study called the Bevel.