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Automakers seek growth with new models

U.S. car makers rolled out dozens of new models at the annual car show in Detroit, part of an industry wide push to recover market share lost to overseas rivals.
The 2005 Corvette C6 is one of the new models being unveiled in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show.
The 2005 Corvette C6 is one of the new models being unveiled in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show.Joe Polimeni / General Motors via AP
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. car makers rolled out dozens of new models at the annual car show in Detroit, part of an industrywide push to recover market share lost to overseas rivals. Even as foreign rivals continued to expand sales in the North American market, General Motors Monday predicted strong growth in China, the world's fastest growing major auto market.

GM said sales rose 46 percent in China last year and predicted strong demand this year.

"We achieved this growth amid unprecedented competition by aggressively rolling out new products," Phil Murtaugh, chairman of the company's China operations, said in the statement. "Demand for passenger cars in mainland China is expected to remain strong in 2004," Murtaugh said, without giving a forecast.

Germany's Volkswagen, by far the dominant player in China, racked up sales growth in excess of 40 percent in 2003 as increasingly well-off consumers snapped up cars. The comapny will probably keep its top spot in 2004 as its capacity far surpassed a rapidly expanding General Motors, analysts said.

However, just as the Big Three U.S. carmakers turn their efforts to reviving their small-vehicle fortunes, the overseas crowd is revving up truck and sport utility lines of its own in a bid to squeeze Detroit’s largest source of profits.

“I think we as an industry probably deserted the car for some time. It’s time to put the focus back on that,” Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler’s marketing chief, told Reuters.

“I think the car making a comeback, not just for us but for some of our competitors as well, probably will be a good story for ’04.”

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler arm will roll out roughly 40 new or updated models in 2004, giving them their best chance in years to prove they can compete head-on against foreign automakers in the United States.

At the North American International Auto Show, GM unveiled the Pontiac Solstice, a small convertible that GM plans to start selling late next year at prices starting around $20,000. GM has a number of car models coming out in 2004, from the Chevrolet Cobalt small car to the Cadillac STS luxury sedan.

Ford showed off the Five Hundred large sedan, a new version of the iconic Ford Mustang and the Freestyle “crossover,” or car-based sport utility vehicle. The Freestyle is Ford’s first entry in the fast-growing market for midsized car-based SUVs that has been dominated so far by Japanese automakers, while the Five Hundred and Mustang are Ford’s first updates in those segments in years.

Return of the muscle cars
And no golden era in Detroit would be complete without a new raft of sports cars. Chrysler, which is rolling out the 300C and Dodge Magnum rear-wheel-drive midsize cars this year, unveiled the audacious ME Four-Twelve concept -- a mid-engine, 850-horsepower supercar that it hinted could be headed for production.

GM unveiled the next generation of the Chevrolet Corvette, complete with a 400-horsepower V8. And Ford introduced a concept sports car reviving the Shelby Cobra name from the 1960s sporting some 600 horsepower.

With its new models and improving U.S. economy, there’s a level of optimism among Detroit auto executives that hasn’t been seen for the past few years.

“Maybe we’re sleeping a little better this year than last year at this time,” GM Chairman Rick Wagoner said.

New Hybrids
Looking to bolster its commitment to producing environmentally friendly vehicles, Honda Motor Co. announced plans to introduce a gas-electric hybrid version of its Accord this fall.

The V-6 engine on the new Accord version will provide fuel economy similar to a four-cylinder Civic, president and chief executive Takeo Fukui said Monday. Honda already sells two other hybrids, the Insight and the Civic Hybrid.

The company also said it will introduce a Honda-developed fuel cell unit with increased performance and fuel efficiency in 2005 that will be capable of starting in below-freezing temperatures.

Fuel cell technology creates electric power from hydrogen and is viewed by the industry and environmentalists as a possible alternative to fossil fuels. The only tailpipe emissions from fuel cell vehicles that use pure hydrogen is water vapor.

Fukui said Honda wants to gain real experience with fuel cell vehicles to help speed their development. And he said the company is committed to supporting the development of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure that would be needed for such vehicles to gain wide use.

Mercedes-Benz unveiled a concept version of a six-seat Vision Grand Sports Tourer that the company says is about a year from production for the American market.  The automaker said Monday it created the luxury concept vehicle to accommodate family use -- recreation, travel and work -- without sacrificing style and technological prowess.

A V-8 diesel/electric hybrid engine is designed to reduce fuel consumption and emissions without compromising performance. In its current incarnation, the engine would deliver about 30 miles to the gallon while offering a combined 314 horsepower.

An arc-shaped roof gives the car a coupe-like appearance. A glass roof stretches nearly the entire distance of the passenger compartment, which features individual seats for each occupant.

A 540-hp Ferrari
Celebrating the 50th year of the Ferrari in the United States, the sports car maker on Monday unveiled the 612 Scaglietti -- a sleek powerhouse with seating for four.

The Scaglietti generates 540 horsepower from the 12-cylinder engine and can travel more than 196 miles per hour, said Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo.

In honor of the Ferrari's milestone on American soil, Montezemolo said the company's cars sold in 2004 will feature a new twist on its classic logo that adds red, white and blue.

"This is the reason why we wanted to present this car ... in Detroit," said Montezemolo.

Ferrari said its North American sales improved in 2003. It delivered 1,350 cars to North American customers -- a 13 percent increase.

Trucks from Honda, Toyota
But while the Big Three work on parts of the market they’ve neglected, foreign automakers discussed how they’re targeting new segments. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. unveiled a concept version of its first pickup truck for the U.S. market, a midsize, four-door truck that will go into production next year.

Toyota Motor Corp. showed off a gasoline-electric hybrid version of its Highlander SUV that it said it would build early next year, along with a concept full-size pickup that hinted at the next version of its Tundra due in 2006.

“We are on a serious mission to build big-truck market share that will match our strong car presence,” said Jim Press, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Toyota’s U.S. sales arm.

And Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. is showing a concept version of a new small SUV, part of a push into the truck market Nissan has made over the past two years, with models such as its Titan full-size pickup.

Part of the reason foreign automakers are growing into truck markets is that it’s the final frontier. Jack Collins, Nissan’s vice president of product planning for its North American arm, noted that the Titan was designed to appeal to about 1 million of the 2.3 million customers who buy full-size pickups in the United States every year.

“So when we look at the market and say is there some other segment we could play in with more than a million customers, the answer is ‘yes,’” Collins said.