2003 Detroit Show: Behind the Stories Page 3

January 5, 2003

And there’ll be a number of new entrants just below the $150,000 mark, including the sexy sports coupe Aston Martin intends to introduce in Detroit.

Green machines

The environment was a big issue in year’s past at the NAIAS. And while it’s not the top story this year, it will continue to play a significant role. As TheCarConnection has reported, General Motors is expected to use the show as a backdrop to announce plans to produce a wide range of hybrid gas/electric vehicles by sometime after the middle of the decade.

There should be plenty of talk, as well, about fuel cell vehicles, which have just gone into limited, extremely low-volume production. (With most observers predicting these emissions-free vehicles won’t make a serious dent in the U.S. market until at least decade’s end.)

What a concept

What would an auto show be without concept vehicles? But this year, there are likely to be more than ever as automaker’s battle for the hearts and minds of skeptical consumers. GM will use its show cars to underscore its recent resurgence. Both Ford and Chrysler want to convince the public – and critical investors and analysts – that they have moved beyond their financial problems and are now getting ready to unleash an assault of competitive new products. And the imports are out to prove that they’re equal players on the American battleground.

2003 Ford 427 concept

2003 Ford 427 concept

Enlarge Photo
One important trend in the concept-car wars this Detroit show is the re-emergence of the rear-drive four-door. Ford’s 427 concept thunders along with V-10 power and an origami-crisp shape that belies its age. Chrysler’s Magnum wagon concept, meanwhile, poses the nifty possibility of a Hemi-powered, rear-drive Dodge sedan and wagon coming to market before long (and insiders say the upcoming Chrysler LX vehicles will in fact be rear-drive and Hemi-powered, in some versions).

Among the imports, the hybridization of coupes and SUVs continues apace. Infiniti’s Triant weds all-weather capability to a two-door shape, while Kia’s Slice removes the truck heritage from a wagon/crossover package in the same vein.

The world intrudes

Concept cars and creative displays can help paint a pleasant picture that might get you to forget what’s happening in the real world outside the confines of Detroit’s Cobo Center. But this year, in particularly, it’s not easy to keep events from intruding.

The threat of an Iraqi War is of particular concern since it has the potential to create the most significant disruption in fuel supplies since the 1970 twin oil shocks. Even if a peaceful settlement can be achieved in this crisis, there’s growing pressure on the auto industry to reduce fuel consumption — as well as emissions – a fact underscored by the oil-friendly Bush Administration’s recent increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard for light trucks.

The weak economy is another factor that industry leaders and average showgoers alike can’t dismiss. Show floor traffic has proven to be a surprisingly good indicator of where car sales will weigh in over the coming year, so you can bet industry watchers will be keeping a close eye on Cobo’s turnstiles.

Increasing competition and a shrinking market is a terrible formula for automakers, but great news for auto buyers. It’s meant that with rare exception, new car prices have actually fallen by about one percent a year since the mid-1990s, even before you add in the hefty incentives that have become a norm in recent months. Automakers talk about curtailing those givebacks in 2003, but barring a surge in the economy, that seems unlikely. The question is how much further can the industry go than the current incentives? “Maybe we have to offer negative financing,” suggests Chrysler’s Zetsche.

We can see the ad campaign right now: “Buy a car, get a check…every month.”

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