Auto CEOs positive about industry's future


Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz

General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz steps out of the Cadillac Converj concept at the North American International Auto Show on Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009 in Detroit.

Paul Sancya/The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 5:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 5:33 p.m.

DETROIT Just weeks after ending a year marked by dismal sales and a federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, U.S. automakers Sunday touted new products with a focus on fuel efficiency that they say will help ensure that their cars and trucks will roll off assembly lines for years to come.

Amid a crowd of several hundred cheering employees, dealers and retirees at the North American International Auto Show, General Motors Corp. announced plans to build a 40-mile-per-gallon minicar for the U.S. market, and it unveiled an electric-powered Cadillac concept car.

Meanwhile, Chrysler LLC's chief executive told reporters that while its key new products won't show up in dealer showrooms until next year, the Auburn Hills automaker expects to survive 2009 and remain and independent company.

Ford Motor Co. said that by 2011, it will sell an electric car that can go up to 100 miles on a single charge, and it will offer plug-in versions of its gas-electric hybrid vehicles a year later.

Late last month, the Bush administration approved $17.4 billion in short-term loans for GM and Chrysler after both automakers warned that they could run out of cash soon without federal help. Ford didn't take any government money because its executives say it has access to enough credit to get through the industry's sales slump.

The chief executives of all the automakers told reporters Sunday that their companies are on a path to recovery and are here to stay.

GM CEO Rick Wagoner said the company's restructuring plans submitted to Congress, which include concessions from the United Auto Workers union and other cost cuts, combined with GM's lineup of new products, will make the company prosper when the worldwide auto market recovers.

"We'll be in a position to run the business at break-even or profitable at a much, much smaller industry than frankly a year ago that we ever felt would be possible to deal with," Wagoner said.

Chrysler's Robert Nardelli said that while his company's plan for new vehicles has a hole in it for 2009, the automaker will make it to 2010, when it plans to introduce an electric car and a subcompact. It also has a new 300 sedan, Charger performance car and Jeep Grand Cherokee in the works.

Many analysts have predicted, however, that Chrysler will be acquired by another automaker by next year, or sold in pieces by its majority owner Cerberus Capital Management LP, a New York private equity firm.

Ford's executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., said the Dearborn company is working on four high-mileage electric vehicles to be introduced in the coming years. Ford plans to have a battery-powered commercial van on the market in 2010.

"We're employing a comprehensive approach to electrification that will tackle commercial issues such as batteries, standards and infrastructure," Bill Ford said.

GM's stable of 17 new or upcoming models displayed Sunday also had a focus on fuel efficiency.

The Chevrolet Spark subcompact, a three-door hatchback that was called the Beat when GM unveiled it as a concept car in 2007, is set to go on sale in Europe next year and in the U.S. in 2011. GM also announced that the Chevrolet Orlando seven-passenger crossover vehicle will go on sale in North America that same year.

But the surprise of the automaker's event was the unveiling of the Cadillac Converj concept car, which is designed to go 40 miles on electric power alone after being recharged from a standard wall outlet. A small gasoline engine would extend the range to hundreds of miles.

It's the same powertrain technology GM is using in the Chevrolet Volt, a much-anticipated extended-range electric vehicle set to go on sale next year.

GM's Wagoner said the vehicles are smaller, smarter and more fuel efficient, with "enough towing capacity" to pull GM out of its current troubles.

Chrysler unveiled a concept version of an electric-powered sedan and added the Jeep Patriot small SUV to the stable of electric vehicles it is developing.

Toyota Motor Corp. confirmed plans to have an all-electric vehicle on U.S. roads by 2012, introducing an ultra-compact battery-powered concept car at this year's Detroit show.

Honda Motor Co. unveiled its next-generation hybrid, the Insight, and said the car will arrive in U.S. showrooms this April. Honda's much-anticipated car is expected to compete head-on with the Toyota Prius, which remains the top-selling hybrid in the U.S.

Honda said the 2010 Insight will have a lower price than the Civic Hybrid, which has a base price of $23,650.

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