As automakers and media from around the world arrive for Detroit's North American International Auto Show, expectations are higher and there are no more excuses for not delivering the best vehicles consumers have ever seen. Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC are back in the black, with all three contributing to boost their collective market share for the first time since 1988. But the domestic manufacturers still have less than half of the U.S. market -- 47.1 percent in 2011 -- and Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. expect to be much stronger in 2012 as they continue to rebuild from last March's earthquake in Japan.
European automakers want to increase U.S. sales to make up for economic woes in their home markets.
Hyundai Motor Co., Kia Motors Corp. and Volkswagen are pursuing aggressive growth strategies and reaching new customers. Hybrids are becoming more mainstream, and new plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles will be coming to the market this year.
The main driver in the market is the fact that millions of consumers have older vehicles they must replace.
It is the perfect backdrop for the 2012 Detroit auto show, which, after years of distractions, is finally about the sheet metal and creature comforts again. There are 40 vehicle introductions that span all segments of the market. "It is back to being all about product, which is the way it should be," said Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas. A media throng of about 5,000 will get the word out. Consumers will choose the ultimate winners by voting with their dollars.
Generating advance buzz are small cars, midsize cars and crossovers. "Two-thirds of shoppers want midsize or small cars or SUVs," Fields said. For GM, it is "a really full, rich show," said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. "It's not one of those extremes where we show only productionized things or concepts, but rather we have a nice blend. "I'm not sure we've done a really good job of that in the past … or maybe we just didn't have the portfolio that we could do that."
The travails of recent years delayed some product launches, and companies are playing catch-up. R.L. Polk, a Southfield, Mich.-based research firm, estimates 94 new models will hit U.S. showrooms this year, compared with 73 in 2011. That figure is expected to grow to 101 in 2013. Cadillac is ending a dry spell with the global premiere of the ATS, which is designed to steal BMW 3-Series buyers. Cadillac also has the full-size XTS due this spring. GM updated the Chevrolet Malibu in the hotly contested midsize car segment.
It will go up against Ford's next-generation 2013 Fusion -- known as the Mondeo in Europe. The new Lincoln MKZ midsize sedan introduces a new look for the luxury brand. Honda has a coupe concept of the next-generation Honda Accord, the flagship car that will determine whether Honda can regain the ground it lost in 2011 when its U.S. sales fell almost 7 percent. The compact Dodge Dart, which replaces the Caliber, will be scrutinized as the first Chrysler vehicle engineered by Fiat. It is related to the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
And BMW's benchmark 3-Series aims to keep the competition at bay. In the fast-growing crossover segment, GM has the Buick Encore, and showgoers can see the Maserati Kubang, the luxury SUV to be built at Chrysler's Jefferson North assembly plant in Detroit. For the eco-minded, the big news is the debut of the Toyota Prius c, a subcompact hybrid in addition to the original Prius and the Prius v wagon.
Mercedes also has E-Class hybrids on tap. And there will be concepts, including two from Chevrolet geared toward young buyers. Aficionados await the return of the Acura NSX sports car last sold in 2005. Absent this year is a presence by Chinese automakers. Nor is there much talk of Detroit losing its status as the top U.S. show, a status local dealers worked to establish back in 1987.
"There were a handful of us that spent a lot of time changing the show from a local and regional show to a national show," said Dave Fischer, CEO of the Suburban Collection dealership group in Troy. Competition in the future will come from shows in emerging markets, Fischer predicts. "Manufacturers now have to go to shows in Russia and China … places they never thought about 10 years ago."