Detroit Auto Show Preview: Sustainability Prevailing Theme

 
on January 08 2012 10:26 AM
Dodge Dart
Dodge Dart Chrysler

If one theme rings loud and clear from this year's Detroit auto show, it will clearly be sustainability. 

It's about sustainability of profits, and sustainability through efficient products that contribute to both the broader environment and consumer benefit, that will be at the heart of every automaker's presentations. America's Big Three, in particular, have shown they are still among the biggest and best global forces to be reckoned with through profitability and strong, advanced product in the past year or two. 

And they want to keep it that way.

Chrysler and General Motors were all but dead after filing for bankruptcy and taking government bailout but now they are back, on solid ground and profitable again, making products that consumers truly want. Ford didn't file for bankruptcy or take a government bailout, but the company was certainly at the brink of disaster. Now, Ford has restored its dividend, earned billions in profits, and consistently been a steady model of corporate comeback progress. 

The industry has experienced ups and downs before, however. While the roller coaster has never run so hard and fast to the bottom as it did for the automakers in the Great Recession, the cyclical nature of the business combined with management mistakes and selling the wrong products at the wrong time has yielded some historical highs followed by lows.

So now they've got to show and tell how and why the resurgence will continue.

That's what shareholders want to hear and believe. That's what consumers want to hear and believe. To make a purchase today, of a stock or a car, the buyer wants to know that fair and promised returns will come from it. They don't want a roller-coaster ride. They just want a stable, steady ride for the most part.

From the product perspective, the automakers, including America's Big Three ando the other global leaders, are delivering. This is the first time in years -- years -- that each of the Big Three, for instance, has arrived at the auto show with compelling product across the board, plus a few that sizzle. Management matters in Detroit, but product matters most. Without cars, trucks and SUVs that both inspire and reach to the future, just a tad, automakers have little chance at sustainability.

Efficiency Will Reign

Neither do hopeful buyers, for that matter.

But as some 6,000 journalists from around the world descend upon Detroit's Cobo Center starting Monday to look, touch, feel and listen, the products will speak loud and clear this year. Among the anticipated offerings from Detroit automakers: Ford's Fusion, the sedan which has played a vital role in the company's product comeback. Its sleek, affordable, and efficient -- with all the necessary ingredients. Its redesign reveal in Cobo will draw a big crowd, for good reason, since sustainability hinges in a couple of respects.

Ford will also be watched to see what and how it presents its Lincoln line of vehicles. The company has said it wants to make Lincoln a world class luxury brand, and is investing and working to make that happen, but it won't happen without product. GM, for one, hopes to stay ahead of the pack with its new Cadillac ATS luxury sedan, which the company will reveal tonight in a special event, one day before the auto show opens to journalists.

Chrysler, also, will draw in crowd in unveiling its new Dodge Dart. Built on a Fiat platform, the Dart is a revival of the classic Dodge product. 

The biggest question for many at this year's auto show is how Toyota will fare. The company was long a model in sustainability. While other global automakers took radical roller coaster rides of up and down from one period to the next since the early 1950s, Toyota ran a steady, uphill race until the company was plagued a couple of years ago by massive recalls and quality issues along with some rare management problems of its own. 

The company had grown so fast in an effort to take over North America and become the world's largest automaker that its core principles including building to demand and quality at all costs were briefly forgotten. Sustainability in terms of steady progress was jeopardized. Toyota also took a big hit in production and therefore sales in 2011 due to massive earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan.

Eyes Upon Toyota

But if there's anything observers will see from Toyota at this year's auto show it's proof that the company is focused on the sustainability endeavor. Toyota will unveil its new NS4 at the Detroit auto show, described as an advanced plug-in hyrbrid vehicle. Toyota is also preparing to launch the Prius c hybrid, a smaller, less expensive version of the company's Prius hybrid that will be built in the U.S.

Toyota also has the all-electric RAV 4 SUV, a plug-in version of its popular crossover SUV developed in conjunction with Tesla Motors.

And while most vehicles unveiled at the Detroit auto show this year won't be all-electric, expect not a single vehicle, including trucks and SUVs, to be unveiled without talk of fuel efficiency. With gas prices expected to rise in 2012, remaining high for the foreseeable future, sustainability in terms of efficiency and emissions will be at the forefront of every discussion.

As for the North American Car of the Year award, which wil be announced early Monday morning, many suspect Volkswagen's Passat will win, particularly in light of that fact that is being built at the company's new North American plant in Chattanooga. The Passat already won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award. It should be noted, as well, that the diesel version of the Passat outperforms competitors in fuel efficiency. 

Volkswagen will be touting that, of course, along with other non-stop talk of sustainability, from product enhancements to corporate controls, that will be on display of this year's Detroit auto show from the global automakers.

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