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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January, 2005, 23:08 GMT
Detroit auto show in sombre mood
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

Pity the Detroit Auto Show. Its hegemony is under threat.

Range Rover Sport
Range Rover Sport enters fast growing market for "performance SUVs"
This year's Motown event, which kicks off on Sunday, is held a week later than normal. As a consequence, it has been pipped by the rival Los Angeles auto show to a string of high profile car launches.

Ferrari chose LA to spring its Superamerica convertible on the Tinseltown crowd, as did Bentley with its Arnage Drophead Coupe.

Even Ford, the lynchpin of Detroit, headed west to unveil its all new Mustang, hailed by the motoring press as the best yet.

Detroit, meanwhile, has been left with "brand band-aids", according to AutoWeek.

"While past Detroit auto shows have offered a blockbuster or two, this year's show is likely to be remembered for vehicles intended to help jump-start a brand or expand that brand's range," the trade publication notes.

Made in USA

But although losing the soft-top launches to the consumer-focused LA show is embarrassing, it is likely to do little to shake the role of Detroit as the most important industry show.

Ford Mustang convertible
Ford's new pony car did much to impress the Tinseltown crowd

Motown is still where car company executives mingle with automotive journalists to discuss strategy for the year ahead, to scrutinise the competition, or to applaud or bemoan the historically weak US currency.

Much is at stake. Almost 17 million cars are sold in the US every year, and in recent years the proportion of imported cars has risen.

This trend could be about to be reversed, however. The weak dollar has made it expensive for Americans to buy cars made abroad and with the greenback still sliding this is forcing European car makers to change the way they are doing business.

Expect much talk in Detroit about a return to "build-where-you-sell" business models, predicts AutoFact Europe.

The German car makers Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes are all preparing to gear up their North American production capabilities.

Angry workers

US car giants General Motors (GM) and Ford are also affected.

Angry letters have been deluging DaimlerChrysler's headquarters in Michigan ever since the company announced in October that it would bring back the Charger nameplate for a 2006 Dodge
New York Times
Last year, they took time out from their currency hedging activities to scrutinise the logic behind maintaining the European production of luxury subsidiaries Saab, Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover.

During 2004, GM faced angry workers in Europe after announcing cost cutting and 12,000 job losses, amidst much uncertainty about the future of the car group's Saab factory in Sweden.

Ford, meanwhile, endured poor industrial relations at its UK subsidiaries following a decision to end production at Jaguar in Coventry and after forcing through efficiency measures at its Land Rover factory in Solihull.

Superior ride

The Land Rover workers' efforts have paid off, however, and one of their most spectacular creations yet will be produced at Solihull even though its main market will be the US.

Dodge Charger sketch
Chrysler hopes the Charger will be fuelled by the weak dollar

The Range Rover Sport, a brand new performance car powered by a positively bestial V8 Jaguar engine, will go on show in Detroit.

The scaled-down Range Rover is the fastest car built by the company and as such it will take enter the growing market for performance sports utility vehicles.

And if Car magazine's verdict is anything to go by, the Sport is bound to bring in the bacon. "It's superior, in fact, to the rides of both the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne," the magazine says.

Angry letters

Among the American models due to be launched in Detroit, the most controversial one is a preview of a forthcoming version of the Dodge Charger.

The Charger marque was made famous by a petrol guzzling 1970s supercar and the badge has been slapped onto a string of models since.

More often than not, such relaunches have been met with much resistance from purists calling it sacrilege to allow inferior car models to share the legendary name.

True to tradition, this latest foray into Charger territory has sparked fury among car enthusiasts.

"Angry letters have been deluging DaimlerChrysler's headquarters in Michigan ever since the company announced in October that it would bring back the Charger nameplate for a 2006 Dodge," the New York Times wrote recently.

Yet the US-German car group DaimlerChrysler hopes the Charger will ride the weak dollar wave and thus regain market share from Japanese competitors.

Mitsubishi to stay

Such efforts have failed to hold back Japan's car makers which are bringing fresh stuff aplenty to Detroit.

Notable models include Nissan Azeal, a "pocket rocket" sports car, and the Lexus LF-A supercar.

Both are concept cars giving hints about how the two car makers aim to gain market share in the US.

The futuristic models will be joined by the world premiere of Mitsubishi's sportscar, the Eclipse coupe, and its Raider pickup truck which is also being launched in Detroit.

Neither model will take attention away from the sudden resignation of Mitsubishi's US chief executive, Finbarr O'Neill, who stepped down this week after just 16 months in the job.

Mr O'Neill's departure sparked speculation that the troubled car maker is preparing to quit the US market, though Mitsubishi insists that despite its difficulties it is here to stay.

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