Four years ago, no one would have imagined the U.S. as the global auto industry's hot spot, but the 2013 North American International Auto Show offers convincing evidence that designing and making flashy, fuel-efficient and fun vehicles is cool again.
Detroit has come through the wrenching makeovers of General Motors and Chrysler, and the bootstrap turnaround at Ford. The Japanese have overcome an epic earthquake and tsunami to recover their mojo in the U.S. German automakers are taking refuge in the U.S. from a nagging economic malaise in Europe.
All competitors are investing in U.S. plants and workers. Japan-based supplier Denso said Tuesday that it was weighing a plan to add 400 jobs in Michigan, and another 800 elsewhere in the U.S.
Automation and the array of global options mean the industry probably never will employ as many people as it did 25 years ago, but this is still where every automaker wants to make its mark as fuel-efficiency standards increase and demand for vehicles rises with the improved economy and housing market.
"We are seeing firsthand that the auto industry is back after some tough years," said Larry Dominique, executive vice president at TrueCar.com. "It's important for manufacturers to continue to innovate and build products that consumers will buy. Many of the concepts we saw this year prove that."
There's something for everyone at the show, which opens to the general public Saturday, from the seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette to Mercedes-Benz's E-Class cars to the plug-in Cadillac ELR to the artful BMW 4-Series concept. None will be mega sellers on their own, but they reflect a deep well of creativity.
Every automaker now talks about fuel economy with the same boastful superlatives once reserved for horsepower and torque. The federal government, with the industry's support, has set a standard for 2025 that will force every company to nearly double their fleet's average fuel economy between 2010 and 2025. The government will revisit that standard in 2017, but automakers agree that they need to employ an array of technologies now to meet future miles per gallon standards.
That means hybrids, turbocharged gas engines and, to a lesser extent, diesels will grow more common. There's also natural gas and pure plug-ins.
Jeep doesn't have an all-new product to trumpet this year, but by adding the option of a diesel engine for its best-selling Grand Cherokee, it will enable "off-road" and "fuel-efficiency" to be used in the same sentence.
Pushing the edge of the fledgling electric car market, Tesla brought its Silicon Valley bravado to show a concept of its Model X all-electric crossover and bragged that it has 13,000 orders for its Model S sedan, which can run 265 miles between charges.
One way this year's show is different is that there are more cars aimed at people younger than 50, or at least to stir their dreams. Every luxury carmaker is offering small cars and crossovers.
Baby boomers will account for a disproportionate percentage of new car purchases for the near future. Millennials love their smartphones, tablets and bicycles. But when younger buyers decide they need and can afford four wheels, the industry is providing ample choices.
Asked what vehicles jumped out at him during a walk around Cobo, auto analyst Peter Nesvold of Jefferies & Co. cited the Lincoln MKC.
"It's an aspirational vehicle, and those are two words that haven't been used to describe Lincoln in years," Nesvold said.
This year's concept vehicles are no longer farfetched art projects reflecting designers' fantasies. In almost every case, from the BMW 4-Series to the Honda Urban SUV to the Toyota Furia, there will be a real vehicle arriving in showrooms in the next two years.
"This show is a smorgasbord of vehicles, from flashy sports cars like the Corvette to the bread-and-butter Toyota Corolla disguised as the Furia concept," said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Edmunds.com.
As the housing market continues to grow stronger, more consumers will feel better about the future and will tend to buy more cars. As well, construction companies and other businesses are expected to increase demand for pickups--the mother's milk of auto profits.
Chrysler's nearly new Ram 1500 was named North American Truck of the Year. GM has a new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra coming this summer. That pressured Ford to unveil the Atlas on Tuesday, a concept meant to provide hints of a revamped F-150 pickup expected for the 2015 model year.
On a cautionary note, this is a global business.
As the U.S. economy is gathering momentum, the debt crisis in Europe lingers. Now Germany, which had been immune from the woes of Greece, Spain and Italy, may be drifting toward recession.
Automakers aren't closing enough underused plants fast enough to stem years of losses anytime soon in Europe.
China is still growing, but at a slower pace. In recent days, a choking smog in Beijing has forced schools to close, sent thousands of people with respiratory illness to hospitals and reminded the Chinese government that there are costs to breakneck economic growth.
There are risks even in the U.S., most vividly the unresolved budget fight in Washington.
Yet the sweeping array of new choices on the Cobo floor is a testament to how far this industry has come.
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