Detroit prepares for annual North American Auto Show

More than 5,000 journalists were headed to Detroit for the two-day press preview, starting Monday, of the North American International Auto Show. Global carmakers will present 700 models they hope will tempt US consumers back into the market after a deep, two-year economic recession that brought the industry to its knees.

About 700,000 visitors are expected from January 16-24, when the Detroit auto show opens to the public, but attracting new buyers in 2010 will still be a hard sell.

The "Detroit Three" of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are racing to adjust to the harsh reality of a shrinking and transforming market. All three will be touting some smaller cars more in keeping with the lean economic times.

While Electric Avenue, an area dedicated to showcasing the latest in electric vehicles, many are wondering what to expect from its sponsor: Midland-based Dow Chemical Company. The federal government earlier this year gave Dow Kokam, a join venture with a South-Korean battery manufacturer, a $161-million grant to develop new battery technology, some of which they’ll hopefully display on Electric Avenue.

GM brand Chevrolet will unveil new versions of its Cruze and Aveo, while Ford will highlight its popular European model Fiesta, which will go on sale in the United States over the summer. It is also releasing a new Taurus.

Asian makers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan shifted to smaller models earlier, and now rival the US giants for sales on their home turf.

But Toyota, the world’s largest carmaker, is also hoping for a rebound in 2010 after posting its first annual loss in history in 2008 and suffering a similar fate in 2009. The company that has cornered the hybrid market with its Prius will launch a new hybrid concept car at the Detroit show.

While the Big Three continue to dominate the domestic auto market, California automakers Tesla and Fisker are making waves with powerful electric entries.

Like last year, the auto show will be scaled back from its traditional extravagance amid the still-sputtering US economy. There will be fewer glitzy unveilings – no fashion shows like those held during Detroit’s prime.

The US car market was in the doldrums for most of 2009. Vehicle sales dropped more than 20 per cent to about 10 million as the country battled through its worst recession in generations. Sales averaged about 16 million vehicles for the rest of the decade.

GM and Chrysler went through bankruptcies in 2009 and emerged with the help of billions of dollars in emergency government loans.

GM left bankruptcy majority-owned by President Barack Obama’s government. Its exhibit at the auto show will be without some major brands that have been shed over the last year: Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn and Sweden’s Saab.

GM is refocusing on four core brands: Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick. Chief executive Ed Whitacre, who took on the job in December, said this week he believes the company can become profitable in 2010.

GM’s smaller rival, Chrysler, emerged from bankruptcy largely controlled by Italian maker Fiat. Its new CEO Sergio Marchionne will also be highlighting smaller models like the Fiat 500 that he plans to sell on the US market in coming years, as well as an electric car.

Unlike GM and Chrysler, Ford avoided government bail-outs in 2009 and has already started to see a turnaround. The company saw sales jump more than 30 per cent in December compared to the same month in 2008.

With concern over vehicular emissions rising, auto majors are fast shifting their focus towards electric vehicles. The Chevy Volt made waves at the 2009 show, and several automakers — from Chrysler to BMW — are planning to showcase their progress in the electric vehicles this year.

While Chrysler will show off it’s own line of electric vehicles, it’s expected to display an electric version of the Fiat 500 too. It’s hard to read about the future of the automotive industry without seeing someone prognosticate that 2010 will usher in the decade of the Chinese Electric Car. BYD plans on doubling its sales in 2010 and will compete for attention with the big three at the Detroit Auto Show.

The North American International Auto Show has announced the debut of Electric Avenue, a 37,000-square-foot feature on the main floor of the 2010 show that will showcase electric vehicles and technology of both traditional automakers and innovative entrepreneurs. The exhibit area will feature nearly 20 vehicles as well as symposiums and special events on the adjacent NAIAS stage. The exhibit is sponsored by The Dow Chemical Company.

As a leader in applied chemistry, Dow combines the power of science and technology with the "Human Element" to drive innovative energy and climate change solutions. The company is accelerating the advancement of energy alternatives by investing in the development of breakthrough solutions, such as advanced battery and photovoltaic solar technologies.

Electric vehicle manufacturing companies will have their top green vehicles and initiatives on display.