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Detroit Motor Show - analysis

News cruisers are parked-up and beaming pictures before 6am as the temperature hovers around minus 10 and snow flurries drift through the pre-dawn blackness.

By 9am there are union workers carrying placards in support of the Big Three outside Cobo Hall in downtown motown, as the great and the good from the world's motor industry arrive for the first major event of 2009.

The buzz is down from recent years, with less security and fewer journalists jetting in for the action, but still there are major unveilings, technology, important speeches and so much more over the first two days.

The North American International Motor Show is more than just glitz and glamour for General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in 2009 - this is the day when they have to deliver for the first time on the promises in Washington which have earned a government-backed rescue package.

That means GM opens the action with a rolling cavalcade of 17 models which promise exactly what the government wants - hybrids, electric cars and regular production models which do better than 10 litres/100km in fuel economy.

The headliner once again is the Chevrolet Volt, except this time it is wrapped in Cadillac bodywork and called the Converj - with the added bonus of a plug-in connection to its onboard battery system.

Lexus is next and does its number around the brand's first dedicated hybrid, the HS250h, which was originally only planned for America but will now go to more than 80 countries.

Then Ford becomes the second of the Big Three to present its position for 2010 and beyond, with an all-new Taurus family car - perhaps a pointer to something on the Falcon front - and the promise of an all-new electric car with a 160-kilometre range by 2011.

Company chairman Bill Ford takes the stand to deliver on the company's promises to Washington, even though it was the only local not to take a multi-billion dollar loan.

"Ford is heading in the direction America and our customers want us to go, which is a green, high-tech and global future. I think that is where society would like to see the entire industry go, and Ford is going to lead that charge," Ford says.

Then Chrysler, which many American analysts believe cannot survive the global economic meltdown, gets its turn and does a top job with the great looking new 200C family car and a range of electrics which shows it has not given up hope.

It's best looker is the Dodge Circuit, which is most like a battery-powered Lotus sports car.

"The Dodge Circuit EV offers an extremely fun-to-drive, expressive sports car without fuel consumption and with virtually no impact on the environment,” says the vice-president of design at Dodge, Ralph Gilles.

By now, after just two hours of the first press preview day, the pattern for Detroit '09 is set.

The home team is going big on the cars it needs to make - even if Americans are still buying BIG with the drop in pump petrol prices - but there is more sizzle than steak because they have started way behind the Japanese and Europeans.

And Cobo Hall looks sparse. There are fewer brands, fewer cars and none of the bold-and-brassy unveilings - Chrysler has always led the world in motor show stunts - which have been a signature of the Detroit show.

“All I know is we took about 50 per cent out of the cost of our stand,” says the car boss at General Motors, Bob Lutz.

“We took away a lot of the structures, such as salad bowl-shaped Saturn stands, and towers with holographic displays.”

But he still applies some positive spin as everyone talks up the chances for the Big Three, even in the face of a selloff of the Hummer and Saab divisions at GM.

“The fact that we don’t have any of that stuff gives our stand a much more businesslike and cleaner appearance. I think they cluttered up the stand. I imagine it’s going to be much the same around the show," Lutz says.

As usual, the 80-plus former fighter pilot is right.

BMW joins the hybrid rush at Detroit with news of its petrol-electric X6, thankfully with the all-new Z4 sportster to provide some glamour, as Volkswagen provides the best looking car of the show with its Concept BlueSport.

The gorgeous VW is most like a Mazda MX-5, but promises Prius-buster fuel economy in the 4.3 litres/100km range and, without any promise of production, it clearly could have a future.

“The Concept BlueSport is evolving into a car that that is a lot of fun to drive and at the same time makes an unmistakeable statement in terms of sustainability," says Volkswagen.

“The Concept BlueSport is evolving into a car that that is a lot of fun to drive and at the same time makes an unmistakeable statement in terms of sustainability.”

The next big mover in Cobo Hall is Kia, which shows a funky pick-up built on its baby Soul. The Soul'ster is never going to be an Aussie workhorse but will hit the Gen-Y button for America, and California in particular.

As the first day in Detroit winds into darkness and more frigid weather, Subaru kicks the action with a preview of its new Liberty - called the Legacy in the USA - Jaguar runs out its high-performance R version of the landmark XF and Volvo shows the most adventurous concept car in its history, pointing to the next S60.

"The sporty design gives visual promise of an enthusiastic drive and I can assure you here and now that the all-new S60 will live up to that promise," says Volvo boss, Stephen Odell.

Ford goes again to start day two at Cobo, with its Lincoln-Mercury models, then its back to Maserati and then GM pushes the home game hard with an announcement that the batteries for its Volt will be built in the USA. It's a boost for local jobs, more hard news on the Volt, and just what Washington will want before the Big Three report back on their survival plans at the end of March.

And then there is a shock - at least for the Americans - as Chinese cars make the mainstream in Detroit for the first time and little-known BYD confirms it will be selling the world's first production plug-in electric car by 2010.

The last big event of Detroit '09 is the one everyone already knows about - the new Toyota Prius.

The list of 'firsts' is impressive as the car is unveiled, from its drag co-efficient to more luxury and a more-efficient battery system. But Honda has already undercut the third-generation Prius on price with its Insight, which is headlining for the brand in Detroit, and there is no sign of a cutting-edge lithium-ion battery pack.

But the Prius has solar-powered air-conditioning to cool the car when it is parked, is bigger and quieter inside, and is certain to become the world's best selling hybrid. The car comes with more than 1000 new patents on technology and a claim of 3.9 litres/100km economy.

"Prius is more than a hybrid, it’s a solution. No longer is it a second car or a passing fad. In many households, it has become the primary family car," says Bob Carter of Toyota USA.

There is other stuff to see in Detroit, and some things are obviously missing _ the Mercedes E-Class was an invitation-only event and Rolls-Royce is holding its all-new RR4 for the Geneva Motor Show in March - but the overall verdict on 2009 is surprisingly positive.

Cars are still big news, look good and make promises of a better and more enjoyable life on the road.

But the big question remains. Did the Big Three do enough, and show enough in Detroit, to convince the American government that they deserve the support it will take to get them through the biggest crisis in the history of the automobile?


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