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The big story at this year’s Detroit show is
without doubt the staggering turnaround of Ford. The new Focus was the most
significant launch of the show, and the new Fiesta has just gone on sale in the US.

In fact, it’s too early for either of these
cars to show up in the company’s American results - the Focus doesn’t even
hit showrooms for another year. But Ford had an obvious spring
in its step at the show.

It’s simply a better-run, better-focused
company than it has been in living memory. It has the same mission all round the
world, and is converging the vehicles rather than making a rag-bag of different
ones for different regions of the planet. It even managed to make profits (OK,
small ones) all round the world for much of last year, at a time when other car companies
were bleeding.

It has weathered the storm and has the cars
for a new start. Not just Euro-sized hatches, but bigger cars: the Mustang,
strong crossovers, trucks and a fine range of Lincolns. No duffers.

Across the halls, GM was in a different
mood. Yes, it launched some nice cars - the Cadillacs and the GMC Granite are striking, and the Chevrolet Aveo isn’t bad in a budgety way - but there was no
consistent message from the company.

The bosses, who are mostly new, are
slashing and burning their way through the old company’s culture. They’ve
closed Saturn (dead), Pontiac (dead soon), Hummer (sold) and Saab (probably
dead very soon). While Ford is on a growth path, I suspect GM chiefs don’t know
how much cutting there is left to do. So they kept suspiciously quiet and let
the cars do the talking.

Chrysler Group was a right mess. Sergio
Marchionne, the chief of Fiat and Chrysler, says that’s because while a plan
exists, the cars won’t come for more than a year and he doesn’t want to give
his rivals any clues. But boy, the stand looked miserable.

The best they could do was a ‘concept’ that
was a Lancia Delta with a Chrysler grille. That car has done poorly in the
country it was designed for, in the brand it was designed for. How will it fare
in the wrong continent under the wrong brand?

Away from the Detroit Three car companies,
it seemed like everything had to be electric or hybrid, as usual for a show
these days. Audi’s second, scaled-down e-Tron is all very well (but irrelevant)
as an electric car, but the cool bit is it’s coming with mid-engined, 2.0-litre
turbo petrol power.

The electric BMW 1-Series is a sideshow. VW’s coupe concept
is no more than the next Jetta with the back doors sealed up, but its hybrid
powertrain is for real. Honda finally launched the CRZ hybrid sports coupe, and
it has a certain design charm, as does Toyota’s little hybrid hatchback.

On the electric score, the most significant
thing at the show was a car maker you’ve never heard of. China’s BYD is the car
division of the world’s biggest lithium ion battery maker. No doubt we all have
its products powering our phones and cameras.

BYD has just put on sale in China a RAV-4
sized crossover
powered purely by batteries. The car was at Detroit and its
design and interior are very close to the global pace. BYD promises to have it
in dealers in the US by the year’s end.

That would put it ahead of the Nissan LeafRenault Fluence ZETesla Model S and all the other high-profile
pioneering electric saloons ‘for the masses’.

Know this about China. Last year more cars
were sold there than in the whole of the US. Its car makers are growing in
stature and competence at a similar rate, and they’ve got their eyes on the
world markets. Of course they might stumble, as other Chinese entries to the
West have. But if they do it won’t be for long.

Another reason GM and Chrysler need to get
themselves back in the game pretty damned sharpish.

Paul Horrell

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