Paul Horrell07 January 2010

Detroit 2010: a review

Why Ford looks fittest at this year’s scaled-down US motor show

New Ford Focus

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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