Manufacturers strut their stuff
Toyota is poised to pass GM as the world's largest automaker.
By RICHARD WILLIAMSON
SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE
It was the best of times (for Toyota). It was the worst of times (for Ford).
It was 2006.
Now, it's 2007 and all the world's automakers are running for the limelight at the 100th North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Held annually in the home of the Big Three, the Detroit show opens Jan. 13 with GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler struggling to hold terra firma against a relentless tide of foreign competition.
The trend indicates this should be the year that Toyota passes General Motors as the world's largest automaker.
As GM's sales fell to the lowest annual total since 1970 and Ford suffered its sixth yearly decline in a row, Toyota notched its 11th straight year of sales increases and celebrated the Camry's fifth consecutive year as the best-selling car in America.
Japan's other big brands, Honda and Nissan, had mixed results.
While Honda deliveries rose for the 13th year, Nissan saw sales slip for the first time in five years. For the auto industry as a whole, 2006 marked the first sales decline since 2003.
Surprisingly, it was the Mercedes-Benz side that brought down sales of DaimlerChrysler in 2006 as Chrysler Group sales actually rose slightly.
Fuel-efficiency a concern
With more than 90 percent of respondents in an Associated Press-AOL poll anticipating higher pump prices this year, automakers are emphasizing fuel efficiency over brute power. The housing market's decline has further handicapped truck sales, once a virtual monopoly for GM, Ford and Chrysler.
As Toyota encroaches on Big Three truck turf with a Texas-built Tundra this year, GM is hoping to dim Camry's crown with a redesigned Malibu debuting in Detroit. Monster sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are also yielding center stage to smaller, more fuel-efficient CUVs (crossover utility vehicles) that ride on the chassis of a car instead of a truck.
Among the most notable CUV intros in Detroit is the 2008 Nissan Rogue, expected to retail for about 20,000 when it goes on sale in September.
Bearing a family resemblance to the curvy Murano, the Rogue will challenge Honda's CRV and Toyota's RAV-4. Rogue's 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine is harnessed to a continuous variable transmission (CVT) and wears disc brakes on all fours with an anti-lock system.
The Malibu, an athletic, midsize performer that has never really won the respect it deserves, emerges from the styling salon with a sleeker exterior and an upgraded interior.
Scheduled to go on sale in early 2008, Malibu is expected to continue its price advantage against Camry and the Honda Accord. With Chevrolet providing a rebate of 2,438 in December, the average Malibu fetched 17,939 compared with 22,402 for the Accord and 23,441 for the Camry, according to the Power Information Network. Despite the incentive, Malibu achieved less than a third of Camry's sales in 2006.
Along with a choice of 4-cylinder or V6 engines hitched to a six-speed automatic transmission, the new Malibu will feature a quieter interior and new safety equipment such as side-curtain air bags.
Other GM introductions include the Cadillac CTS, GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave crossovers.
Mazda brings a new Tribute hybrid electric SUV to the Detroit show, adding momentum to a segment that is growing in popularity though adding little to profitability.
Because hybrids have captured the public's imagination and fueled hopes of overcoming our dependence on a potentially declining resource (oil), automakers are competing for hearts and minds of the future.
The 2008 Tribute HEV's gasoline engine and electric motor will produce 155 horsepower while meeting California's Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle and Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle standards, the Japanese maker says.
Mazda, which shares models and technology with its parent Ford, will also display its new seven-passenger SUV Mazda CX-9 and the five-passenger SUV Mazda CX-7.
Mitsubishi Motors introduces its revised Lancer compact sport sedan, an attractive car aimed at the middle market.
From Europe, meanwhile, comes BMW's first electronically operated folding hardtop on the new 3-Series convertible.
If small cars are making a big impression this year, the new Smart ForTwo should be a show stealer. The Smart car from Mercedes Car Group will go on sale in the United States for the first time in 2008. The city mouse that sips Europe's high-priced gas could be a huge success if U.S. pump prices rise as expected. It could also be a big bust if prices fall, of course.
Mini, part of BMW Group, is also making a big deal out of its Convertible Sidewalk, featuring special light-alloy wheels, special interior surface trim and leather upholstery.
Imagine telling your friends that you came to work on a moving Sidewalk.