Style, luxury and performance in Detroit as auto sales boom

DETROIT, Michigan (AFP) - Stand-out styling, performance and luxury dominated the Detroit auto show on Monday as carmakers jostled for position amid booming sales and renewed optimism after a deep downturn.

"Wow, what a difference three years make," Mr Fred Diaz, head of Chrysler's Ram brand, said as he accepted the truck of the year award for the Ram 1500 pickup truck.

General Motors (GM), which like Chrysler was restructured under bankruptcy protection in 2009, was awarded the car of the year for its Cadillac ATS sedan.

United States (US) sales are expected to rise to between 15 million and 16 million vehicles this year after jumping 13 per cent to 14.5 million vehicles in 2012, the biggest yearly gain since 1984.

The Detroit Three carmakers are raking in huge profits again after years of painful restructuring and a renewed focus on the product side of their business.

Their Asian and European counterparts are also investing heavily in the US, as they jostle for position in the highly competitive market and look for a place to boost sales amid a slowdown in China and Brazil and the collapse of European demand.

"The product is the best consumers have seen in a long time," Mr Jesse Toprak, an analyst with the automotive site, told AFP.

GM's new Corvette was the most hotly anticipated of the show.

The muscular and sculpted Corvette Stingray shares a name with the iconic 1963 model but is an entirely new vehicle, sharing only two parts with the previous generation Corvette.

"The soul of our company is sitting right here in Corvette," GM North America president Mark Reuss said.

"This car is the reason I work at GM."

Daimler also offered a sneak peak at an entirely new car, the compact, stylish - and lower priced - Mercedes CLA coupe, which is aimed squarely at the youth market.

"The CLA is a style rebel," Mercedes design chief Gordon Wagener said. "The dynamic design idiom is manifested in breath-taking proportions, muscular, flowing contours and sculptural surfaces."

Both vehicles will have to compete with luxury sports cars from Audi, BMW and a new muscle car from specialty carmaker Shelby.

Pickup truck fans will also have plenty of new models to feast their eyes upon, with the new Chevy Silverado and a concept (or pre-production) truck from Ford ahead of the 2015 launch of the next version of its top-selling F-series.

Honda will be testing out a concept for a smaller sport-utility vehicle, as did Ford's luxury Lincoln brand. There will be plenty of new hulks on the floor as well, especially from Chrysler's Jeep and Dodge brands.

And even the more down-market vehicles are going to be decked out with features that were once reserved for luxury brands, like collision avoidance technology and heated side mirrors.

"Those features tend to be fairly profitable because once they get into the mass market they're not that expensive to install and consumers will pay fairly well for them," said Mr Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of automotive site

Drivers looking for improved fuel economy will have a wide range of options as automakers push hybrids, diesel and electric vehicles, and boost the efficiency of standard gasoline engines ahead of upcoming tough new government standards.

But with hybrids and other alternative powertrains still only making up about 3 per cent of the US market, carmakers are going to have to work harder on their green car pitches.

Meanwhile, Toyota on Monday regained the global sales crown lost when the 2011 Japanese tsunami devastated its supplies as US rival General Motors saw its share of the global market shrink.

Toyota first overtook GM as the world's biggest carmaker in 2008, a position GM had held for 77 consecutive years.

While the largest US automaker is once again making record profits, its sales have been hit by a deep downturn in Europe, the reduction in its offerings and a decision not to chase market share with costly incentives and low-margin fleet sales.

"As I said last year, I didn't necessarily want to be number one in sales as I wanted to be number one in profitability - that's what we focus on," GM chief Dan Akerson told reporters on the sidelines of the auto show.

More than 50 new models will be revealed on Monday and Tuesday as automakers vie for the attention of some 6,000 journalists from around the world. The show opens to the public on Saturday and runs through Jan 27.