DETROIT — DESPITE all the bright lights, the festive displays, the gaily-dressed models, and all the new cars, there is a somber mood pervading the cavernous Cobo Hall - even before the formal public debut this weekend of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In rapid succession, as part of a week-long media preview, carmakers from around the world have trotted out their newest models and brightest technological breakthroughs.
But despite their usual silver-lining optimism, they can't overcome the sense of concern that comes from entering a recession. New car sales in the United States plunged to just 14.1 million units last year, and are likely to tumble another 5 percent in 1991.
The big question is what will happen in the Middle East. Should war break out, sales could tumble as low as they did during the recession of the early 1980s.
Even if peace breaks out, a significant upturn in car sales is not likely until late in the year, says John Middlebrook, general manager of Pontiac.
``It will be a fair year at best,'' adds Chrysler Motors chairman Robert Lutz.
As if the sales downturn isn't enough, the exhibits, speeches and private conversations seen and heard at the Detroit exhibition show a number of other often-conflicting pressures are tearing at the auto industry.
Take two of Chrysler's new concept cars, the Neon and the Chrysler 300. The 300 prototype is a racy, exotic, four-seat sports car with a muscular V-10 engine. It is also a close cousin of the Dodge Viper, a two-seat concept car previewed at the Detroit Auto Show two years ago.
After receiving rave reviews, the Viper was rushed into production - it will debut late this year - and Chrysler officials don't hide the fact that they would like to build the 300, as well.
But it is the Neon, not the high-performance 300 that is most likely to make it to market, thanks to the growing emphasis on fuel economy that has been touched off by the Gulf crisis. There is growing pressure in Congress to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to as much as 40 m.p.g.
``It is possible that by the mid-'90s, many families will choose sedans close to the size of today's subcompacts,'' says Tom Gale, Chrysler's head of design.
Despite its flashy name, the Neon is relatively modest in outward appearance, but that can be deceiving. Take its subcompact exterior. By powering it with a tiny, 2-stroke motor, the engine compartment takes up a relatively modest chunk of space, allowing for a passenger compartment closer to the size of a conventional compact or mid-sized sedan.
The prototype 2-stroke generates nearly double the horsepower of a conventional 4-stroke engine of the same displacement, yet uses far less fuel. And it has fewer moving parts to wear out. Chrysler is just one of many automakers working on prototype 2-stroke engines. Ford unveiled a 2-stroke prototype in its Zag concept car. Subaru, General Motors, and Toyota are among the many others studying the technology. But ``We're still a long way from production,'' cautions John Koenig, product planner for Toyota.
Toyota, like all the others, has run into a fundamental problem: 2-strokes simply aren't clean. And so far, engineers have had difficulty meeting increasingly stringent federal emissions standards.
TO complicate matters still further, automakers are under increasing pressure to improve safety. Airbags, long denounced by the auto industry, will soon become standard features on most passenger cars sold in the country. So will anti-skid brakes.
``We at BMW are convinced that safety must be a primary element, a basic part of the vehicle concept,'' said BMW safety engineer Josef Haberl during a speech at the auto show this week.
That should be good news, right? The big problem, automotive engineers point out, is that safer cars typically weigh more. And that, in turn, means less fuel economy.
One casual observer at the Detroit auto show preview was heard complaining about the relative lack of new model introductions when compared with past years' events. That's true. Only a handful of new models, such as Toyota's sporty Paseo and the 1992 Cadillac Seville, went on display.