The 'Year of the car' - or was that truck?

At Detroit auto show, consumers get more choices than ever as US and Japanese firms cross over.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

You'd have a hard time finding two products more at the extremes of the automotive spectrum than those that have taken the title of car and truck of the year.

The accolades, handed out by a journalist panel here at the North American International Auto Show, went to the massive Ford F-150 pickup and Toyota's compact Prius - a hybrid-electric sedan.

An extreme contrast, perhaps, yet the awards underscored a larger trend at this year's Detroit auto show: Amid a stepped-up industry battle for market share, confusion and seeming contradictions abound.

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Asian carmakers, long known for reliable sedans, are increasingly going after the market for sport utility vehicles and pickups. America's Big Three are fighting back by renewing their commitment to smaller cars.

For consumers who are more demanding than ever, the result is unprecedented choice - and that can be confusing as well as exhilarating. What is this new crop of cars all about?

"This is the year of the car," declares Jim Padilla, President of Ford Motor Co.'s North American operations. The troubled automaker backed that claim up by introducing the latest incarnation of its popular Mustang "pony car," alongside more mainstream sedans, such as the new Five Hundred.

General Motors Corp., meanwhile, uncovered its compact Pontiac G6 and Pontiac Solstice sports car. Over at the Chrysler stand, the 300C sedan shared space with the sleek ME-412 supercar.

While the Big Three had numerous new light trucks to show off, the emphasis on passenger cars shows a significant shift from where Detroit had focused its attention - and product development dollars - over the past decade.

Pressure from Japan

Considering that SUVs, minivans, and pickups have outsold cars by widening margin over the last two years, the move might seem counterintuitive, though Ford global design director, J Mays, insisted "We think you're going to see people slowly move back from trucks to cars."

Perhaps, but a look around the floor of Detroit's Cobo Hall conference center might suggest another explanation. Barely one hundred feet from Ford's stand, Toyota displayed the FTX, a thinly disguised prototype of the next-generation Tundra full-size pickup. Honda unveiled its SUT, the prototype of a combination pickup/SUV going on sale in 2005. And Nissan revealed the latest Pathfinder SUV and Frontier pickup.

The Japanese are laying siege to the light truck market, particularly the full-size segments long dominated by the Big Three - and which generated virtually all of Detroit's profits over the past decade.

"There is no sanctuary anymore," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor.

With their most profitable vehicles under attack, Cole says US carmakers cannot ignore the car side of their business anymore. But while the Japanese have a tough challenge cracking the domestic-loyal pickup market, analysts warn it won't be easy for American makers to win back buyers from the likes of the popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

There are others who wonder whether those chart-busting imports can maintain their grip, even without renewed competition from Detroit. Once, the most popular products, such as the 1960s-era Chevrolet Impala, could rack up sales of a million units a year. Ford's F-Series pickups came close last year, with record volume of 912,000. But it's the exception to the rule. Camry and Accord struggle to top 400,000, and on average, the typical nameplate will sell only about 40,000 copies this year, forecast Paul Wilbur, CEO of the Detroit-based auto supplier, ASC.

A fragmenting marketplace

"The market has fragmented so much, there is nothing left but niches," said Wilbur, whose company used to be known as American Sunroof Corp., but this year renamed itself American Specialty Cars.

ASC partnered with General Motors to produce the low-volume pickup/sports car Chevy SSR, and it believes there will be many similar projects as automakers look for halo vehicles designed to put a shine on their brands.

More than a few found their way to Cobo this year, most emphasizing performance. Chrysler's ME-412 show car is rated at 800-horsepower which the automaker claims can launch the aerodynamic two-seater from 0-60 miles per hour in just 2.9 seconds. Ford's Shelby Cobra GT prototype is relatively slow by comparison. At 605-horsepower, it needs about 4.0 seconds to get up to speed.

In years past, concept cars such as these would have been little more than "fantasies in chrome," in the words of former Ford Design Director Jack Telnack. But these days, what showgoers see may very well be what they get in the not-too-distant future.

General Motors' new G6 first debuted as a show car last year, while the Solstice was considered one of the concept hits of the 2002 Detroit show.

Borrowing its name from a 1954 concept vehicle, the Chevy Nomad is a blend of sports car, wagon, and minicar. It's about the size of the hip import called the Mini Cooper. While bigger may be better for most American motorists, there are signs of an emerging market for lilliputian products.

So far, most manufacturers are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for more convincing market research, but "If we'd listened to the market research, we'd have never done the Mini [Cooper]," says Jack Pitney, the British brand's US boss.

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