Stand-out styling, performance and luxury were on display Monday as global automakers sought to stake out ground in the high-profit premium car sector at the Detroit auto show.
From an ultrafast Bentley cabriolet to a completely redesigned Corvette, to a clutch of new BMWs and Audis, car makers were confident that lower-volume, higher-margin cars would find buyers in the coming year despite the slow global economy and the recession in Europe.
Auto makers are also increasingly taking aim at younger buyers no longer seen as bound to their parents’ brands and – according to Infiniti chief Johan de Nysschen – not wedded to the idea that only the Germans get it right.
Despite the slowdown in Europe, manufacturers are optimistic that the rebound in the US market and the still-strong China market will be enough to keep them going.
US sales are expected to rise five to 10 per cent this year after jumping 13 per cent last year, 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 United States, as they jostle for position in the highly competitive market 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,” Jesse Toprak, an analyst with the automotive site TrueCar.com, told reporters.
In China, the world’s largest market, last year’s double-digit growth is slowing, but could still hit five to six per cent this year, according to BMW marketing chief Ian Robertson.
GM’s new Corvette was the most hotly anticipated debut of the show.
Dubbed the Stingray, a name Corvette used for its iconic 1963 model, the quintessential 60-year-old American sports car nevertheless had an “Italianate” feel in its complete makeover, its first in eight years, said one auto analyst.
“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.
US luxury makers Cadillac and Lincoln – ever-aspiring to the ranks of the German luxe-purveyors – also unveiled new wares.
Cadillac’s electric touring coupe the ELR was a fresh bookend to the ATS gas-engined sedan introduced last year, which pulled in the North American Car of the Year award this year’s Detroit show.
Lincoln showed its MKC, a luxury compact sport utility vehicle billed as a concept car that looked not too far from production.
Luxury wasn’t everything: the global battle is still on among the moderately priced cars which make up the bulk of sales, numbers released Monday showed.
Toyota regained the world sales crown lost when the 2011 Japanese tsunami devastated its supplies, as US rival General Motors saw its share of the global market shrink.
The largest US automaker, where sales have been hit by the Europe downturn, fewer fresh offerings and a decision not to chase market share with costly incentives and fleet sales, shrugged off the bad news.
“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.
Meanwhile Honda laid out an aggressive goal of boosting its total sales by 50 per cent to six million units in 2016.
The Japanese automaker introduced a stylish new “urban SUV” concept car aimed at providing the flexibility, performance and function of a sport utility vehicle in a much smaller package.
Toyota, meanwhile, offered a concept car, the Furia, which seeks to deliver the styling lines and some of the bells and whistles of premium level cars to the humble, long-lived Corolla, to better fend off challenges from low-cost models from South Korean and US producers.
“The Corolla Furia Concept is an early indicator of where our compact car design may lead in the future,” said Bill Fay, general manager of the Toyota’s US division.
“It blends a heightened emphasis on dramatic design and modern elements of high technology to generate curb appeal that will surprise a lot of people.”