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Smaller, electric cars reign at Detroit auto show

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News Willmar,Minnesota 56201
West Central Tribune
Smaller, electric cars reign at Detroit auto show
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

DETROIT (AP) -- Electric, hybrid and small cars will grab center stage at the Detroit auto show this week, as the industry adapts to a world reshaped by the Great Recession and environmental worries.


The event will demonstrate just how automakers are responding to this new reality. Ford wants to build on its success in midsize sedans and re-ignite its small car sales, while Hyundai aims to extend last year's triumph in budget-conscious models. GM and Chrysler will start fresh with electric vehicles but also try to boost their small-car credibility. Toyota hopes to solidify its dominance in hybrids.

The new crop of models must be successful if automakers are to reverse last year's 21 percent sales plunge. Mounting job losses, GM and Chrysler's bankruptcy filings and the death of several iconic brands sent sales skidding to their lowest level since 1982.

Americans feel less wealthy -- and more certain that the trend toward higher fuel prices remains a threat. It's a change U.S. automakers were slow to embrace -- and it cost them the last two years as gas prices surged and consumers stopped spending. Most Japanese and European car makers were also caught in the sales downdraft, even though they depended less on pickup trucks.

In 2010, with frugality embedded in drivers' minds, automakers want to show off new versions of smaller, less expensive cars, many of which get 40 mpg on highways. That also appeals to motorists concerned about climate change.

The show isn't exclusively about small cars. Detroit automakers also will try to revive 1960s-style car passion with muscle cars, a niche that's doing well.

Compared with last year's stripped-down down affair, the show will offer more glitter. GM will have an elevated floor for new cars, a change from 2009's carpet-over-concrete that was just about everywhere.

One big display is a 37,000-square-foot "Electric Avenue" on the main floor, featuring 20 vehicles that run on kilowatts instead of gasoline. Electrics were shown last year, but shared the spotlight with cars powered by conventional engines.

"Last year we had that 'sky-is-falling' mentality, and everybody was running for cover," says Doug Fox, an Ann Arbor, Mich., car dealer and chairman of this year's show, officially called the North American International Auto Show. "We are seeing a little more investment made in the actual exhibits than last year."

Although auto sales improved at the end of 2009, the 41 new vehicles to be unveiled at this year's show will be down from last year's 50, Fox says.

That's because Chrysler LLC, which normally shows five or six new vehicles, has no debuts, and GM has fewer new vehicles because it is shedding the Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn and Saab brands, Fox says.