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Published: Sunday, 1/10/2010

Detroit Auto Show steers toward better times ahead

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

DETROIT - The most prestigious car show in the world is dedicated this year to demonstrating just one thing: that autos and the automotive industry can turn a corner.

Following the most tumultuous period in the industry's history, the 2010 North American International Auto Show, which opens to the public Saturday in Detroit's Cobo Center and runs through Jan. 24, will focus squarely on what's in the headlights, not on the mayhem in the rearview mirror.

And for Chrysler Group LLC - whose four area factories employ thousands and which is less than a year removed from bankruptcy - the mud-covered path forward rolls through metro Toledo.

The automaker will preview at the show three new Toledo-based Jeep production vehicles: a Jeep Liberty "Renegade," aimed at beefing up the Liberty's off-road bona fides, and several variations on the Jeep Wrangler, including a return of an "Islander" edition and introduction of a new "Mountain" edition.

"The Renegade is a tougher-looking, more off-road vehicle," explained Rick Deneau, a Chrysler spokesman.

"We think we're going to be very interesting to consumers, and we're excited about that."

The Liberty Renegade will slot between the current Sport and Limited versions of the vehicle and will feature a number of standard enhancements to boost its appearance and off-road performance.

In addition to added interior and exterior graphics packages, the new "Islander" and "Mountain" versions of the Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited will feature large wheels and tires, special paint schemes, and exterior add-ons.

The Liberty Renegade and Jeep Wrangler Islander edition will be available at dealerships by the end of March. The Jeep Wrangler Mountain edition will follow by spring, Chrysler officials said.

The troubled Dodge Nitro, made at the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex, is also being revamped. It will have three new trim models - Heat, Detonator, and Shock - and additional standard features for 2010 such as a bigger engine, bigger wheels, a more powerful and diverse sound system, and new paint schemes.

It is to be in dealerships this year.

Unlike its domestic and foreign competitors, Chrysler won't hold a press conference to roll out some new concept vehicle.

Instead, the automaker and its partner, Italian automaker Fiat SpA, will use the auto show to simply display its current array of products.

For the first time, Jeep Wranglers will share space on the show floor with fellow automotive icons such as the Fiat 500 minicar and luxury sports cars from Fiat-owned Ferrari and Mas-

erati. All Fiat 500s that will be sold this year at North American Chrysler dealers will be powered by engines made in Dundee, Mich.

"The big thing for us is what people are going to see versus what we talk to the press about and what gets to the consumers," Mr. Deneau said.

But the difference between what Chrysler will display compared to the four concept or redesigned vehicles that General Motors Co. will reveal highlights the long road back that Chrysler must travel just to catch up, auto analysts say.

"When you have to market something and you don't have anything that's really new, you don't have a lot of options," auto analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in suburban Detroit said.

"The gift Chrysler needs now is time. They need to basically find a way to make us forget the next probably 10 and a half to 14 months. They can actually have stuff flowing by then that we'll find far more acceptable than what they have now," he said.

Also less than a year removed from bankruptcy, GM will steer its auto-show focus onto new or redesigned vehicles from its four surviving brands: Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, and Buick.

Cadillac will debut the CTS-V Sport Coupe, GMC will introduce a small concept crossover called the Granite, Chevy will bring out a redesigned Aveo RS, production of which will be moved from South Korea to Michigan, and Buick will debut a Regal based on the Opel Insignia.

Some of GM's future will depend on workers from metro Toledo. The company's Toledo Powertrain Plant is now the nation's only producer of GM's fuel-efficient six-speed rear-wheel-drive transmissions, and the plant will this year begin producing front-wheel-drive versions of its six-speed transmission. Both are integral parts of GM's efforts to improve its vehicles' fuel economy.

In addition, GM's Powertrain Foundry in Defiance will cast components for the upcoming Chevy Volt, the much-hyped electric-drive sedan scheduled to be on sale this year.

Ford Motor Co., which had a banner year in 2009 compared to most of its competitors, won't debut any concept vehicles in Detroit but will show off its new Ford Focus and the refreshed Lincoln MKX. The Dearborn-based automaker also will display new engines, including a 5.0-liter set to power some Ford Mustangs and a 3.7-liter V6 that is to be built at Ford's factory in Lima, Ohio.

A number of boutique manufacturers will displayvehicles at the show, but one has special significance for northwest Ohio.

Revenge Designs, an Indiana firm, will unveil its Revenge Verde, which will have the first commercial application of the engine designed by Napoleon, Ohio, inventor Doug Pelmear.

Mr. Pelmear's ethanol-powered HP2g V8 engine will be in the Verde on the show's main floor, along with a detailed display of how the engine works.

"It will be the first time that there will be an inside look at the engine," Mr. Pelmear said.

Among nondomestic automakers, American Honda Motor Corp. will unveil the production version of the CR-Z hybrid hatchback, and both Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Co. will introduce hybrid concepts.

After a spartan show in 2009 that featured little more than carpeting and cars, this year's show will give consumers a peek into what auto industry insiders feel is a brighter future.

"I think probably one of the differences is that we're seeing not just the cars being the stars, but also many of the manufacturers are mapping out their pathway to the future," said Doug Fox, chairman of the show.

In all, the show will feature displays from at least 61 manufacturers of various sizes, including the return of Fiat after more than two decades, said Mr. Fox, president and owner of Ann Arbor Automotive.

About 700 vehicles are expected to be on display.

Although some manufacturers won't be back this year, one new feature that will return is the EcoXperience in Cobo Center's Michigan Hall downstairs. Sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the vast display includes a quarter-mile-long track where show-goers can ride along in one of more than a dozen alternative-energy vehicles, accompanied by a professional driver or product specialist.

Making a debut is a 37,000-square-foot display on the main floor called Electric Avenue. Sponsored by Dow Chemical, the display features fully electric-powered vehicles and technology exhibits on efforts to electrify the automobile.

Although manufacturers can be reluctant to say what new product they plan to introduce in Detroit each year, Mr. Fox said the show is expecting more than 40 new production or concept vehicles to be revealed.

Although that number is down from previous shows, it has helped to demonstrate that the industry is in a recovery, Mr. Fox said.

"I think there's some excitement to see what's new," he said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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