Best in show


The North American International Auto Show, which opened to the public this weekend in Detroit, is the leading showcase of the global auto industry and a reliable indicator of its health. During the depths of the worldwide recession, industry executives had little reason to celebrate, and the Motor City show reflected that glum outlook.

Now, though, the industry — including the Detroit Three automakers — is roaring back. That can only be good news for northwest Ohio, given its close ties to Chrysler, General Motors, and the suppliers with which they work.

Last year, domestic and import automakers sold 14.5 million new cars and trucks in the United States — 13.4 percent more than in 2011, and the industry’s best performance in five years. Chrysler outpaced the industry, recording a 21-percent sales increase.

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Analysts predict even better sales this year, citing pent-up consumer demand and the record average age — 11 years — of vehicles on U.S. roads. The Detroit show is just the place to whet buyers’ appetites for new wheels.

During the recent lean years, the auto show focused on smaller, fuel-efficient cars and trucks. This year, though, the show is returning to its traditional emphasis on large, profitable pickups and sport-utility vehicles, as well as sports and luxury cars that are designed to give their brands cachet.

The difference is, though, that car companies are also touting these vehicles’ fuel-saving features and alternative technologies. 

That shift reflects the valuable collaboration between automakers and the federal government on improving fuel economy without sacrificing performance or affordability — a useful offshoot of the bailout process that enabled GM and Chrysler to emerge from bankruptcy four years ago.

Chrysler executives announced at the Detroit show that production of the successor to the Jeep Liberty will begin in Toledo this May. They say the new SUV, which they expect to reach dealer showrooms by summer, could become the brand’s best-selling vehicle worldwide.

Chrysler has not divulged the name of the new model, which will introduce the company’s new nine-speed transmission. The automaker says the SUV will be central to reaching its global sales goals. 

Company officials praised the work force at Jeep’s Toledo Assembly complex for its contributions to Chrysler’s success. The automaker is adding 1,100 jobs in Toledo this year.

The Toledo plant also will continue to build the strong-selling Jeep Wrangler. Chrysler’s chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, said at the Detroit show that he expects additional investment in Toledo for Wrangler production, perhaps by mid-decade. Such plans are a tribute to the plant’s productivity.

Among other vehicles featured at the show, Jeep is offering an updated Grand Cherokee, built in Detroit. A diesel version of the vehicle offers a promised 30 miles per gallon. Jeep is introducing more-efficient powertrains in its Patriot and Compass models.

The Detroit show also features the debut of the redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Corvette. That iconic sports car also has a local tie: GM’s Toledo transmission plant builds the Corvette’s six-speed transmission.

Competition in the auto industry, both in the United States and worldwide, will get tougher as more car companies chase the same buyers. The European industry remains a mess, with overcapacity and large financial losses. The Detroit Three could once again become victims of their own success, displaying the same sort of complacency and arrogance that preceded previous crises.

For now, though, the Detroit show is a time to dream big, for automakers and consumers. It’s an opportunity for Toledoans to chase away the January blahs.