Competition sparks blitz of new models
Auto show rollouts set record
By Daniel Howes / The Detroit News
Detroit News Staff Writers Ed Garsten, Jeff Plungis, Mark Truby and Sarah Webster contributed to this report.
DETROIT -- The unprecedented number of new concept and production models debuting at this year's North American International Auto Show -- more than 60 -- signals the intensifying competition among the automakers.
The production proliferation underscores that the United States is the world's most important car and truck market. From the hip Gen Y set in southern California and pickup buyers in the Midwest to luxury-car aspirants outside Washington, America is where the money is and the world's automakers are scrambling to get it.
That's why virtually every automaker, from Detroit's hometown automakers to its ardent foreign competition, is using the Detroit auto show to telegraph plans to flood American showrooms with an array of a new cars, trucks, roadsters and crossover vehicles never before seen by U.S. consumers.
It's an industry cliche, but the message is clear: product is king, and customers increasingly demand just the right one to fit their particular needs.
"Who has the aspirational vehicle, who has the best reliability -- those are the companies that are going to make money in the future," said James Schroer, the Chrysler Group's executive vice president for global sales and marketing. "That's going to be the recipe for profits. We're entering an era now where it's hypercompetitive."
Everyone is playing, for fear of being left behind. Audi is poised to enter the crossover market with its Pikes Peak Quattro. BMW, calling this year its "most comprehensive product offensive ever conducted within a single year," is tooling up its second sport utility vehicle.
Lexus is reloading with an all-new RX330, replacing a vehicle whose stunning success made Toyota's premium marque America's best-selling luxury brand for three years in a row. A resurgent Nissan is expanding its utility vehicle lineup with its all-new Murano.
GM's Chevrolet today will take the wraps off its Malibu Maxx, a crossover derived from the all-new Malibu sedan. Ford is joining the crossover craze with its Freestyle FX, a production version that will hit showrooms late next year, and is ready to launch its all-new F-150. And Chrysler is ready with a redesigned Dodge Durango and Chrysler Pacifica crossover.
Even longtime Italian automaker Maserati, a unit of Fiat SPA's Ferrari, unveiled a concept SUV Monday, proving that almost anything is possible in an industry with far more ideas, models and production capacity than willing customers.
"Everybody is offering everything," Mercedes-Benz chief Juergen Hubbert said. "There are no closed fields anymore. You have to fight in every segment."
Added Dave Power, chairman of J.D. Power & Associates, an industry research firm: "What we have is an industry that's trying to make the whole system work."
Gone are the days when General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler can make a decent living selling trucks, minivans and big SUVs. Now there is only compression -- increasing pressure to show how much is coming as soon as possible, as Ford's record unveiling of 15 new products over just a few days this week attests.
"The big change is you better be able to create excitement with new products and it all starts here in Detroit at this show," said Steve Lyons, president of the Ford Division.
Gorilla products that dominated entire segments -- Chrysler's minivans, Ford's F-150 pickup, GM's SUVs, Toyota's four-door sedans -- don't dominate the scene the way they did a few years ago. Instead, their commanding presence has been whittled away by variants of their own making and competitors hungry for the revenue they attract.
"There is no vehicle that can dominate a segment anymore," said Peter Pestillo, chairman of Visteon Corp. "A great product doesn't have the same impact as it once did."
There are no rules anymore. Reversing the trend of the '90s, the Americans are plowing more capital investment into developing cars and car-based crossover vehicles, such as Ford's Freestyle FX. GM's spending on developing car products will be as much as 68 percent of its total capital spending over the next four years, said GM-North America President Gary Cowger.
Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
Chrysler Group Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Bernhard rides into the show on the Tomahawk 4-wheel concept vehicle.
Japanese automakers Toyota and Honda, who wrested sales leadership in mid-size cars from Ford's Taurus in the late '90s, dominate the car-based crossover segment. Honda now is a player in mid-size SUVs. Toyota is taking on GM, Ford and Chrysler full-size truck business with its Tundra pickup and Sequoia SUV, and a resurgent Nissan Motor Corp. is set to jump in, too.
Each of Germany's Big Four automakers now have SUVs, the latest being the Volkswagen Touareg and Porsche Cayenne. BMW's compact SUV, based on its workhorse 3 Series sedan, will join the hot-selling X5.
And Mercedes, where 30 percent of its 1.1 million-vehicle production volume now comes from niche products outside its traditional segments, is planning to introduce its own compact SUV in 2005, Hubbert said. Executives at all four automakers insist pickup trucks are not in their respective product plans.
"The big pickup trucks are the least attractive segment for us," said VW Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder, acknowledging that the seven-brand VW group is aiming to become a full-line global manufacturer. Our "strongest presence is in those segments that are shrinking fastest and those which are growing fastest we have no presence in."
Being left behind is not an option. Nor is allowing vehicles to grow stale, as Ford arguably has done with its Taurus and GM's Chevrolet has done with its decade-old Cavalier.
Ford is showing signs of having learned its lesson. The new F-150 pickup, officially unveiled Monday amid a clap of thunder and lightning at Cobo, will be offered in five different versions. The aim is to tailor essentially the same truck to vastly different audiences -- from construction companies to suburban moms to well-heeled business leaders.
"Product is king," said Jim O'Connor, Ford's group vice president for sales and marketing. "There's the car and there's a truck at the extremes and you have to have all the slices in between. The market is very segmented. The key is finding the white space where nobody is."
(Photo) The Mercury Messenger, a sporty coupe, was a hit at the auto show on Monday. Carmakers are introducing a record number of new models to draw in U.S. buyers, who are the industry's biggest market.
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My next Ford.....