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A Look At The Detroit Auto Show

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. The Detroit Auto Show opened its doors today, and the outlook for the auto industry is almost as bleak as the snowy weather outside. GM and Chrysler are still in business, but just barely, thanks to billions of dollars in taxpayer loans. At a show that's usually glitzy with big trucks and pyrotechnics, those are out. Electrics, hybrids and frugality are in. NPR's Frank Langfitt is one of the reporters who got a first glimpse of the show. And he joins us now from the convention. Frank, you know, if people haven't been to the auto show before, it's huge, it's a huge production. Is it different this year?

FRANK LANGFITT: It's very different, Rebecca. You know, the spectacles are gone. I mean, last year, Chrysler had this cattle drive through the streets to support the Dodge Ram, and a waterfall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: This year, it's just a screen of hanging electric cords signifying the electric cars. And Chrysler, you know, it's the weakest of the Detroit companies. Many think it could be broken up, and pieces could be sold off like Jeep. When I went to their presentation today, there were a lot of empty seats. It was almost funereal. And instead of talking about cars, they actually started talking, first off, about how many jobs they cut and the cost of savings they've had. It was really more like a Wall Street analysts' meeting.

ROBERTS: And what are you seeing with General Motors?

LANGFITT: Well, with GM, they've also had to borrow from the government, but they were a lot more upbeat. They had workers with signs cheering, saying, you know, 40 miles per gallon, we're electric. You can hear them right here.

(Soundbite of GM workers cheering)

LANGFITT: They've got some interesting offerings. They've got a Chevy Spark. It was - it looks like a Smart Car. It's this lime-green, little car; you can put your groceries in the back. They've got the Cruze. It's a smaller car that'll compete with the Toyota Corolla. Ford is sort of in the strongest position of the three. They have more money, and they kind of are little further along in their turnaround. One thing, they have a new Taurus. It's quite sporty-looking, very different from those old, 1980s, oblong cars.

ROBERTS: And General Motors begins contract talks tomorrow with the United Auto Workers. They're going to be asking for some more concessions to meet the terms of the federal loan agreement. Are the auto workers there at all, at the convention?

LANGFITT: Well, they're not in the convention, but they're right outside, picketing out front. Some of them say they want to fight some of these concessions. They seem to accept some changes, but they feel that they've already made a lot of concessions over the years, and they also feel like scapegoats. There were people out there who had placards saying, you know, no cars, no country. And it was an interesting contrast with these salaried GM workers inside, these cheerleaders, who we just heard from. And so, you know, whether you're inside the hall or outside the hall, you sort of can't escape the economic reality that these companies are facing.

ROBERTS: Another odd reality: The show opened with the North American Car of the Year Award and this year, it went to this luxury sedan from Hyundai. Really - Hyundai?

LANGFITT: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, what's really interesting about that is that's kind of the story of the car industry over the years. There's this intense global competition. I mean, you go back to when Hyundai first came here. It was like a punchline. But they improved their cars. They offered 100,000-mile warranties. And it's kind of a reminder that these Detroit companies don't just have to compete with the Japanese. They have to deal with the Koreans and who knows? Maybe soon the Chinese.

ROBERTS: NPR's Frank Langfitt at the Detroit Auto Show. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rebecca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Roberts
Award-winning public radio reporter and host Rebecca Roberts is currently a substitute host for NPR News programs including Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and Weekend Edition Sunday. Roberts returned to her hometown of Washington, DC, in 2006 to host WETA-FM's The Intersection, a news talk show which had her leading discussions on social, political, economic and cultural trends affecting the Greater Washington area. (The Intersection ended when WETA returned to a classical music format in early 2007.) Before returning to Washington, Roberts hosted Your Call on KALW-FM in San Francisco, a local call-in show covering politics and culture.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.