North American International Auto Show begins in Detroit

January 9, 2017 - The Telegraph

North American International Auto Show begins in Detroit

By Andrew English, motoring correspondent 

9 JANUARY 2017 • 12:17PM

What joy a road trip from Michigan to Nevada would have been, but sadly the Detroit Auto Show which opens today (January 9th) is separated from last week’s Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show by more than just miles, romance, weather and a couple of days. Instead we flew. Not unpleasant, just no fun.

Where CES is a vapid celebration of the effulgent digital technology, Motown is unashamedly analogue, where metal matters and helmet-haired executives talk numbers.

Not that the auto industry has been a complete force for good in this battered old city on the river between Lake St Clair and Lake Erie. It's been tough in Detroit for as long as I've been covering this beat. The city went bankrupt in 2013, but its finances have always been parlous. At least you can walk the freezing streets, as I did on Sunday, carrying my prized purchase of Blue Note vinyl records – not so long ago, Detroit vied with Washington to be Murder Capital USA.

As explained by Robin Boyle, professor of urban studies at Wayne State University, the city's problems are manifold, complex and still around. "It's an uphill struggle," he said of attempts to cure Detroit's structural issues.

There is a new spirit abroad, however, evinced by Jeanette Pierce, executive director of Detroit Experience Factory, which seeks to make tangible differences to the 714,000-strong population of the city as well as promoting its worth to visitors. It's part of the re-greening projects, education into the arts and promoting small businesses that can help make a local difference. "What makes it real this time," she says, "is the cross-section of people wanting to make it happen, from companies, the non-profit sector and the government."

Fresh starts are a bit of a pastime in Detroit, we've seen loads of them through the years, though this does have a credibility and humanity I've not seen before.

But the question at the auto show is whether president elect Donald Trump's policies will bring auto-making back to Detroit.

Boyle says: "That's a really difficult question. It is possible. But if what's happened since November 8th gets more manufacturing industry back into the States, where will that manufacturing take place?"

He doesn't blame the auto industry for Detroit's woes, but says the riches of Motor City's pomp didn't get spent wisely. "The auto industry made us lazy," he says. "The city became dependant on it and it didn't diversify - Detroit is still the number-one cluster of automotive industries in the world."

It's been a good year in the US auto industry, with light car sales of 17,539,052, just surpassing 2015's record-breaking 17,482,841 total.

A softening is expected, however, and there's an eerie calm as everyone waits to see what Trump will do. His threat to tear up the North American Free Trade Association (Nafta) is being taken very seriously.

David Zoia, editorial director of Ward's Automotive, says: "No one really knows what direction he'll go in. The elements are positive from an industry side, but challenging Nafta could have a significant negative impact. He says one thing one day, but then seems to go in the opposite direction."

Nafta makes it financially attractive to build cars in Mexico, where Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen all have factories and BMW is looking at one. Cars such as the Ford Fiesta, Honda HR-V, Nissan Note and Volkswagen Golf are made there and imported into the United States.

Ford has cancelled its plans for a $1.6 billion car factory in Mexico, which will help protect Michigan jobs but the promise of punitive border taxes on cars will threaten Mexican jobs and encourage immigrants across the border - the Peso has fallen dramatically since the election.

It might help with clarity if the president elect took pains to understand the motor industry a bit better before he tweeted. His most recent attack on Toyota for its plans to build the Corolla in a brand new Mexican plant showed he didn't know that Toyota already builds the Corolla in the US at its Mississippi plant; that attack has now turned into a diplomatic incident.

In an almost static year individual car makers' gains were modest, but Jeep's 6.1 per cent growth is good and Jaguar managed to almost double its US sales to 31,243. Nissan, Subaru, Honda and Hyundai had solid three- to five-point growth and Toyota, the largest import brand, is claiming a good year with 2.45 million sales, though that's two per cent down on 2015.

"General Motors and Ford have done well," says Zoia, "especially financially, since they've downsized and lowered their break-even."

As usual, it's a headlong rush into crossovers and SUVs that pose the main market trends, though with petrol so cheap, full-sized pickup trucks continue to sell and make solid profits.

Detroit Show debuts include Audi's new Q8 SUV coupé, Lexus's replacement LS, Kia's GT, VW's Tiguan Allspace and no less than three concepts from GAC, the first Chinese manufacturer to take floor space in Detroit’s Cobo Hall exhibition centre. Rumour is we'll see yet another Microbus from Volkswagen, while Ford usually surprises us with something.

Detroit is slightly embattled, bearing a few scars and faces uncertain times, but it's a spirited fighter and its motor show is still relevant and fun; I wouldn't be writing its obituary quite yet.

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