With sales tanking and General Motors and Chrysler struggling for their very survival, the Detroit auto show opened Sunday as a subdued and tense affair as automakers launch new models to compete for an ever-dwindling number of customers.
Some 58 new models -- including 44 worldwide debuts -- will be introduced in the coming days as the manufacturers vie for the attention of nearly 7,000 journalists from over 60 countries at press previews.
Ford managed to snag the show's coveted truck of the year award with its newly launched F-150 while Hyundai won car of the year with its new luxury sedan, the Genesis, a first for a South Korean manufacturer.
Prominent among the new offerings are a host of ready-for-market hybrids and experimental electric vehicles which zipped around a tree-lined track set up in the basement of the Detroit convention center.
The testing track surrounds two ponds with waterfalls and will showcase zero-emission electric prototypes by GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Tesla.
Chrysler unveiled three plug-in gas-electric hybrid prototypes -- a sedan, a Jeep and an sports car -- which it said "clearly demonstrates that we are well on our way to bringing electric vehicles to our consumers' garages."
Ford will also be introducing two new production-ready hybrids which it says get better fuel economy than Toyota's popular Prius.
Refusing to be upstaged, Toyota said Saturday that it will launch a two-seater electric car by 2012 and introduced a new dedicated hybrid for its luxury Lexus brand. It will unveil a revamped version of its popular Prius hybrid on Monday.
China's BYD Auto will be showing the first mass-produced plug-in hybrid which went on sale last month in China and is slated to hit Europe in 2010.
Honda also entered the fray by unveiling its reintroduced dedicated hybrid, the Insight hatchback.
But in a sign of the troubled times, the Japanese automaker canceled a press conference for the Insight, which made its worldwide debut without fanfare in the Honda booth when the show opened.
And a number of automakers decided to skip the show altogether this year, including Nissan, Suzuki, Porsche, Ferrari, and Land Rover.
"Beyond the products and the lights and the glitz, everyone is in a holding pattern," said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of the automotive website Edmunds.com.
"Uncertainty is the underlying tension."
A financial crisis, credit crunch and deepening recession pushed 2008 US sales down 18 percent in the steepest decline in 29 years and to the lowest level since 1992.
This year is expected to be even worse, with US auto sales forecast to fall by another one or two million vehicles to around 11 to 12 million vehicles.
Sales have not been below 12 million since the recession of 1982 when the United States had 74 million fewer people than today.
While nearly every automaker posted significant losses and has announced major production cuts last year, Detroit's Big Three were the hardest hit and saw their combined US market share fall below 50 percent for the first time.
Their US market share topped 60 percent as recently as 2004 and was 71.2 percent just 10 years ago, according to Ward's Auto.
Despite years of painful restructuring which had the trio on the road to recovery, the US government was forced to extend billions in loans to cash-strapped GM and Chrysler last month after sales dropped off precipitously in September.
Analysts warn that the loans could simply serve to postpone a collapse if automakers can't lure more buyers into their showrooms.
The North American International Auto show opened in Detroit with a press preview Sunday, and some 700,000 people are expected to attend by the time it closes on January 25.
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