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Cars back in focus as Detroit celebrates revival


The cars -- glitzy and sedate, grand and green -- were back in the spotlight Monday as Detroit celebrated the industry's comeback from grueling recession at the annual auto show here.

Excitement was clearly in the air at the industry's premier North American extravaganza, with US and foreign makers confidently launching new models and predicting growing markets in the United States and the big emerging economies -- albeit with a cautious eye still on troubled Europe.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood opened this year's show cheering the industry's future, three years after two top US automakers, General Motors and Chrysler, nearly died in the economic crash and the industry lost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

"As you look at these breathtaking vehicles, I ask you to remember they represent more than creative thinking and design," LaHood said.

"They represent American factories bustling and humming, American workers churning out cars, and American families earning paychecks again."

All three of Detroit's carmakers are now back in profit, and last year regained market share from their arch-rivals, the Japanese producers, for the first time since 1988.

The Japanese were set back by the interruption of manufacturing from the devastating March 11 earthquake-tsunami disaster.

The deepest recession since the 1930s, and the controversial government rescues of the two -- the third, Ford, barely scraped by -- had held a cloud over the Detroit show since 2008, while the cars themselves got less attention.

But after a radical revamp of their product offerings and two years of steady growth in US sales, the Detroit Three are ready to fight, not only to hang onto their lead, but to expand it.

Ford opened with an all-new Fusion, unrecognizable from the past, which targets the dominance of Toyota's Camry in the all-important if not sexy mid-sized market.

The four-door, estimated to cost around ê22,000, comes in gasoline, hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions, all cloaked in distinctively European styling -- done in America.

"What we wanted was a car that looked visually like a premium car," said J. Mays, Ford vice president for design.

"I am proud that we came up with a world-class design here in Dearborn (Michigan)."

Chrysler revived its clunky Dodge Dart of years ago in a small slingback four-door entry-level car (read: ê16,000) that will please young people hoping for a little sportiness from Chrysler's Italian owner Fiat.

And GM's Chevrolet unveiled two concept cars -- the Code 130R and the Tru 140S -- aimed at the younger market with a little more money than the Dart.

There was plenty on offer at the higher end of the market, with Porsche's brand new Carrera, BMW's shake-up of the 3 series, and all new Mercedes-Benz SL roadster which celebrates the classic car's 60th anniversary.

The "premium" class makers were all confident that luxury car sales would continue to grow faster than the market overall.

"A disproportionate part of that growth will be the premium segment, and we intend to take the lion's share," Mercedes chief executive Dieter Zetsche said.

"I think we'll see good progress... with consumer confidence rising here," said BMW's Ian Robertson, after selling 305,000 units in the US last year.

Green car fans were hardly being left behind. There were the hybrid Fusions, new producer Via Motor's promise of electric pickup trucks, Volvo's plug-in hybrid concept, new hybrids from Mercedes and BMW, and an electric van from Nissan along with Toyota's popular and expanding Prius offerings.

Even with the confidence -- which extended as well to opportunities in the major emerging markets like China, India and Russia -- automakers recognized that competition was going to harden.

The Japanese need to rebuild US market positions after the earthquake, and the Europeans need to compensate for the weakness in their home markets.

South Korean carmakers Hyundai and Kia -- the big success story of the downturn, after winning over consumers seeking good value -- will be working to keep up their momentum.

"There's nothing like competing at the highest level to sharpen the best edge in people," GM chief executive Dan Akerson said at a sneak peak of the latest Cadillac.