Detroit show opens with quiet confidence

It's little surprise that Detroit in general and the motor show in particular has grasped the news of December's dramatic bump in sales like a drowning man does a life jacket.

Optimism may oft be a precious commodity; the recent 18 months of gloom and doom bear witness to that. Car sales in the United States were barely more than 10 million units for 2009, down 21.2 per cent from an already dismal 2008 and even further from the halcyon years of consistent 16m or more annual sales. But optimism is also the most resilient of human traits and so, after last year's North American International Auto Show, where one expected car executives to be hanging from the ceiling of Detroit's Cobo Hall, this January's 2010 gathering of the car world was brimming with good cheer.

It's little surprise that Detroit in general and the motor show in particular has grasped the news of December's dramatic bump in sales like a drowning man does a life jacket. Never mind that it is but one month amid a year of gloom. Or that even this bump, annualised, is still far below the 16.1 million units sold in 2007. It was an improvement and the beleaguered car industry will clutch at any straw that promises even a hint of sweetness.

So, when Bill Ford introduces the new Focus to near universal acclaim with pundits and executives alike predicting the new subcompact car accounting for one-third of the company's worldwide sales, we daren't remind them that five years ago, Dearborn had all but abandoned the family hatchback in favour of higher-profit SUVs and pickups. Never mind, Ford is riding a wave of good news - sales were up 33 per cent in December and the Blue Oval swept this year's North American Car (Fusion Hybrid) and Truck (Transit Connect) of the Year awards here.

Highlighting the unusual circumstances surrounding the 2010 show was the sight of the classic Ford/General Motors duel, now being fought over fuel economy. Equally optimistic, The General was making much the same boasts - ie, class-leading fuel economy and world-class driving dynamics - for its Chevrolet Cruze. Both companies are convinced that they can finally build smaller cars at a profit, something considered an impossibility but a few short years ago.

Nor was the wide-eyed optimism the sole purview of North American car makers. Volkswagen plans to double sales in the next three years and wants to hit 800,000 units stateside by 2018, a four-fold increase from the 213,454 vehicles it sold here in 2009. Stefan Jacoby, head of the company's American arm, sees a sales rebound to as much as 15 million annual sales by the middle of the decade, an almost 50 per cent jump from the doldrums of 2009 but still nowhere near the 17.4 million vehicles Americans scooped up in 2000.

Of course, nowhere was the optimism running more rampant than along Cobo Hall's "Electric Avenue," a 37,000-square-foot homage to the electron. Jim Lentz, president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, for instance, announced that the company will launch an all-electric vehicle in 2012 and a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2015, noting that both products will require an all-new refuelling infrastructure to be made viable. Exactly where the money for these new billion-dollar boondoggles will come from was conveniently not discussed.

But perhaps the most succinct summation of the different mood at this year's North American International Auto Show was captured by Ford of Canada CEO David Mondragon in responding to a query asking which, of the many accomplishments Ford could boast for 2009, gave him the most satisfaction. "I'm most proud that our people - that is our managers, our employees, our customers - welcomed this New Year confident there would be a Ford for the foreseeable future," said the normally unflappable 24-year Ford veteran. "That wasn't necessarily the feeling at last year's auto show."