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Detroit Motor Show: To go big or to go green?

GM Chevrolet Bolt
Image caption GM revealed its Chevrolet Bolt in Detroit - a compact electrical car that can go 200 miles on a single charge

The US car industry is booming once more, and here in Detroit, the gloom - and then brittle optimism - that once permeated North America's biggest car show has faded into a more relaxed confidence.

Sales at the so-called Detroit big three - that's Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now owned by the Italian firm Fiat) - have rebounded as the US economy has recovered, and 2015 looks to be even better.

"There is an exuberance back in the industry - happy days are here again," says industry analyst Michelle Krebs, director of automotive relations at the AutoTrader Group.

But with opportunity has once more come, if not hubris, than at least the possibility of it.

Plunging oil prices have made US car buyers flock once more to large trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) - and away from the hybrid and electrical vehicles that car makers from General Motors to Toyota have peddled in recent years as economical alternatives.

Image caption There is a renewed exuberance among the press and the industry in Detroit

"Looking at history, you see that when gas prices have gone up historically that's really hurt the car industry, particularly the American car industry," says University of Michigan professor Don Grimes.

"[The big three] have all suffered disproportionately during high prices and have benefitted disproportionately from lower gas prices."

So the question for carmakers in 2015 is, to borrow a sports term, whether to go big once again - or face the possibility of going home.

Fickle buyers

Sometimes cliches exist for a reason, and this is one of the more powerfully true ones - Americans like big cars.

Sure, while petrol prices were high, they could be reluctantly convinced into buying energy-efficient small cars and hybrids.

But as oil prices have plunged over the past few months, pick-up trucks and SUV sales have grabbed greater market share once more.

Image caption VW introduced its new SUV on Sunday at the Detroit Motor Show

This shift has created a strange situation here on the floor of the Cobo Center, where Volkswagen unveiled its latest SUV - the company's first to be made in the US - just as General Motors was preparing to show off its rumoured Chevrolet Bolt, a compact electrical car that can go 200 miles on a single charge.

Nowhere was this split more apparent than on Sunday night at a glitzy Mercedes event at a hotel nearby.

The German car maker unveiled its latest C-350 plug-in hybrid, as well as the 2015 GLE Coupe - one of a slew of so-called "CUVs" (crossover utility vehicles), which are built on a car platform but combine elements of SUVs, and have been particularly popular in the US market.

"The timing couldn't be better - the market for SUVs is only getting stronger," said Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche, when introducing the vehicles.

Image caption Mercedes introduced a plug-in hybrid car - and an SUV
Image caption Mayer Hawthorne's exuberant Motown-inspired music was in keeping with the mood at Mercedes

GM's Mary Barra best articulated the paradox when she touted the company's commitment to fuel-efficient vehicles, only to acknowledge a few minutes later in response to a BBC question that GM was hoping to boost sales by peddling its midsize pick-up truck to younger buyers.

"The new midsize truck has great value and frankly there's a lot of feedback we're getting that it's pretty darn cool," she said.

Cake eaters

So is it feast or famine? A little bit of both, say experts.

"They're responding to political and advertising needs to say that they're going towards fuel-efficient vehicles," explains Prof Grimes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Americans have been convinced recently to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars

"They'll sell these cars at an enormous loss and then they'll have their fingers crossed behind their backs and hope to sell a lot of big trucks because they know that's where they get their profits."

As easy as it may be to mock the efforts of US car makers - and, of course, their European counterparts - to have their cake and eat it too, the industry does seem to have genuinely learned from the mistakes of the past.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Walter P Chrysler Museum, a short drive north of Detroit in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Brant Rosenbusch, a third-generation Chrysler employee, and the museum's chief curator, met the BBC in the museum's eerily deserted parking lot.

He occupies a strange role, presiding over a vast space that houses more than 300 classic Chrysler cars, but that is no longer open to the public, having been forced to close in the wake of Chrysler's bankruptcy filing and eventual sale to Fiat.

He says that the inability of US car makers to respond to oil shocks, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, "was a harder lesson here than anywhere".

Image copyright FSA
Image caption During the 1970s, Chrysler made muscle cars such as the Challenger, that were not very fuel-efficient
Image copyright FSA
Image caption During the oil embargoes and crisis of the 1970s, the company almost went bankrupt
Image copyright FSA
Image caption Chrysler had to get loan backing from the US government to manufacture new cars, including the K series
Image copyright FSA
Image caption Later it would tout the car's fuel efficiency in adverts in the 1980s

'Same playing field'

Chrysler was brought to the brink of bankruptcy in 1979, and was forced to ask for loan guarantees from the US government.

Gesturing to the so-called "K cars" made in the wake of that decision - practical, but boxy and certainly not sexy like the Dodge Challenger muscle car that came before it - Mr Rosenbusch says that US car firms have learned not to move too quickly to indulge in US tastes.

"In the 1950s and the 1960s there was an arrogance that 'we'll tell the public what they want'," he says.

"The industry globally has levelled out more and we are a global company, which really helps - we're on the same playing field as everybody else."

And even if the good-time feeling is once more permeating Detroit, the US government is keen to ensure that hubris will not be able to lead the industry to the brink of destruction once more.

"In the US, automakers have to meet new, more stringent fuel economy standards in 2016 and then even more stringent ones in 2025," points out AutoTrader Group's Ms Krebs.

"That will keep them on course."