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Contradictions galore at Detroit

Three thoughts strike a visitor to the Detroit auto show. One is that the products of the US industry are not all as irrelevant to the rest of the world as they once were.

Another is that there is to be rapid convergence between the US and Europe in the way that future products will look. The UK will soon buy some of the same mainstream cars that the Americans do.

The third is that while the immediate outlook for US car and truck sales is horrid, the confidence within Ford and General Motors that they can thrive is far higher than it was a year ago.

There are also huge contradictions. The need for more fuel efficiency is not just obvious to the Americans at last, it is eagerly awaited because gas is $3 a gallon (£1.50). Yet the two products that had the most high-profile launches were trucks. The F-150 will be Ford’s biggest selling vehicle this year, despite all the changes going on. It will remain the biggest selling vehicle in the world.

Its rival, the Chrysler Dodge Ram, was also re-launched. This was done by stopping the traffic in the main road outside the Cobo exhibition hall and driving two Rams into town as part of a herd of long-horn cattle.

So we had ugly old fuel-hungry America back on show just because you can’t halt tradition overnight.

There is a contradiction between Detroit and the rest of America. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the primaries for Michigan during the opening days of the Detroit motor show after promising – once he beats Hilary to the presidency – that the research grants to the US auto industry would be increased five-fold to $20bn. This he justifies because Michigan has a “one state recession” with unemployment at 7.4% and mortgage foreclosures at a record level nationally.

Yet the people who were not among the 300,000 who left the motor industry in the state during this decade are confident that they will pull out of the dive. The talk is much more about solutions and a lot less about problems.

There are contradictions on product. GM still does very well with the Escalade, which is as bling as a diamond nose-ring and looks half juke-box and half ambulance.

But GM also fielded a new Cadillac CTS V, a CTS coupé and the Provoq SUV concept which were all as pretty as anything you might expect from Lexus or Audi and coming within 18 months. There are still huge conflicts over future engine and drive technologies.

Some US manufacturers are just getting round to diesel, some favour ethanol, others are hammering away at electric hybrids or electric plug-ins.

GM meanwhile is simply doing everything. And of those competitors who say some technology routes are too hard or will lead to a dead-end, GM says nonsense.

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