Battle Lines Drawn At Detroit Auto Show

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, car companies preferred showing off their 600-horsepower muscle cars, displaying their outlandish designs that stretched from boxy to beautiful, and crowing about a coming wave of gas-sipping hybrids and electric cars.

But battle lines in three tried-and-true consumer segments--trucks, minivans and mid-size family sedans--were being drawn at the show, where press review days wrapped up on Tuesday.

Once the king of the mid-size family sedan, General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet division is hoping an all-new Malibu will be enough of a crowd-pleaser that it can compete against Toyota's juggernaut, the Camry. Camry was the No. 3 best-selling vehicle in America with sales of 448,445, according to Autodata Corp. of Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Malibu didn't even make the top 20 ranking in 2006.

GM is hoping that the new 2008 Malibu, which was unveiled Tuesday, will have the exterior design and interior styling that will draw consumers back to Chevrolet--the car of choice for American families in the 1950s and 1960s.



The Malibu goes on sale in fall 2007, and will likely have a price tag starting at around $20,000. Its new design is a distinct departure from the bland styling of past Chevrolets. Malibu has a distinctive double grill--giving the car a more aggressive stance. A higher beltline--the line that runs horizontally from the hood under the windows and to the trunk--give it a more European style than previous Chevrolets. Inside, the car comes with a two-tone leather interior--a feature usually found on much pricier models.

Both Toyota and GM, however, will need to keep their eyes on Honda and its next generation of Accord. Honda unveiled its first-ever concept Accord, which was once America's favorite mid-size sedan. The Accord Coupe concept features clean sharp lines that are more in keeping with luxury brands like BMW than a family sedan. The company has said that the next version of Accord will take many of its cues from the coupe concept's sharp styling.

Toyota is giving GM another dose of competition in the full-size truck market. In past years, Toyota's stand at the Detroit auto show focused primarily on its cars, such as the Camry and Prius, which popularized hybrid engine technology.

But this year, the company took a page from its domestic competitors with an oversized stand featuring several versions of the Tundra, a full-size behemoth of a truck. It includes displays of the truck's engines and frame technology. Toyota calls it the "triple tech" frame and hopes it will win over truck buyers who have questioned the Japanese automaker's ability to build a truck that can compete against GM's Silverado and Ford's F-150.

The Tundra's marketing will address that question head-on in the coming months. The Tundra microsite, opens with the tagline: It all comes down to one question: does it have the guts?

Chrysler Group, a unit of DaimlerChrysler, used the Detroit auto show to defend its dominance in the minivan market. It unveiled a seating innovation--called Swivel n' Go--that is intended to turn the minivan's backseat into a living room on wheels.

The innovations are part of Chrysler's plan to remain invested in the minivan segment even as GM and Ford are getting out of the business to focus on crossover vehicles.

Although the minivan sales have dropped over the years, close to one million minivans are sold every year. Chrysler controls about a 30% share of the market with its Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans.

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