Monday, January 08, 2007


Monday, January 08, 2007
Awards sweep, electric car rollout give automaker jolt of energy
Bill Vlasic / The Detroit News
Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

Jill Lajdziak, general manager of GM's Saturn division, shows off the 2007 Car of the Year award beside the top car, the Aura. See full image

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Truck and Car of the Year
Ed Peper accepts Truck of the Year Award for the Silverado
Jill Lajdziak accepts Car of the Year Award for the Saturn Aura

Ed Peper, general manager of GM's Chevrolet division, accepts the 2007 Truck of the Year award for the Silverado on Sunday. See full image

Wagoner See full image

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DETROIT -- For at least one day, General Motors Corp. ruled the American auto industry again.

After a miserable stretch of deep losses, painful cutbacks and boardroom turmoil, GM stole the spotlight Sunday at the opening of media previews for the 2007 North American International Auto Show.

From its sweep of Car and Truck of the Year awards to the rollout of a promising new electric-vehicle concept, GM looked more like an auto giant on the rebound than a dinosaur headed for extinction.

"It certainly feels much better now than it did 18 months ago," said GM Chairman Rick Wagoner.

In a show packed with important introductions from domestic and foreign automakers, GM seemed to carry over the giddy spirit of Saturday night's celebrity fashion gala on the Detroit riverfront onto the show floor at Cobo Center.

While Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group also grabbed attention with cutting-edge products, GM set the tone for what is shaping up as a critical year in its corporate comeback.

"GM had to have a crisis to get the urgency to be focused on what had to be done," said David Cole, head of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

While still the No. 1 U.S. automaker, GM's share of its home market dropped to an historic low of 24 percent last year. Its North American operations haven't posted a quarterly profit since 2004, and GM is still digesting a huge restructuring that eliminated 34,000 factory jobs.

But its recent troubles receded into the background as soon as the curtain parted at Sunday's first media event -- the announcement of the winners of the North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards.

In a rare dual victory, GM's Chevrolet Silverado full-size pickup won Truck of the Year and its Saturn Aura midsize sedan took the top prize for cars.

The Silverado, GM's biggest-selling model, was expected to beat out the Ford Edge and the Mazda CX-7 crossover vehicles. But the Aura was a surprise winner over Honda Motor Co.'s Fit subcompact and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Camry, the best-selling U.S. passenger car.

GM staffers cheered the announcement, and Jill Lajdziak, Saturn's vice president of sales, pumped her fist in the air. One of the 49 journalists judging the competition put the Aura's triumph in perspective for GM.

"Saturn Aura: A ray of sunshine after all the bad news at General Motors," said Jacques Duval of the Canadian publication Le Guide de l'auto.

High-voltage presentation

The awards ceremony was just a prelude to GM's stunning midday press conference, when Wagoner and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz showed off the Chevrolet Volt concept car.

The sporty Volt represents GM's most ambitious effort to close the gap with Toyota and Honda in alternative-fuel technology.

While Toyota and Honda dominate the market for hybrid-powered vehicles, GM is placing a big bet on the Volt's "e-flex" system that features a chargeable lithium-ion battery and a small gasoline engine that generates electricity.

Lutz said the Volt's future rests on improvements in battery technology, but said it was "reasonable" to expect a production version could be available by 2010.

He couldn't resist ribbing GM's critics in the environmental movement, some of whom lay the blame for global warming on the automaker in the documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

"A GM electrical vehicle is an inconvenient truth," Lutz said, with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

But Lutz was hardly joking in remarks about GM's commitment to wresting the leadership position in technology from archrival Toyota. "We have the talent and we have the will," he said.

GM has been dogged by unfavorable comparisons to Toyota, particularly since the Japanese automaker said it expects global sales of 9.3 million vehicles this year. If successful, Toyota would likely pass GM -- which sold 9.1 million vehicles in 2006 -- as the world's largest automaker.

And Toyota is hardly slowing down. On Sunday, it showed off the brawny CrewMax version of its new Tundra full-size pickup. Analysts expect Toyota's assault on the U.S. pickup market to gouge into the earnings of GM, Ford and Chrysler.

The difference a year makes

GM, for its part, is ready for the challenge.

"We have had the best truck for years and we made it even better," said Ed Peper, Chevrolet's general manager, at the Silverado ceremony. "We're going to keep giving customers what they want."

GM's performance Sunday was in marked contrast to its experience at the Detroit show a year ago.

At the time, GM was coming off a disastrous, $10.6 billion loss for 2005. The show was also the backdrop for a sharply critical speech about GM by Jerry York, a top aide to billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian.

Kerkorian was then a major GM shareholder, and York later joined its board of directors. In July, the pair challenged Wagoner by pushing GM into alliance talks with foreign automakers Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co.

When Wagoner rejected a deal with Renault-Nissan in October, York quit the GM board and Kerkorian sold his stock. Since then, GM has completed its massive buyout of union workers and is on the verge of making money in North America.

A rival automotive CEO noted Sunday that GM appears to be on the comeback trail.

"It seems to me that half a year ago, the confidence in GM's future was lower than today, that they have addressed some of their issues," said Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of DaimlerChrysler. "On the other hand, there are lots of challenges still out there."

And even after an upbeat day at the auto show, Wagoner is hardly ready to declare victory in GM's turnaround.

"I haven't talked to anybody at GM who has an interest in getting their nose above water so they can stop paddling," he said.

You can reach Bill Vlasic at (313) 222-2152 or

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