Fresh off the plane on Sunday afternoon, I went for a quick wander in the streets around our hotel in downtown Detroit.
Although this city centre will never go back to what it once was, small patches of it seem to be blossoming again, like this strip of eateries in ‘Greektown’.
It is only a small area, and it is still surrounded by tracts of empty space once filled by buildings, but it shows how the Detroit is shifting through a huge cycle, where collapse is being followed by small districts re-growing into something viable. Take a bigger view – like the picture below from my 21st-floor room – though and you’ll see just how vast the space is around what’s left of the the city centre.
You’ll never be short of a parking space in downtown Detroit. The US car industry seems to have now completed its own re-sizing exercise, though over a rather shorter timescale.
Last year, three years after the credit crunch pushed Chrysler and GM into meltdown, the overall new vehicle market was up around 10 percent. In 2012, it’s predicted to rise another 9 percent or so, with around 13.8m new cars and pick-ups leaving the showrooms.
For industry watchers, Chrysler is the brand under the spotlight. Sales jumped a huge 26 percent in 2011 and the company paid back the final £5.1bn of loans its received from the Obama government. Even better news for Chrysler is that its new Alfa Giulietta-related Dodge Dart saloon is being unveiled at this show, a machine that should help accelerate Chrysler into greater profitability.
Personally, this year’s most interesting story is the attempts by Ford and GM to propel the Cadillac and Lincoln brands into premium brand territory. Over the last couple of years both the US giants dumped their Swedish brands Volvo and Saab and have now decided to invest in these definitively US marques.
The key will be to have a vision for the brands in the manner of BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ or Audi’s ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’, something that Autocar's news editor Mark Tisshaw touched upon in his earlier blog.
A decade ago, Land Rover design boss Gerry McGovern led a concept team that tried to re-position Lincoln under the tag ‘American Luxury’. The Lincoln new positioning is not yet clear, and one senior Lincoln player told me last year that ‘he thought’ the Ford management knew what it wanted to do with Lincoln.
The re-invention of the two – and Caddy is much further down the road than Lincoln – will be difficult but worthwhile attempting. However, it will require a decade and more of absolute consistency of approach from Ford and GM bosses, something mass-market car makers are not know for. Re-invention rarely goes to plan.