This year’s Detroit show maintains a relatively low key atmosphere compared to the excesses of past shows, but there’s also a palpable sense that things are finally getting better.

Last year’s show reflected the dire position of the Big Three with Chrysler’s stand more in keeping with a used car lot. This year the stand is brighter and better — the lights are permanently on —  and GM’s display feels like a company that’s got part of its mojo back.

The GMC Granite concept looks like an interesting answer to the conundrum of putting tough truck-like styling on a small car.

Reflecting its more secure financial position, Ford’s display has an air of confidence and the thumping unveil of the Ford Focus in the Cobo Arena got the show off to a bright start.

But there’s still no mainstream Nissan stand — even if the Leaf EV stands out like a beacon amongst a bunch of electric car oddities.

Best news of all is that the US new car market is predicted to grow a little in 2010.

Estimates being talked about at the show are around 11.5 to 12 m units a year, that’s a welcome increase on the 10 m or so for 2009. It’s still a painful place for the US industry because it’s only a couple of years ago that the market reached a new high of 17m units.

There seems to be some confusion, though, about whether any of the Big Three will make a profit this year. GM’s new boss-of-bosses Ed Whitacre was quoted as saying yes and then retracted.

While Bill Ford stubbornly — and probably sensibly — refused to give an answer to the question in a massive media scrum that descended on him at the end of the Ford press conference.

The omens are good though, with all three Ford regions — US, Europe and Asia-Pacific — profitable at the end of 2009. That announcement brought applause and whoops from the workers gathered at the Focus reveal.

But Bill wouldn’t be drawn on the likely financial result at the year’s end, although it seems highly likely that it will be.

Light at the end of the tunnel at last, at least for Ford and GM.

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