Detroit show: death or glory?

Posted by Paul Horrell at 11:53 am on Monday January 12, 2009

Cadillac's fine Converj conceptWelcome to the Detroit show, where the spotlight’s firmly on GM and Chrysler. Chapter one of a Great American Comeback story – or an obituary? As far as I can see it’s one of each. GM might just pull through, but Chrysler doesn’t stand an earthly.

Sure there are still colossal financial woes at GM, but they’re being worked through. Today’s point is that this is a motor show and GM has pretty convincing new cars, for today and tomorrow and the next day.

I’m not just talking about the Camaro here. That’s a niche car and so it’s a side-issue when it comes to saving the company. I’m talking abut the mainstream stuff. This might surprise you, but their reliability and fuel consumption numbers are now up with Toyota.

Example one: the new Malibu saloon is properly competitive. Sure it’s boring as a brown envelope by our standards, but remember that’s how millions of Americans like their transport, as the tedious Toyota Camry has shown. The Malibu is strong in all the right areas to face down its Japanese-brand rivals, and should do big trade.

Example two: GM has two nicely made, smart-looking crossovers that pitch right where US buyers seem to be turning. Hello to the Caddy SRX and Chevy Equinox.

Example three: the Volt. Sure, this has been endlessly hyped and is still almost two years away, but while several other manufacturers are talking today about launching extended-range electric cars like this, GM is actually a long way down the development track.

And by showing the sexy Cadillac Converj concept, GM is proving the Volt’s technology could work in some far more desirable machinery.

But hang on. The American public has over the past weeks seen GM bosses having to wash their dirty laundry in front of hostile politicians before being granted Government loans that may or may not save the company. Hasn’t that scared them off? Will they buy from a company that’s known to be in such deep trouble?

Apparently it’s not a huge issue. New research shows that once it was off the front pages, Americans more or less forgot, and GM’s market share went back to normal. It’s the cars and the deal that the buyers care about.

But having the right cars is only half GM’s problem. It still has too many factories and brands and dealers, and all those things cost huge sums to maintain. It is addressing the issues with grim determination, but no-one knows yet whether it’ll succeed. Still, if it does, the company will be restored to health quickly – because the new cars are on the way.

Chrysler, on the other hand, is zombified. Watching Chrysler executives trying to put a positive spin on the company’s position was like watching wild-west snake-oil salesmen in action.

There’s nothing new of substance on the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep stand here at the motor show. Sure, the 200C is a nice-looking concept, but there are no plans to build it in the foreseeable. The company’s green petrol-electric powertrains are nowhere near production-ready.

Dodge Circuit EVThe only new model Chrysler can put an intro date on is the Dodge Circuit, a Lotus Europa with battery-electric power. Something so esoteric might do as the one product line for a silicon-valley startup (Tesla), but it’s never going to save a gigantic money-losing monster like Chrysler.

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  1. luckyman said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 12:13 pm Link to comment Report comment

    This is a thank-you to all those who contributed to the Barack Obama (Foreman) blog back in November – especially Paul Horrell who wrote it, Tom Servo, Conor, Keith, Catersam, Morty, Tikka wrap, Evan, Carfan3, topgearmouse and Ash

    Claverton Energy Research Group:

    It’s also why both May and Clarkson have made a dreadful mistake regarding the immediate future of car fuels (Paul can you let them know please?)

    Thanks again to all of you

  2. Mikeado said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 3:49 pm Link to comment Report comment

    I truly dislike that Dodge-Lotus battery car. No imagination whatsoever. They didn’t even think to redesign it!

    The rest looks good though. The GT500 and Camaro look sweet, and if they put Volt bits in that Caddy they’re probably on to a winner.

    luckyman, they didn’t say it was the immediate future, just the future. Not motoring within the next year, but the next 5 or 10, or maybe 15. The only real drawback is getting the hydrogen cleanly, which Honda can do on a small scale, as proven by a video (Sorry to use Fifth Gear, but at least Cupholder’s Tom Ford is in it.) .

    http://videos.streetfire. net/video/179-Fifth-Gear- Honda-FCX_177942.htm

    Also, and feel free to correct me if I’m misguided, but I’m still not seeing how grand-scale battery-powered motoring is sustainable, because that kind of electricity can’t be made without using powerstations and/or burning/using something precious to the Earth. Also, for instance, the area where they mine nickel for Prius batteries is now in such a state that it’s used to test lunar vehicles. So unless you’re suggesting a crapload of wind and solar farms all across, well, the world, I’m not seeing it.

  3. bski7908 said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 4:23 pm Link to comment Report comment

    The symptoms behind Chrysler’s disease should be immediately evident to anyone following televised automotive auctions. I don’t because I have a life but final bids on old Chargers and such are outrageously high, in some cases triple the sticker of a new one. Clearly people would rather buy old Mopars than new ones, an appetite Chrysler is desperately trying to satiate rather than curb. The new Charger isn’t a bad car (by yank standards) but much of its potential market sees it as a substitute for, rather than a re-invention of, an icon. Jaguar faced similar issues with the last S Type and XK so who knows? Maybe Chrysler has its own XF waiting in the wings.

  4. catersam said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 4:53 pm Link to comment Report comment

    thanks for the mention, luckyman, but Mikeado has has a point – Hydrogen will be a major force in the future if someone can find a way of producing loads of Hydrogen cheaply and easily, but until then it must be a minority technology. But at the moment cars like the Chevvy Volt and other similar cars shall have to make do for ten or fifteen years. They are the transition cars, until the infrastructure is ready for mass conversion.

    As much as I like the 300c and 200c concept, Chrysler has no chance of surviving. I read in the Guardian today that the Cheif exec thought that they’d be fine soon – lies, unfortunately. GM and Ford, however, have a brilliant chance to reinvent themselves and get back to the Golden Age of American production, but this time aimed at a worldwide market.

  5. freddy said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 5:31 pm Link to comment Report comment

    the most obvious solution, Mikeado, to the precious metals/material problem which fuel cells and battery packs both present is to take a leaf out of the bmw book, burn hydrogen. Cars like the volt/prius can cover until we have set up renewable production of hydrogen on a half decent scale and once that is ready we can start using hydrogen.

  6. luckyman said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 5:36 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Mikeado – oh come on they did put a Viper nose on it (what were they thinking of…)

    Catersam you’re welcome

    Problem with hydrogen is just getting enough of it. I was mainly running the numbers on private cars, never mind the rest of road transport or aviation, and for 200TWh/yr hydrogen still needs a dozen EXTRA nukes or more than 10k wind turbines (near enough the size of the London eye).

    I don’t like the idea of extensive mining but I like the idea of crippling oil prices far less.

    I think May/Clarkson were assuming that natural gas could be used as a hydrogen source via reforming (the only way of producing it cheaply), but UK energy engineers are already clenched and squeaky about having enough gas to generate electricity and more importantly heat our homes. North Sea production has kept us independent until now but we’ll see a 70% shortfall within the next ten years.

    None of that was a problem until Gazprom was re-nationalized.

    We’ll need either or more probably both the nukes and the mills, but to stay lit and stay warm. Or we could just flog the country to Russia.

    I personally (and plenty of people disagree with me) don’t see pure battery vehicles as more than a niche market, similar to track day or other second cars maybe.

    Plug-ins still give the fuel savings, massive torque and commuter-type range (70% of the trips we make in the UK are short range) with far smaller battery packs, plus an engine for long trips. That engine can then become a fuel cell once they’re a bit more developed and once we have enough infrastructure to produce sustainable hydrogen.

    I don’t see batteries as an interim solution. If we are using fuel cells as well as batteries it just means we need less actual hydrogen, which makes the whole process more efficient and less expensive. If we’re using hydrogen – say 2030 onwards – as a transport fuel, then we can also use it to make the electricity we plug the batteries into


  7. catersam said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm Link to comment Report comment

    I don’t no how easy it is to get Lithium (Li), Sodium (Na) and Pottasium (K), but
    2Li(or 2Na or 2K) + 2H2O–>H2 + 2LiOH (or 2NaOH, 2KOH).
    Lithium/Sodium/Pottasium reacts with water to give off Hydrogen. If this could be harnessed, lots of sea water from melting poles etc. which are rising sea levels could be converted into Hydrogen for car/plane fuel, with the only biproduct being a – to my knowledge – harmless hydroxide.

    All you need is a machine to scrape off the outside of the Li/Na/K just before it goes in water, because the outside of a solid made up of only these elements has already reacted with oxygen in the air.

    I don’t know if this would work, but if there is enough non-reacted Li/Na/K, then surely that solves the problem entirely? As I say, although the Science is correct (I checked) there may be some practical issues. Tell me if there is. If not, I’m a squillionaire!

  8. luckyman said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 5:55 pm Link to comment Report comment

    freddy – no, we can’t do it for ICE, unless you have a spare 40 billion quid or so on you.

    The paper on the Claverton Research link above has the numbers for ICE hydrogen, FC hydrogen and battery mode use


  9. luckyman said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 6:05 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Catersam – difficult; as you point out they are highly reactive.

    I’m not an expert on H2 production but from people I’ve spoken to one of the big advantages of H2 from seawater is the tie-ins with the chemical industry, basically because of all the dissolved metallic salts.

    So turn the idea on its head and I don’t know about squillionaire but you can certainly do it…

  10. Mikeado said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 8:41 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Wow, this is most interesting – sure, it’s mostly nothing to do with Detroit, but still.

    I googled that Dodge EV – they’ve put new bumpers on it since the last time I saw it (it used to just be a Europa S with a Dodge badge on it), so it’s not AS bad, but still not exactly a Tesla in terms of a new look. And, according to Wikipedia, not exactly a Tesla full-stop, as it’s not as quick off the line and not so good on the miles either. It does charge twice as quickly though… but I still wouldn’t have either.

  11. luckyman said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 9:27 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Mikeado – does the Circuit use the same inefficient water-cooled batteries?

  12. The clarkson basher said...
    Monday January 12, 2009 at 9:49 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Jeremy Clarkson is at it again slagging in the sunday times (we realy should not be paying idiots so much money to not have a clue about much) electric vehicles in favour of Hydrogen vehicles well shows how much he does not know.Generating hydrogen requires enormous amount of electricity,about factor of two more than what battery electric vehicles would use. Also hydrogen is extremely poor method of transporting energy because hydrogen leaks out from any container (hydrogen molecyle is basically just two protons surrounded by two electrons, so if that molecyle loses those electrons those protons go just straight thru any material), it compresses badly and itis extremely explosive.

    One thing that TG didn’t mention was that Honda FCX costs several **milion** dollars just to produce (you can’t buy one), so compared to that Roadster is cheap car.

    There also is no hydrogen stations, while you can recharhge your Roadster at home or from any outlet out there. Charging time doesn’t really matter if you charge your car duringnnight while you sleep. Batteries also are developing fast. With near future 600+ mile range BEV are real future. I don’t think this hydrogen future will ever happen.

  13. gunhaver said...
    Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 3:09 am Link to comment Report comment

    clarckson basher, are you secretly tiff needell? go back to 5th gear, no one wants you here. fyi battery mining = uninhabitable wasteland.

  14. gunhaver said...
    Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 3:13 am Link to comment Report comment

    wait… tiff needell can be smart at times…

  15. Mikeado said...
    Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 8:44 am Link to comment Report comment

    clarkson basher – compared to an Elise, it’s a rip-off.

    luckyman – yes

  16. Quyên said...
    Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 9:32 am Link to comment Report comment

    GM and Chrysler are two spotlights at Detroit because people want to see how they do next to survival, think. The door seems too small to Chrysler.

  17. luckyman said...
    Tuesday January 13, 2009 at 3:47 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Mikeado – I’ve switched to the new blog

  18. jaguar james said...
    Thursday January 15, 2009 at 2:17 pm Link to comment Report comment

    on tonight the typhoon gets some air

  19. SUTSKI said...
    Thursday January 15, 2009 at 4:36 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Good paper, very worth reading. Thanks for the post Luckyman.

    Hopefully the H mob will soon realise that we are at least 20 years away from a hydrogen economy…that will leave about 15yrs with nothing if we don’t have batteries!!!!

  20. Tom Servo said...
    Friday January 16, 2009 at 9:41 pm Link to comment Report comment

    Thanks luckman for the compliment, I wasn’t aware I’d contributed anything in that other post. ;)

    There’s been lots of talk here in the states as to whether Chrysler or GM should be kept hobbling along with government money.

    Personally, I wonder why we’re giving them money for failing in the marketplace yet keeping the same beancounters and executives who got them where they are in the first place.

    Maybe GM can be saved, but it’ll be a surprise if Chrysler comes out of this intact. Red flags went up in my mind when the Germans ditched them for less than they paid originally. Then more red flags went up when an investment group, who knows nothing of the automotive industry, bought them up.

  21. djrusa said...
    Monday March 16, 2009 at 12:24 am Link to comment Report comment

    One of the best articles I have read regarding decline of Detroit not written by Mr. Horrell news/imprimis.asp

  22. Christian Louboutin said...
    Thursday June 10, 2010 at 4:25 am Link to comment Report comment

    Thanks for this useful article.

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