Automotive: Dispatches from Detroit

General Motors, the behemoth of North America's big three carmakers, still doesn't get it

Standing on the brink of bankruptcy at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors seemed to ignore its predicament. Rather than focus attention on its attempt to relaunch big SUVs–the company's traditional money-makers–GM put the spotlight on its Camaro concept car. And both moves show the behemoth of North America's Big Three still doesn't get it.

The Camaro prototype, inspired by the 1969 version of the muscle car, was definitely the star of the show–at least, judging by the reaction of the drooling auto journalists attending Detroit's annual orgy of steel, starlets and oft-delusional car executives. But the Camaro illustrates all that's currently wrong with GM. Like the Hollywood studios, the best GM can come up with at the moment is the auto equivalent of a movie remake.

Bob Lutz, GM's vice-chairman, begs to differ. “If anything, [the Camaro launch] proves we've been listening to the rear-drive faithful, to the Camaro fanatics, and to those who say GM can't do anything exciting,” he blogged post-launch.

Ford and DaimlerChrysler are also staking bets on the power car. Ford has had roaring success with its '60s-styled Mustang. And in Detroit, DaimlerChrysler unveiled a brawny concept of its own, a Dodge Challenger. But do we really need cars like the 400-horsepower Camaro in a time of 100-kilometre speed limits and high gas prices?

Spokespeople for GM said the company might sell 150,000 of the new Camaros, should it go ahead with production. In the large SUV segment, GM introduced new versions of the Tahoe and GMC Yukon. Still, few expect new models to reverse the market's recent shift in preference to smaller, car-based SUVs.

Meanwhile, the Japanese companies are quietly continuing to capture market share. Toyota, poised to pass GM as the world's largest automaker, revealed the new, improved version of its Camry sedan, already the best-selling car in the U.S.

The Japanese giant appeared unfazed by American auto theatrics. “We're worried about [Hyundai],” Yukitoshi Funo, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said in Detroit. “Our main competitors here are Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Hyundai, but Hyundai is the one we are very carefully watching,” he said.

Honda swept Detroit car and truck of the year honours for its all-new Civic and pickup, the Ridgeline. Honda also introduced the Fit subcompact, sure to be a hit in gas-conscious Canada.

Just about every auto executive confidently predicted their sales would be up in 2006. But with the key U.S. market forecast flat at best, someone is going to lose out this year. Is it going to be the Asian automakers, which together captured another 1.9 share points ending the year with 36.5% of U.S. car and truck sales, or the Detroit Big Three, which gave up 1.7 share points to finish 2005 with a 57% market share? For an answer, you could look to Mr. Born in the U.S.A. himself, Bruce Springsteen: “Glory days, well they'll pass you by / Glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye.”