DETROIT (Reuters) - Call them the comeback kids.
This city’s once beleaguered automakers dominated the first day of this year’s Detroit auto show, one of the industry’s premier events, as it opened for press previews on Monday.
Not only did General Motors and Ford Motor Co walk off with the top car and truck awards, and have plenty of fresh, new models to display, but they also struck a more confident tone than some of their foreign rivals as they talked about the industry’s prospects.
“I’ve been coming to this show for 20 years and the last two have been like funerals,” Mike Jackson, chief executive of No. 1 U.S. car dealer AutoNation, told Reuters at the show.
“First and foremost, I have to say the whole atmosphere of optimism and confidence about the future is the theme of this show.”
One sign of the industry’s resurgence: vehicle debuts are expected to roughly double at the Detroit auto show this year, with as many as 40 all-new vehicles unveiled, up from 18 in 2010.
But the confidence went well beyond the hallmark hype, hoopla and hyperbole of the annual show, officially called the North American International Auto Show.
Just hours after the doors opened, Ford said it would rehire 7,000 U.S. workers over the next two years to meet surging demand for its vehicles.
In the first big event of the show, the Chevy Volt — the plug-in electric car that has come to symbolizes General Motors’ return from bankruptcy — won the 2011 North American Car of the Year award, beating out rival vehicles from Japan’s Nissan Motor Co Ltd and South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co.
Ford’s latest version of its Explorer sport utility vehicle was named 2011 North American Truck of the Year — the third year in a row that Ford has dominated the category.
Chrysler, the No. 3 U.S. automaker, missed out on the awards but was still creating buzz with its new Jeep Grand Cherokee and talk that it may go public before year’s end.
Chrysler, now controlled by Italy’s Fiat SpA, used the show to showcase a redesigned and reengineered version of its 300 sedan as well as a revamped mid-size sedan now known as the 200 and a refreshed version of its minivan.
“I think we’ve proved over the last 19 months what this group can do,” Fiat head Sergio Marchionne said. “A lot of people were incredibly skeptical about our ability to launch all of these products within a short period of time.”
Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, said he was impressed by Marchionne’s efforts so far and confident Chrysler would quickly join No. 2 Ford and No. 1 GM on the comeback trail and the awards stage.
“Chrysler is going to surprise a lot of people,” Jackson told Reuters.
“This is the beginning of something.”
The signs of the automakers’ resurgence comes amid signs of a rebound in consumer demand for cars, which cratered in the wake of the housing crisis and subsequent recession.
In 2010, the U.S. auto industry snapped a four-year sales decline and enjoyed three consecutive sales months above the 12 million-unit annual rate to close the year.
Most analysts expect double-digit growth in 2011 and further gains in 2012. The last time the U.S. auto market saw three consecutive years of substantial sales growth was in the late 1990s when Detroit automakers were still riding high.
Sales for 2010 were 11.6 million vehicles, up 11 percent from 10.4 million in 2009.
To be sure, there were pockets of continued caution at the show among some executives, fueled by what Bob Carter, Toyota Motor Corp’s U.S. brand chief, called the “somewhat fragile” state of consumers here.
Another major theme: the rollout of new small cars, electric vehicles and hybrids that major automakers have readied at a time when oil prices — and gasoline prices at the pump — are heading higher.
The Detroit auto show also represents a major milestone for Volkswagen. The German automaker plans to show off a new version of its Passat that will be built at its new U.S. plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The $1 billion plant is near completion and will begin operations later this year, giving the automaker its first U.S. plant since the 1980s.
The Detroit show is also significant for the U.S. automakers, which are in varying stages of a comeback in sales and in profitability.
GM completed its public share offering in November, the largest ever, and its shares are up 18 percent from the IPO price. Chrysler is expected to launch its own IPO in the second half of 2011.
Ford passed Toyota as the No. 2 U.S. automaker in sales behind GM in 2010 and its stock has risen more than 80 percent since the start of last year.
Ford posted a 19 percent U.S. sales gain in 2010, its largest percentage increase since 1984. Ford shares were up 1 percent at $18.46 and GM shares were down 0.4 percent at $38.81 on Monday afternoon.
A KPMG survey found a much higher percentage of senior automotive industry executives expects global market share growth from Ford than Toyota in 2011.
“Ford in one year essentially eclipsed Toyota, which is a big change in one year,” said Gary Silberg, who leads KPMG’s auto consulting business in the United States.
After massive recalls and U.S. market share losses in 2010, Toyota aims to turn the tide by expanding its Prius hybrid into a family of vehicles in a bid to enhance consumer perceptions that the automaker is a leader in “green” technology.
Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki, Bernie Woodall, Deepa Seetharaman, Ben Klayman and Chang-Ran Kim in Detroit, and John Crawley in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis, Phil Berlowitz