US automakers draw big crowds at Detroit auto show

DETROIT (AP) — Sharp designs with pizazz, power and elegance helped pull in crowds during the public opening Saturday of the North American International Auto Show, with U.S automakers doing their best to impress consumers looking for signs of the industry’s recovery.

Thousands of people from around the world filed from exhibit to exhibit inside the sprawling Cobo Center in Detroit. They perused the newest models from General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, as well as top competition from Europe and Asia.

“The last two years, people would come and look. But now, they are sitting in the vehicles and asking questions,” said 43-year-old Sherry Fedewa, a manager in an auto parts company. “People can actually afford to buy something.”

New car and truck sales came in last year at 11.6 million, up 11 percent from 2009. December sales rose to 1.14 million, an 11 percent leap from a year earlier.

The annual auto show often gives consumers and car enthusiasts their first close look at the new vehicles, engine upgrades and gadgets coming off the assembly line each year.

Amid renewed optimism in the American auto industry, organizers expect higher attendance than last year’s 714,000 visitors — and auto companies worked to convince them that the industry and region were recovering.

Beneath massive video screens, under banks of bright lights and parked on plush carpeting or tiles of various colors were vehicles of all kinds, from ultra-small SMART cars to ultra-large sport utility vehicles. The mix included minivans, striking subcompacts and top-of-the-line luxury vehicles.

“We love the auto show. It’s nostalgia,” said Alissa McCoy, who drove about 80 miles from her home in Lansing. “It’s what you do when you’re from Michigan.”

GM’s corner appeared to be drawing the biggest crowds Saturday afternoon, with dozens of people circling the company’s sport utility vehicles and sportier models. But the latest models from Ford and Chrysler also garnered interest.

Fedewa was among those ogling the new Chevy Volt, an electric car with a base sticker price of $40,280. In December, GM sold between 250 and 350 of the cars, which the company said can travel about 40 miles on battery power before needing a charge but come with a backup gas engine to extend that range to 375 miles. GM predicts it will sell 10,000 in 2011, and between 35,000 and 45,000 in 2012.

“It just stands out from the rest of all the smaller cars,” said Fedewa, of Burton, about 50 miles northwest of Detroit. “I like the style of the tail lights. The design looks so sleek.”

McCoy, who works for GM, vowed not to stray from the GM family, but said the ultra-luxurious Maybach at the Mercedes-Benz exhibit might make her reconsider. A small army of amateur paparazzi wielding digital cameras and cell phones surrounded the long, sleek luxury car.

A disc jockey kicked out music near GM’s new Sonic subcompact — aimed at younger drivers — including one in a dazzling orange. Ford displayed its Mustang GT CS in “grabbier blue” and a striking “yellow blaze” Mustang 5.0.

It all made for a better show than in past years, said David Gilhula, a field engineer for a natural gas company.

“There are more vehicles and displays — some of the high-end cars like Ferrari and Maserati,” said Gilhula, of Kitchener, Ontario.

Gilhula, 61, said he owns a Cadillac DTS and is impressed by GM’s progress. The Detroit automaker filed for bankruptcy in 2009, but made $4.2 billion in the first three quarters of last year and is expected to post a fourth-quarter profit in the coming weeks.

“Three or four years ago, I figured GM — the name — was gone,” he said.

Tim Holton, a utility inspector from Detroit, said any rebound is due to car companies finally paying attention to car buyers.

“They are actually listening to us instead of their boards of directors,” Holton, 37, said. “We could care less about their quarters. We care about getting my kids to soccer games and how many times I have to fill up the gas tank.”

With gas prices again on the rise and over $3 per gallon in the Detroit area, Holton sized up a 2011 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid. He wants something with good mileage but with enough room for his three young children.

In about six months, Ron Tate expects to buy a new car. He looked at the Chevy Malibu, but spent a lot to time in the Toyota exhibit.

“I want something very dependable ... that will keep running for a couple hundred thousand miles,” said Tate, a project manager from Flint, about 53 miles northwest of Detroit.

This year’s auto show runs through Jan. 23.

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