DETROIT, Michigan — A new sense of optimism filled the Detroit auto show Monday as the industry looked forward to a recovery from one of its worst years on record.
Automakers are still reeling from a collapse in sales to levels not seen since 1983, bankrupting General Motors and Chrysler and dethroning the Detroit Three as the biggest sellers in the US market.
China also surpassed the United States for the first time as the world's biggest vehicle market, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers announced in Beijing Monday.
But the overall mood is significantly more upbeat than a year earlier when the very existence of GM and Chrysler was in doubt as Congress sparred over providing billions in emergency loans.
"Today is a new beginning for the automotive industry," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters.
"When people have an opportunity to see the kind of products that are now being manufactured and will be on display, they will realize the auto industry is manufacturing products people want to drive."
Ford, GM, Toyota and Honda kicked off the show by highlighting their focus on fuel efficient vehicles.
Ford -- which managed to both stay afloat and increase its piece of the shrunken US market in 2009 -- introduced a much-anticipated update to its compact Ford Focus sedan.
"Companies have to pay attention to the three Es: economy, efficient and the environment," chairman Bill Ford said as he touted the automaker's new global vehicle platforms, which will radically reduce costs.
Ford also got a boost early Monday when its 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid sedan and Ford Transit Connect truck won the best car and truck of the year respectively by a vote of a panel automotive journalists.
Toyota unveiled a prototype of a compact dedicated hybrid vehicle - the FT-CH - which it hopes will help it expand upon the success of the Prius while Honda revealed a prototype of a hybrid luxury sports car - the CR-Z - for its Acura brand.
GM opened its presentations by introducing a boxy, low-lying new compact sport utility vehicle, the GMC Granite, a 'concept' which would be aimed at young, urban drivers if it ends up being tapped for mass market production.
The automaker also introduced several new smaller cars set to be sold under its Chevrolet brand.
Notably absent from the press conference schedule was Chrysler, which had little of significance to introduce after the turmoil of a painful divorce from Daimler, a brief takeover by private equity group Cerberus and a quick spin through bankruptcy last year which left the number three US automaker under the management of Italy's Fiat.
New chief Sergio Marchionne was on hand, however, to speak with the media and give a congressional delegation a tour of the scaled-back Chrysler display which was filled with aggressive trucks and muscle cars, shiny new sports cars and - thanks to the alliance with Fiat - Maserati, Ferrari and the Fiat 500 minicar.
The delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw a strong emphasis on small cars and fuel efficiency at the show, with a 37,000 square foot exhibit of 20 different electric vehicles replete with a tree-lined test track.
There were also plenty of luxury vehicles on display despite the poor economy and a host of trucks and sport utility vehicles to tempt consumers who aren't as environmentally conscious.
Kia capitalized on its corner on the lower cost market with a kitchy press conference styled like an infomercial with the constant refrain "but wait there's more" as it described its new offerings.
There is no doubt that 2010 will be a challenging year and the competition will be fierce.
Most analysts are forecasting a moderate rebound in US auto sales to between 11 and 12.5 million vehicles this year after dropping 21 percent to 10.4 million vehicles in 2009.
But that will still be drastically below the 15 to 17 million vehicle range posted in each of the previous 15 years and sales could be sharply hit should the economy take another bad turn.
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