Just as the US officially lost its title as the world’s second largest car market to China, Ford has grabbed the headlines by unveiling its first "world car" at the annual Detroit motor show.
The show was hyped to have a focus on new technology such as hybrid and battery-powered models in dozens of versions. But instead, Ford used the event to signal its rebound as a major global force in motoring with an entirely conventional idea.
The new "world" version of its popular European-made Focus small sedan will be sold in the US, Africa and Asia with 80% uniformity in its parts. It had been "designed and engineered to meet the needs of millions of buyers around the world," says Ford chief executive, Alan Mulally.
The company hopes to double annual sales of the Focus to two million by 2012 and the model is central to Ford's belief that global car buyers largely have the same priorities: fuel efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Of course, “world cars” are not new and most non-US manufacturers have always had them. But the Detroit show is all about the North American industry, which has been through its worst crisis since World War II, catching up with the rest of the world.
The industry's one-time world leader, General Motors, is in government ownership but has had a sales rebound has enabled it to start repaying its $US50 billion debt to the government. The first payment of $US1 billion has been made and a $US 6.7 billion will be paid by June.
GM is reshaping its global operations with the closure or divestment of some US brands such as Pontiac and Saturn. GM has so far failed to offload its Swedish subsidiary Saab but has decided to keep its Opel-Vauxhall division.
Ford, meanwhile, did not seek federal aid but has streamlined its operations, too, including the sale of its Swedish arm, Volvo, to a Chinese company, Geely. Earlier, Ford sold its English gentry brands Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata.
At the US government’s behest, Chrysler is under the control of Fiat, which is adapting its European platforms to the US market. Chrysler is keeping a low profile at the Detroit show though Fiat is displaying a battery-powered version of its tiny 500, which is popular in Europe.
More than 700 concept and commercial cars are expected to attract 700,000 tyre-kickers to Detroit this week. Some models will come from the newcomer in the global industry, China. For example, BYD Auto is displaying its plug-in hybrid vehicles alongside the likes of Toyota, which has unveiled a hybrid-electric concept car called the FT-CH.
This is a smaller version of its big-selling Prius and amounts to a fresh bet that hybrids will be a bigger draw than plug-in, pure electric cars such as GM’s Chevrolet Volt.
Other attractions are Volvo’s electric version of its C30 compact car, Honda’s addition to its hybrid-car lineup, the CR-Z, a two-seater that recalls sporty Honda models of the 1980s.
German heavyweight BMW has the ActiveE, an electric model based on its small 1 Series coupe. The ActiveE accelerates as fast as conventional cars.
But not as fast as the new Audi e-tron, a sports car with four electric motors. It can produce more than 300 horsepower and can accelerates to 100kph in just over five seconds.
For a full roundup with pictures, see the New York Times coverage.