Ford's award sweep signals hope for US auto industry

Ford-LogoDetroit, Jan 12 : Ford Monday swept the top awards for best car and truck of the year at the annual North American International Auto Show, marking a hopeful start for a US auto industry that is coming through one of its worst-ever years.

The Ford Fusion hybrid won best car and the Ford Transit Connect took best truck as a two-day press preview of the auto show got underway at Detroit's Cobo Centre. Chairman Bill Ford said the company was adding new consumers "every month".

Ford Motor Company was the only major US carmaker to stay out of bankruptcy in 2009. Rivals General Motors (GM) and Chrysler were forced to take billions of dollars in emergency government loans in order to stay afloat through a deep US recession.

The beleaguered US car industry hopes the Detroit show will help it gain some momentum for 2010 with an emphasis on smaller, greener vehicles.

GM chief Ed Whitacre voiced confidence that the car giant could start expanding again this year after going through bankruptcy in mid-2009.

"We're not in a shrinking mode, we're in a growing mode," Whitacre told reporters, reiterating that he expects GM to pay back $6.7 billion in government loans by June.

President Barack Obama's administration also holds a controlling stake in GM worth more than $40 billion. Whitacre said he expected to "exceed" the government's expectations when it eventually returns that investment.

But third-largest US automaker Chrysler still has a difficult year ahead after hitting bottom in 2009, said Fiat's chief Sergio Marchionne, whose Italian firm took over the US firm last year.

He said he would like to see Chrysler sell some 2.8 million vehicles in the medium term after a 36-percent sales drop last year to under one million cars sold.

GM and Ford, as well as foreign rivals Toyota, Honda, Mercedes and others were unveiling new 2010 models and concept cars on the first day of the show.

Japan's Toyota, the world's largest carmaker, unveiled a new hybrid model it expects to be cheaper and more fuel efficient than the top-selling Prius.

The Toyota FT-CH concept is intended to be part of a "family" of hybrid petrol-electric vehicles, based around the Prius brand, that will be manufactured in the coming years, said Jim Lentz, head of Toyota's operations in the US.

Lentz said the FT-CH would be aimed at a younger and less affluent consumer than the Prius, which for years has dominated the market for hybrid vehicles.

About 700 models were on display and more than 5,000 journalists were expected to attend the Detroit show. Global carmakers are hoping they can tempt US consumers back into the market after the two-year economic recession that brought the industry to its knees.

"There's a much better tone for this year's auto show," said Ron Gettelfinger, president of the top labour union, the United Auto Workers. "It seems like the industry's on a roll."

Like last year, much of the extravagance that once made the Detroit show famous has been scaled back, in recognition of the still-sputtering US economy. The worst recession in generations pushed car sales down more than 20 percent in 2009 to about 10 million. Sales averaged 16 million vehicles for the rest of the decade.

The "Detroit Three" of GM, Chrysler and Ford insist they have learned the lessons of the past. All three touted smaller cars, more in keeping with the lean economic times.

In keeping with the greener theme, electric cars will also be given a special place at this year's auto show, with an "Electric Avenue" being created to showcase the alternative energy vehicles.

On smaller cars, GM brand Chevrolet will unveil a new version of its Aveo and a new compact model known as Spark. Chrysler will merge its exhibit with new owner Fiat, which will be highlighting smaller models like the Fiat 500 that could one day reach the US.

Ford is displaying its popular European model Fiesta, which will go on sale in the US over the summer. It is also releasing a new global version of its popular Focus.(DPA)