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Glitzier auto show reflects renewed sparkle in U.S. car market

WASHINGTON (DPA) ― The big three carmakers in the United States have had many questions to answer over the last few years, including whether they even deserved to survive.

This year, the likes of General Motors, Ford and even Chrysler will have the chance to gloat a little bit as they throw on glitzy displays at Detroit’s annual international auto show, which opens with a press preview on Monday.

The reorganized GM, which returned to profitability last year and made a successful return to the stock market in November, will strut its stuff in a two-story display of its vehicles at what is traditionally North America’s largest car show.

The bigger displays come after at least three years of relative modesty. With GM and Chrysler undergoing bankruptcy restructuring in 2009 and even Ford struggling with sales ― though it avoided insolvency ― the auto show had become a less extravagant affair, inline with the times.

This year, the world’s carmakers are planning to use the Detroit spotlight to reveal more than 30 never-seen-before models for the North American market.

“With the amount of product that’s on the table, there are definitely automakers that are stepping up their game,” Barron Meade, chairman of the 2011 show, told the Detroit Free Press.

That includes sedan makeovers from Honda, Chrysler and Volkswagen, and sleeker sports vehicles from GM brand Cadillac and South Korea’s Hyundai. Germany’s Porsche will be returning to the show for the first time in four years.

Carmakers will also be showcasing their new green and electric credentials. Toyota will be unveiling a new family of Prius hybrid vehicles, including a plug-in version due to hit the market in 2012, while GM will be displaying the much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid that goes on sale this year in the United States.

Detroit’s fortunes revived over the last year as a recall scandal dimmed prospects for Japanese giant Toyota, the world’s largest car manufacturer. Meanwhile, other Asian carmakers, including new influences from South Korea and even China, are chomping at the heels.

The proof is in the numbers: A total of 11.59 million vehicles were sold in the United States in 2010, according to autodata.com, up 11.1 percent from the industry’s dark year of 2009, when the United States and much of the world went through a damaging recession.

While Toyota’s sales were flat over the year, those of the so-called Detroit Three all showed positive signs. GM’s sales increased 6.3 percent, Ford’s 19.4 percent and even Chrysler, once considered the most vulnerable of the U.S. carmakers and now under the control of Italy’s Fiat, saw sales surge 17 percent in 2010.

Fast-growing Hyundai gained nearly 24 percent and fellow South Korea manufacturer Kia climbed nearly 19 percent. German carmakers were also resurgent, with Volkswagen leading the pack with an annual sales increase of more than 20 percent.

There is another sign of things returning to normal in the United States. While the rest of the world moves increasingly toward compact cars, hybrids and electrics, the American tradition of pick-up trucks and other petrol-guzzlers remains alive and well.

U.S. consumers actually bought about 50,000 more light trucks -pickups, sports-utility vehicles and vans - than they did passenger cars in 2010, according to autodata.com. Passenger cars had won out by more than 500,000 in 2009.

GM will be using Detroit to unveil its new GMC Sierra All-Terrain HD concept, a nearly 6-meter long, 2-meter high monster of a pick-up truck that is sure to have many U.S. truck fans foaming at the mouth.
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