- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

DETROIT | With ambient club music thumping on the stereo and cameras flashing, Chrysler executives took to the stage Sunday afternoon under much pressure and with much anticipation as the world’s auto industry gathered in the Motor City’s Cobo Hall for the annual North American International Auto Show.

The television camera crews stood six deep on the platform, jammed high and together in a media crush befitting a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. A phalanx of still photographers took aim from behind the standing-room-only crowd.

“You’re in Hollywood,” teased one audience member to another, noting the rock show for gearheads that was about to take place.

While the Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Maybachs glittered across the arena in pricey luxury, the U.S. automakers, fighting for survival, were in comeback mode, defending their economically strapped companies with competitive gusto. Their products, they said, were as good as any other in the world.

“We’ve gone through tough times. We’ve made good progress on our major restructuring” Chrysler LLC President Jim Press said as he touted his company’s “prosperity plan.”

Noting with confidence that they were on the right track making environmentally friendly and scientifically advanced vehicles that U.S. consumers want, Mr. Press seemed downright zippy as he premiered Chrysler’s vehicles of the future. They included a glittering, tangerine-hued, Lotus-style sports car - the Dodge Circuit EV - that runs on battery power and has the curves of a Hollywood starlet, and a technologically amped James Bond-style charcoal sedan - the 200C EV - that drew “ooh”s from the crowd for its sleek luxury. These shining prototypes signaled that while they might be down right now, the Big Three weren’t going anywhere and had the products to prove it.

“You have seen evidence here of our ongoing commitment and investment in the future,” he said, beaming as some in the crowd stood to get a better look at his sexy wares.

Mr. Press, a former Toyota executive, wasn’t the only one making a spirited case for U.S. auto workmanship. Earlier Sunday morning, General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner brought in Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and a host of GM employees and retirees as he conducted a pep rally of sorts over his company’s value to the nation. His cars of the future would be “smarter, smaller and more fuel-efficient,” he told the crowd.

GM promoted a stable of 15 future vehicles. They included a surprise: a battery-powered Cadillac Converj, the height of green and American-branded luxury, along with a 40-mpg subcompact mini-car for U.S. drivers.

At Ford Motor Corp., a dapper and youthful Mark Fields, executive vice president, preached the good news to the auto faithful, defining his lineup of new hybrid and battery-powered vehicles. In a nod to the company’s storied brand history, Mr. Fields also brought out famed auto designer Carroll Shelby, now a robust 89, who helped preview the 2010 Shelby Mustang GT500, on display in hard and rag top in shades of patriotic red, white and blue.

This is, he said of his presentation of new models, “our best lineup of Ford vehicles ever.”

As the Detroit Three automakers began the process of restructuring after receiving a $17.4 billion federal loan package late last year, they are pinning their hopes on the future. They said Sunday that while they don’t expect the economy or auto sales to rebound quickly in 2009, they think that with some significant belt-tightening, including reduction in their work forces and production, they can become solvent, along with safer, greener and more affordable.

At this year’s auto show, expectations were tepid at the outset with several well-known brands, including Nissan, declining to participate, even as media attention remained high. There was less focus on promotion and more attention on the cars themselves with an eye on green technology and futuristic on-board advances that embraced the best of social marketing.

With Detroit in the crosshairs as a new president takes office next week along with a new Democrat-led Congress, the city and state braced for what some predicted would be a bitter battle with organized labor amid job cuts and auto losses. On Sunday, the first day of media previews ahead of a Jan. 17 opening for the public, members of the United Auto Workers union staged a protest outside the exhibition hall, walking a picket line and chanting as they decried worker cuts and the suggestion of reduced pay.

Jason Craig, 35 and an 11-year member of the UAW’s Centerline Local 1248, walked the line “to fight for a good middle-class pay scale” and for the future of U.S. industry. With temperatures in the teens and snow blanketing the city, the auto workers marched in the winter chill, holding signs that read: “Out of a job yet? Keep buying foreign,” and “Cutting our pay will not help the economy.”

“People don’t really know how hard it is,” he said of working an auto line. “I’d like to see any of these people who criticize us get out there and do our jobs for a day.”

Mr. Craig has two children, ages 4 and 6, and says he is prepared to fight for his wages and his way of life. The UAW, he adds, made major concessions in its 2007 contract and he says there is little left to cut, even as critics suggest that the union wages should be more in line with their foreign auto company counterparts.

“It’s almost like they are trying to divide and conquer,” he said of pressure to clip union power and influence. “We need more militant union people to stand up for themselves. I’ll do what I have to do to keep my job.”

GM and Chrysler could be declared in default of federal loans if the UAW went on strike. The union has not announced that it intended to strike, but it must come back Feb. 17 with agreements on wages and benefits as a part of the automakers’ restructuring plans.

Mr. Craig, while angry about his profession’s public perception, said auto workers have compromised plenty. He fears for his future. “I cannot imagine if this went away what would happen to Michigan - or America.”

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