DETROIT – These are happier days for the auto industry, and that positive energy will be on display in Detroit next week at the first major international auto show of the year.
"If you are not having fun in this auto industry, you apparently are not breathing," said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales.
Automakers are putting fun on display with more than 40 global debuts and a host of other hot cars and trucks as well as new exhibits and interactive games lined up to entertain media and public alike.
The city has also shed its bankruptcy cloak as it welcomes the world. Last year, Detroit was still embroiled in restructuring $18 billion in debt as part of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
The city no longer operates under an emergency manager or Chapter 9 protection. The mayor and city staff are working to restore everything from emergency services to streetlights as entrepreneurs continue to see Detroit as a good place to invest and young people embrace its hip scene.
The auto industry also continues its recovery. U.S. automakers sold 16.5 million vehicles in 2014 — the best since 2006. Sales are back to prerecession levels, and economic factors point to more upside in the year ahead, with low gas prices and interest rates bolstering consumer confidence. GDP growth is expected to create as many as 200,000 new jobs per month.
Automakers think consumers have money and a desire to spend, judging by some of the vehicle introductions planned for next week's press days at the North American International Show.
There are exotic sports cars such as the Acura NSX and Alfa Romeo 4C Spider that are the subject of many an enthusiast's dreams. More pickups are coming with the Nissan Titan, Toyota Tacoma and truck news coming from the Ford and Ram conferences.
Conversely, the Chevrolet Volt is a bit of a loner when it comes to hybrid and electric vehicle debuts. Green vehicles are on the down low.
Many companies are glad to say goodbye to 2014, a year marked by recalls that left their mark on the bottom lines of General Motors, Honda and Ford, to name a few.
Ford lost sales and share as it undertook a record number of new vehicle launches, including a new F-150. The volume loss to retool truck plants for a pickup that generates a substantial portion of Ford's profits will be reflected in a drop in pretax profit for the year to $6 billion.
But this auto show season opens on an air of confidence. Ford announced Thursday it is increasing its dividend by 20 percent to $0.15 a share, starting in March.
Also on Thursday, General Motors CEO Mary Barra looked forward to better days. "We've got a really strong product line. We've made organizational changes. As difficult as last year was and it was tragic for those who were affected, but the team came together."
The CEO said the strength of the labor market, better job security and the recovery in home prices have consumers feeling pretty good about the future, and they will continue to replace their older cars and trucks. She also expects younger and first-time buyers to return to the market.
To entice the buying public — who can visit the show Jan. 17-25 — at least five companies have updated their exhibits for the show. Some have even moved to new locations on the convention floor.
Buick is no longer tucked away in the General Motors corner of the Cobo Center, where the show is taking place. For the first time, it moves to the "luxury pod" near the center of the hall, between Infiniti and Acura, and sharing a border with Cadillac.
The space is a bit smaller but the neighborhood is tonier. Location. Location. Location.
Look for swooping arches for an amphitheater-like effect and an 82.5-foot wide high-resolution LED video screen.
Meanwhile, back in GM world, Chevrolet has an all-new display to highlight the new Volt. There are six 20-foot-tall, transparent screens with coordinated LED lighting and music to tell a nine-chapter story in the Chevrolet Theater at the end of Main Street — the center aisle populated by the Corvette Z06, Trax and Colorado. Or attendees can experience crash avoidance technology with virtual reality equipment.
Ford is revamping its displays somewhat. The area that housed an assembly line last year will become an "Innovation Park" with trees and running water to showcase the use of organic materials and efforts to reduce waste. The entrance to the Ford exhibit will have video game centers with an EcoBoost engine theme and an upstairs area that has an enthusiast gallery with pictures, merchandise and toy car kits for kids.
Two high-profile brands of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — Ferrari and Maserati — will have displays on the show floor this year.