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Automakers Turn to Retro at Auto Show

Aired January 10, 2001 - 4:36 p.m. ET


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Carmakers have been showing off their latest models and newest innovations this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But behind all the elaborate presentations, there are sales worries and job losses in the industry, as CNN's Detroit bureau chief Ed Garsten reports now.


ED GARSTEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Big coops like the Dodge Super 8 Hemi, tailor-made for the malt shop, swell pals and fast times.

Little amorphous vehicles like the Toyota Matrix: could be a car, could be an SUV.

Luxurious sedans like the Infiniti Q45.

The world's automakers are celebrating a diversity of design and technology in Detroit this week.

(on camera): But the usually raucous party, known as the North American International Auto Show, is decidedly downbeat this year. Even though the industry is coming off a record sales year, most of those sales were in the first half of the year. The last six months of 2000 have been simply dreadful.

(voice-over): So now the top dogs at the world's three largest car companies are cutting production, laying off thousands of workers, trying to put their companies back on the winning road.

RICK WAGONER, CEO, GENERAL MOTORS: Inventories were too high at the end of the year because we missed, frankly, the forecast of the market, so we're trying to take a number of units out of schedule in the first quarter.

DIETER ZEITSCHE, CEO, DAIMLERCHRYSLER: There is this turnaround effort which we have to go through, where -- which is about sizing the company to the market size, which is out there.

JAC NASSER, CEO, FORD MOTOR COMPANY: It certainly is softer than last year, but last year was a record year. And this year, we're going to take it quarter by quarter and see how it goes along.

GARSTEN: The industry is buoyed by the Fed's rate cut, hoping less expensive money will spark renewed sales. But even so, any hope is tempered.

WAGONER: A great first step. By itself, probably not enough to get things reversed.

GARSTEN: Most forecasts by the companies and industry analysts are that about a million fewer cars and truck will be sold this year. And with that in mind, the automakers are hoping their new products will make some noise in the marketplace.

Ed Garsten, CNN, Detroit.


CHEN: For more on the auto show and the move toward retrovehicles, we're joined by Csaba Csere. He's the editor of "Car & Driver Magazine," and he's with us today from out Detroit bureau.

You know, our conversation the other day was truncated a little bit. Let's see if we can get a little bit more news out today. And the news today is about sort of that "retro" look in cars.

Give us a little bit of a rundown here. The T-Bird is back again?

CSABA CSERE, EDITOR, "CAR & DRIVER": Well, the T-Bird is back. We finally saw the production version after it's been highlighted the last couple of auto shows.

What we're seeing here is that a lot of the carmakers, they want new ideas, they want new models. But when you reinvent the wheel, some of those reinventions are going to be unsuccessful. And many of them feel it's safer to go back to the cupboard and rejuvenate a model that was once very popular and successful, and that's safer than starting with a clean sheet of paper.

CHEN: Is it really that the label is the same? And it looks like the same print that I used to see when I was a kid on Thunderbirds that were still around then. Is it really the label, or is the vehicle in any way really similar to the original T-Bird?

CSERE: No, the vehicle is thoroughly modern. The fact is if you tried to bring back the original T-Bird, it would be illegal in 30 or 40 different ways. I mean, there's just no possibly way to do it.

CHEN: No safety -- safety...

CSERE: Safety regulations, emission regulations, all of that. But it has some of the look. It has some of the key cues that we remember from that car. But underneath, it's a thoroughly modern machine.

CHEN: Speaking of old cues, the VW van is also one of the things they're putting back on the road, I guess. "CROSSFIRE's" Bill Press is probably going to want to hear about this.

CSERE: Well, the microbus there is an interesting idea. Volkswagen is recognizing that the van is really the most functional vehicle out there. Even though everyone wants SUVs, SUVs don't have nearly the room in them that vans do.

But vans are a little bit in foul (UNINTELLIGIBLE) now. They're thought to be really boring, suburban mom's cars. And Volkswagen would like to do something to a van to make it appeal more to the younger market. And they're thinking if we bring it back and make it look kind of like the microbus from the old days, that'll be the trick.

CHEN: Now, this is -- this is undoubtedly the year for my husband, because he loves the old van, the old bus. But he also has a fondness for old Z cars, and they're sort of coming back, too.

CSERE: Nissan showed virtually the production version of a Z car. It's still a couple of years off. And there, you know, part of it is the styling. It has to look like the two-door sports car, it's got to have a little bit of the Z. But the real thing that made the original Z a segment-buster was that it had a lot of performance for not much money, and that's what promised on this car, too. They're talking about 270 horsepower or so at a price under $30,000. And that would be a terrific value in this market.

CHEN: I guess, you know, we saw the PT Cruiser come in a year go already. What does all this tell us about what carmakers think we want, what they think we care about right now? Smaller, sportier? What's happening here?

CSERE: Well, I think actually the carmakers see a really fractionalized market. I mean, there's little niches for all kinds of vehicles out there. But the vehicles that are interesting, like the PT Cruiser, that really have a following, those are the profitable ones.

People don't want to be in the business of selling commodity cars, because there you just buy the cheapest one you can get. If you can create some buzz and excitement, then you can sell them at sticker price and everybody makes money.

CHEN: A little mystique there. All right, Csaba Csere from "Car & Driver," thanks for being with us again today.

CSERE: My pleasure.



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