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Detroit Auto Show Rebounding After Recession

The sunny yellow Ford C-Max minivan that greets visitors at this year's Detroit auto show says it all. After taking a pounding during the recession, the U.S. auto industry is full of optimism, and a strong mix of new products will greet buyers as they return to dealerships.

"Looking around at what's at the show, we've never been happier," said Mike Jackson, the CEO of AutoNation Inc., the nation's largest auto retailer. "We can tell a gradual recovery is under way."

The show, which opens to the public Jan. 15 and is one of the biggest in the U.S., has long echoed the mood of the industry. When SUVs were booming, car companies had elaborate displays, such as the indoor waterfall that cascaded past Jeep vehicles. When the recession hit and General Motors and Chrysler tumbled into bankruptcy, cars were spread haphazardly on bare carpet and attendance fell.

This year, there are signs of a resurgent industry. Car companies are expecting to sell at least 1.5 million more cars in the U.S. this year than they did last year, bringing total sales to 13 million or more. GM and Ford, newly lean and profitable, have multiple-story displays, with big screens and interactive exhibits. Toyota, on the mend from a series of safety recalls last year, shows some bravado with its "swagger wagon," a tricked-out Sienna minivan lined with wood floors and a gumball machine. Porsche, the luxury carmaker, is back at the show after a three-year absence, sensing a U.S. recovery.

Buyers are returning to a market with more choices in size, style and fueling than ever, including electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt and plug-in hybrids such as the upcoming C-Max, which can carry up to seven people.

"Throw away your conceptions of which brands to consider," said James Bell, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "You're going to come into a whole different world now."

At the Detroit show, visitors are treated to the Hyundai Veloster, a $17,000 sports car that gets 40 miles per gallon, and the Prius V, a hybrid wagon from Toyota. Both go on sale later this year. There are new products in every segment, from the Chevrolet Sonic subcompact to the sleeker, more sophisticated Honda Civic small car to the luxuriously restyled Chrysler 300 sedan.

The Detroit auto show is home to some legendary media stunts to introduce cars. In 2008, cowboys drove a herd of cattle down the streets of Detroit to introduce the new Dodge Ram pickup. The year before, Chrysler introduced the Aspen sport utility vehicle in a blizzard of fake snow. But the spectacles disappeared along with U.S. sales.

This year, some of the showmanship was back, albeit on a more modest scale. Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat entertained a mass of media troops at Mercedes-Benz's 125th anniversary presentation with her hit "Bubbly." On Tuesday, auto supplier ZF Friedrichshafen had a six-foot-four blonde model in a silvery cat suit prowling the floor.

Volkswagen went country for the introduction of its revamped, made-in-the-USA Passat midsize sedan. In a film made for the show, stirring, Western strings and harmonica strains played as two cowboys on horseback surrounded by red canyons filled the screen. One said, "They gonna settle here," but then cautioned, "they've said that before." The other drawled, "This time ... I think it's for real," and the cowboys came upon VW's gleaming Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, where the Passat is being built.

Bell said automakers were chastened by the downturn and are being smarter about how they display their cars and how much they spend.

"We'll get back to the swagger and theatrics, but not quite yet," he said.

Ford, for example, has its biggest-ever auto show display. At 71,000 square feet, it's 40 percent bigger than last year's space in Detroit.

But it doesn't aim for glitz as much as teaching people about its upcoming electric and hybrid offerings. At its heart is an auto show first, a 208-foot-long test track for its electric vehicles that show-goers will be able to ride in alongside a professional driver. The oval track was created by a bridge-building firm, according to Dave Tillapaugh, Ford's global auto show manager.

"We get people engaged initially with a bit of theater," he said, then give them "a lot more substance than they expected."

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