By Jerry Hirsch / L.A. Times
DETROIT – Detroit’s on a roll. But can it last?
American auto brands Chevrolet and Ford are outselling Toyotas in the United States for the first time in years, thanks to a new stable of better designed and more reliable cars. General Motors Co., meanwhile, has become the top foreign automaker in the fast-growing Chinese market.
At the same time, painful cost cuts – including trimming employment and health expenses, and rewriting union contracts – have fattened the bottom line for domestic automakers, with General Motors and Ford Motor Co. earning nearly $4 billion combined in their most recent quarterly reports.
That’s a figure that was once “unimaginable” considering that total U.S. auto sales were only 11.6 million last year, still near historic lows, said David Cole, a longtime industry analyst and chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
And that’s why the mood is decidedly upbeat among the executives who are gathering this week in Detroit for the North American International Auto Show.
“The auspices are a lot better than they were a year ago,” said Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Chrysler Group, which is gaining market share and expects to move back into the black this year after narrowing its losses steadily last year.
Still, given Detroit’s long decline from its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, some are wondering whether the turnaround is a momentary blip or a sustainable change.
Rising oil prices could topple the economy into another recession. Upcoming United Auto Workers union talks could turn into a fight by workers to regain benefits lost during the U.S. industry’s restructuring. Foreign automakers, especially Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., could recapture their verve and attack the market with new models and attractive pricing. The Detroit Three could revert to bad habits and start producing more cars than can be reasonably sold.
“We have concerns,” said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive analyst at IHS Global Insight. “There is just so much competition in the marketplace, especially from fast-growing companies like Hyundai and Kia. And this fall the negotiations with the UAW could be very contentious. The workers are going to want some of those profits.”
But executives from the domestic companies, their overseas rivals and industry analysts say that the auto world has changed in the past two years and that American automakers will be much stronger competitors.
“We have never seen such dramatic change in such a short period of time,” Cole said.
One difference from years past is that the corporate chiefs of the U.S. automakers speak with seemingly one voice when it comes to operating tightly run businesses.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally, GM North America President Mark Reuss and Chrysler’s Marchionne all promise not to fall back into the trap of making too many cars and then slapping huge discounts on the vehicles to move metal off dealer lots.
“This has been the heart of the problem in Detroit,” said Marchionne, who also heads up Fiat, the Italian auto company.
Mulally said Ford has learned that it has to “deal with the current reality. You have to match production to real demand and accelerate development of new products that people will want to buy.”
For Ford that meant going with a plan for massive restructuring to a consortium of banks and borrowing $23.5 billion, he said.
For GM and Chrysler it meant bankruptcy filings and huge bailouts from the federal government. Mulally still describes as “surreal” the experience of going before Congress and urging the federal government to throw lifelines to his competitors, but he says it was the only way to ensure the U.S. industry’s survival.
Such measures allowed the Detroit Three to cut employment, slash health expenses, rewrite union contracts, winnow out surplus factories and trim the cost of building a vehicle by several thousand dollars. GM and Chrysler reduced billions of dollars of debt through their bankruptcy restructurings.
U.S. automakers also gained a competitive advantage from the fall in the dollar’s value, which made import brands from Europe and Japan less competitive.
Cole calculates the “all-inclusive labor rate with health care and pensions at about $50 an hour in the U.S. and at over $100 an hour in Germany.”
The Americans also got a boost from the damage Toyota suffered from its recalls of millions of vehicles over the last 18 months and the nearly $50 million in record fines the automaker paid to federal safety regulators.
“Toyota was the default brand for decades but not anymore. Consumers are looking at everyone again,” said Lindland, the IHS analyst. “That creates lots of opportunity” for the American and South Korean automakers.
One measure of success of the restructuring would be the durability of the American companies in the face of economic and global shocks that are out of their control, such as spiraling oil prices or another recession.
Chrysler, which remains the weakest of the three, now has “enough resources to deal with another recession,” Marchionne said. And the company is launching more fuel-efficient powertrains so that customers won’t flee to other brands as gas prices rise, he said.
The steadier financial footing has enabled the companies to start adding employees.
Ford announced at the Detroit auto show that it would create 7,000 hourly and salaried jobs this year and next in the United States. They include nearly 4,000 hourly jobs at factories this year and hundreds of salaried engineering positions in product development and manufacturing.
GM plans to add 1,000 engineers and researchers in Michigan over the next two years to work on electric and hybrid vehicle systems. Chrysler has started to fill 1,000 engineering and high-tech jobs.
The executives said they believed their respective companies would continue to grow this year.
Reuss said that GM’s lease deals ran at only 8 percent of sales last year, well below the industry average of about 20 percent and leaving room to grow as it gets back into that market. Mulally said Ford would benefit from sales of recent introductions, including its Fiesta and Focus small cars and its new-generation Explorer sport utility vehicle.
Chrysler has retooled much of its lineup, winning praise from auto magazines and Consumer Reports for its Jeep Grand Cherokee redesign.
But few are resting on the successes of the last year.
“We have taken some first steps, but we still have a long way to go and the global competition is fiercer than ever,” said Thomas Stephens, GM’s vice chairman.
Meeting with a small group of reporters Monday night at the Detroit Athletic Club, Mulally talked about Ford’s continuing efforts to enter emerging markets and produce a series of global vehicle platforms, common engines and other components that can be used to drive down expenses. He said that was the only way to stay ahead of rivals.
One of its rivals was holding meetings at the same club at the same time.
“We are never going to back down from the fight,” said Carlos Tavares, executive vice president of Nissan Americas, as he picked up a winter coat from the desk clerk. “We love the competition.”
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