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Detroit Auto Show: Big Three Prove They're Still in The Game

02/13/2011 06:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With $17 billion in loans already earmarked for Michigan's struggling carmakers -- and more still to come -- Americans are watching the annual North American International Auto Show, otherwise known as the Detroit Auto Show, closer than ever this year. The reasons are obvious: U.S. taxpayers want proof the Big Three are genuinely trying to turn themselves around.

The trade show hasn't opened yet to the public, but the press conferences are over and a number of significant announcements have been made. A lot can be said about the challenges that Detroit faces. Yes, there are management problems. Yes, the wage gap must be eliminated. Yes, the unions are a problem. But this week the focus is on product. And when it's all said and done, the product is what will make or break the Detroit Three.

Ford

2010 Ford Taurus

I'm going to first draw your attention to Ford. So far, they haven't needed to tap into government loans. That could change, but for the time being they appear to be the healthiest U.S. automaker. For much of 2008, Ford seemed to be operating in stealth mode, with very little news out of the company's Dearborn headquarters. But in the last few months, the company rolled out several key products that should help ensure its survival.

When Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford -- after a successful stint at Boeing -- one of the first things he did was order a complete redesign of Ford's Taurus sedan. A new version of the Taurus had just been introduced, but Mulally knew it would not be competitive enough going forward. Two years after putting Ford's best and brightest to work, the automaker is ready to roll out the 2010 Taurus. If you're able to make the trip to the public show (starting Jan 17th), you'll get to see the fruits of their labor.

Ultimately, consumers will decide if the new Taurus has what it takes to beat out the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, but I can say with confidence this is the best chance Ford has had in years.

The new Taurus wasn't the only hot new Ford product unveiled during the 'Press Preview' days at the Detroit auto show Sunday and Monday. The company also took the wraps off a new Lincoln MKT crossover, which shares a platform with the Ford Flex, but wisely has less polarizing styling. Again, consumers will decide whether the MKT sinks or swims, but it should be able to hold its own against vehicles like the Toyota Venza.

Lincoln C Concept

Ford also announced aggressive plans to have a fully-electric commercial van on the market next year, and a family sedan based on the same technology available to consumers in 2011.

Lastly, Lincoln surprised the media with a vehicle it calls the 'C Concept.' The compact prototype is designed to show that luxury can come in a small package. With Americans showing an increased interest in smaller, more efficient vehicles, this seems like a logical and forward-thinking move on Ford's part.

General Motors

Cadillac Converj Concept

While the aforementioned Lincoln MKT represents a convergence of luxury motoring and compact dimensions, a new concept car from General Motors takes a slightly different approach to the same problem. Aptly called the Converj concept, Cadillac's latest show car combines luxury with a hybrid-electric drivetrain. Based on the same technology as the Chevrolet Volt, the Converj is a plug-in hybrid that can travel 40 miles on electricity alone, before the onboard gasoline generator kicks in.

A redesigned Buick Lacrosse also debuted in Detroit, proving GM's second luxury brand isn't dead after all. The new Lacrosse is far nicer looking and better equipped than anything to come out of the Buick division in a long time, and so far the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. While Cadillac seems to have its sights set on BMW and Mercedes, Buick is targeting the so-called near-luxury segment, dominated by Acura and Infiniti.

2010 Buick Lacrosse

Meanwhile, two new crossover utility vehicles from GM prove the company is finally ready to say goodbye to gas-guzzling body-on-frame SUVs. The 2010 Chevrolet Equinox has been completely redesigned for the coming model year, and the 2010 Cadillac SRX builds upon the Equinox platform, with the addition of many new luxury features.

But it's not just luxury cars and crossover SUVs at GM's Detroit auto show booth this year. The company also revealed the Chevrolet Spark, which will hit the market in 2011. Based on the popular Chevy Beat concept, the Spark will be a low-cost hatchback designed to rival the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit. GM says the Spark will achieve 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

Chrysler

Dodge Circuit EV

Chrysler is perhaps the most troubled U.S. automaker, lacking the competitive products and cash it needs to sustain its operations. The good news is the company's management is seemingly aware of its product deficiencies, and they appear to be in the early stages of rectifying that problem. The automaker used its press conference at NAIAS to showcase two critical electric concepts.

First on the list is the Dodge Circuit EV. Following the successful formula of the Tesla Roadster, the car is based on a chassis from British sports car maker Lotus. Powered by lithium-ion batteries, it should be capable of traveling 200 miles on a single charge. With the Dodge Viper likely to be discontinued in the next few years, the Circuit could become Chrysler's flagship sports car. Pricing has not yet been announced, but availability might begin as early as next year.

Chrysler 200C EV Concept

A slightly more practical electric vehicle was previewed with the Chrysler 200C EV concept. Similar to the Chevy Volt and Cadillac Converj, the 200C has a 40-mile pure-electric range, with an on-board gas generator to extend that to 400 miles. The car's exterior is also proof Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles -- who penned the popular 300C -- is more than a one-hit-wonder.