economic recovery

Auto giants rediscover their swagger

January 14, 2014: 10:16 AM ET

As buyers return to showrooms, automakers are offering traditional catnip: speed and sporty styling.

By Doron Levin

7th-generation Chevrolet Corvette

The seventh-generation Chevrolet Corvette

FORTUNE -- Power and swagger have returned to automaking.

Lexus is displaying a sports sedan this week in Detroit with a 5.0-liter engine that could generate as much as 500 horsepower. Subaru's next-generation WRX-STi will "make your gut feel like it's riding shotgun," the company announced.

General Motors Co.'s hot new Corvette Stingray won Car of the Year on Monday morning, perhaps an indicator of the industry's mood -- lately -- away from lean, green, and efficient and toward the quick, brutish, and nasty. GM (GM) is showing a souped-up Stingray variety, the Z06, with an output of 625 to 650 horsepower.

Even Mini, the BMW brand whose name suggests its guiding spirit, is showing a new version of its hardtop supposed to be its largest and most powerful ever.

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At least 50 new vehicles and concepts are making their debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which will open to the public on Saturday. Automakers have been boosting their spending on development of new models after several years of tight budgets tied to poor sales.

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the global auto industry has struggled with bankruptcy reorganizations, consolidation, and retrenchment. Likewise, new cars have been more likely to be fuel-sipping eco-mobiles, gas-electric hybrids, or pure electric vehicles, which are less costly to operate and more in tune with a stagnant economy and a barren jobs market.

Now, with U.S. stock markets near all-time highs and economic growth somewhat rekindled, U.S. car sales have been climbing. As buyers return to showrooms, automakers are offering traditional catnip: speed and sporty styling. Infiniti, Nissan's luxury division, displayed a concept that its executives say could be the basis of a future model, which it called Q50 Eau Rouge.

Speaking about the model's potential, Johan de Nysschen, head of Hong Kong-based Infiniti said, "I would expect it to feature over 500 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque. We have access to a range of engines featuring this performance capability which, with a fair amount of engineering effort, can be developed to exhibit Infiniti character and accommodated within the Q50 engine bay."

Notwithstanding the flash and dash, automakers are constrained by fuel efficiency rules that are scheduled to grow more stringent in the U.S. and abroad. Tougher rules mean that the average car, not necessarily the one on the display stand, must be smaller and lighter. To some extent, clever use of lighter materials can help achieve efficiency goals. Ford Motor (F) announced that it would use more aluminum in its F Series full-size pickup truck, which adds to cost and manufacturing complexity but reduces its weight.

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For all the attention they attract, the hottest, fastest, and sexiest cars only sell in limited numbers. GM's Chevrolet division, for example, last year sold about 15,000 Corvettes and about 250,000 Chevrolet Cruze compact sedans. This year, Corvette sales should spike, owing to the introduction of a new model. But while shoppers are encouraged to dream about Corvette, and they may visit a showroom to see one, they'll buy a Cruze if they need basic transportation.

Detroit, Tokyo, and Stuttgart sell dreams, not just cars.

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