The Corvette C7 Stingray has taken center stage in Detr... The Corvette C7 Stingray has taken center stage in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show (Credit: Autoblog).
A new Corvette promised to revive the longest-running sports car in American history. A new Mercedes-Benz showcased the smaller future ahead for its classic European brand. Cadillac won its first-ever Car Of The Year award in its hometown, then debuted an extended-range electric vehicle.

Storylines emerged everywhere Monday during the first day of the North American International Auto Show. There were so many new cars and concepts, in fact, the one story missing was almost lost in the shuffle.

The economy.

Over the past five years, it's been a dominant, if moribund theme at Detroit's annual gathering of auto executives, journalists and car enthusiasts. But the auto industry has rebounded from the depths of the recession, enjoying three consecutive years of sales growth.

To be sure, the industry hasn't neared its pre-recession halcyon days of 2007, when consumers bought 17 million vehicles. But in 2012, the industry sold 14.5 million units, a 13 percent improvement over 2011's figures. Executives at least believe they're on the right track. The worrying was gone Monday, and the change was palpable.

"This morning, I saw a new energy and confidence in the industry," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, visiting Detroit. "It is clear to me that the U.S. auto industry is back."

With a larger-than-life statue of hometown hero Joe Louis looking on from the Cobo Center lobby, Detroit's mettle was on display everywhere on the opening day of the auto show.

In addition to the Cadillac capturing its first crown as car of the year, Chrysler won Truck Of The Year honors for the new Ram 1500. It was a busy day for Chrysler overall, as Jeep unveiled a diesel option on its new Grand Cherokee and CEO Sergio Marchionne panned the launch of the underwhelming Dodge Dart.

Meanwhile, Toyota dethroned General Motors as the industry's global sales leader with 9.7 million units sold versus GM's 9.3 million. Tesla unveiled its gull-winged X model, a crossover style follow-up to its groundbreaking all-electric Model S, Lexus unveiled its new IS and Acura debuted the long-awaited update to its popular NSX.

"There really isn't a theme for the Detroit show this year with it being diverse, in terms of product launches with mainstream vehicles, luxury vehicles, and from trucks to iconic vehicles," said Larry Dominique, executive vice president of TrueCar.

The theme is simply that, there are a lot of them. More than 50 models are expected to make their debuts in front of more than 5,000 media members by the time the press portion of the show ends Tuesday evening, better than the 40 that were unveiled last year.

A record 79 vehicles made their first appearances at the Detroit Auto Show in 2004, but the number fell to less than half that as the recession pummeled the industry and automakers retrenched. The industry's willingness to commit to so many debuts this year was a sign the economy's rebound is firm.

"It shows that the recovery that we've seen in the previous years was not a coincidence," said Jesse Toprak, senior automotive analyst for TrueCar.com.

Indeed, Ford announced earlier this week that it would add 2,200 white-collar jobs in 2013 and General Motors announced it would hire 1,000 technical engineers at its research center in Atlanta. Nissan announced it would hire 1,000 workers in the U.K.

More anecdotal evidence of the industry's collective relief: the after-hours parties that automakers are throwing this year are both more numerous and more elaborate than they were in leaner years, when planners turned the volume down on the annual bashes, careful to not be perceived as ostentatious while the industry drove hundreds of thousands to the unemployment line.

Perhaps the biggest spectacle this year, Chevrolet retrofitted a dilapidated warehouse on the north side of the city Sunday night, using the backdrop of the city's all-too-trendy ruin porn to introduce the Corvette C7 Stingray, the model's first overhaul in nine years.

Built since 1953, sales of the iconic sports car had tumbled to a 49-year-low of 13,164 in 2011. Its overhaul, which has at least initially won rave reviews for a higher-quality interior, has done more than put the brand in a better position.

"The soul of our company is indeed in Corvette," said Mark Reuss, General Motors chairman of North America. "Through good times and bad for this company, there was always the Corvette."

Cadillac's new ELR could carry similar weight, albeit for logistical, not symbolic, reasons.

It "may be more important to Chevrolet than it is to Cadillac," said Eric Lyman, vice president of editorial for ALG. "By sharing an assembly line, the ELR's success will take pressure off Volt sales, allowing GM to dial back on incentives that have added risk to the Volt's residual value forecast."

For General Motors, it was a sensible calculation. For Detroit, the ELR announcement meant relief at its nearby Hamtramck assembly plant, where the Volt is built. And for the city, the greater problems of abandoned buildings and corrupt politicians not withstanding, the city had much to enjoy for the first time in years at its annual showcase.

"You can really feel the difference," said Ryan Vaughan, one of the chief General Motors designers who worked Corvette. "There's optimism."


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