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Detroit Auto Show Unveilings Underscore Auto-Makers' Retooling Efforts

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The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) got off with a bang on Monday, as the media was offered its first glimpse of some spectacularly new vehicles.

And amid the super-hyped roll-outs, the fashion models, rock music played at ear-bleed levels and a babble of Japanese, French, German, Korean, Italian and several other languages, there was a quieter message – that the major auto-makers are dramatically retooling their production plants to accommodate new technologies, both under the hood and behind the wheel.

As expected, Ford (NYSE: F) made headlines early on in the day by confirming earlier rumors. Its popular F-150 pickup truck will indeed feature a “high-strength, military-grade” aluminum body, expected to make the vehicle 700 pounds lighter and more fuel efficient, while helping its hauling and towing capacity.

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The new F-150s are scheduled to go on sale late this year, and will be produced at Ford's facilities in Dearborn, Michigan And Claycomo, Missouri.

Raj Nair, Ford group vice president, Global Product Development, also confirmed reports the switchover to aluminum also means the plants will need to be closed down briefly, for retooling.

But that manufacturing process “is something we're pretty familiar with,” he told Benzinga, “because we use a lot of aluminum in the current truck. We'll have more to talk about what the changeover means later, but we're quite confident with our manufacturing colleagues in how to manage that.”

Volkswagen (OTC: VLKAY) played up its perennial favorite, the Golf, now in its 40th year and seven generation. Originally branded as “The Rabbit,” the Golf was produced in Pennsylvania for ten years until its production was relocated to Mexico in 1988. VW still produces the Passat out of its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee – but a new, electric version of the Golf is expected in the U.S. later this year – as part of the company's entry into what it calls the “e-mobility” market.

However, “the biggest news in Detroit is the mid-sized SUV,” Volkswagen's new president and CEO Michael Horn said after the NAIAS press conference. He also talked about his company's plans to produce a seven-seat SUV, “purely for the North American market,” and he said a decision on exactly where that vehicle will be produced is expected in the next several weeks.

Chrysler, now fully owned by Fiat (OTC: FIATY), also unveiled what it calls its all-new Chrysler 200 sedan for 2015. First unveiled several years ago, during the worst of Chrysler's economic struggles, the new 200 has the bells and whistles a lot of new consumers are looking for: the first nine-speed automatic transmission seen in the mid-class sedan segment, a choice of engines and what the company calls “state-of-the-art, easy-to-use technology that keeps drivers and passengers connected.”

The 2015 Chrysler 200 also marks a major investment of over $1 billion at the Chrysler Group's Sterling Heights, Michigan plant – a facility that was originally targeted for closure and now features a robotic body shop, an upgraded assembly area and a new, “clean” paint shop.

Other auto-makers are also following suit; putting more money into their plants as they prepare for a new generation of car owners, who are demanding their future vehicles are tech-friendly, fuel-efficient and made to last.

Additional reporting by Jason Shubnell.

Posted-In: Chrysler Detroit Auto Show NAIASNews Travel Events Interview General Best of Benzinga

 

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