In a year when GM went from bankruptcy to successful IPO, when troubled Chrysler now seeks to hire workers, and when Ford just barreled to $1.7 billion in quarterly earnings, one thing stands out as the annual Tampa Bay International Auto Show opens today.
Domestic automakers are feeling their oats as the entire auto industry enjoyed a 17 percent bump in sales this November over last year. You can sense the bullish feeling in conversations and in the generous amount of space GM, Ford and Chrysler are taking at the Tampa Convention Center for the three-day show.
Only a few years ago, this auto show was wowed by the arrival of the Toyota Prius hybrid as the most cutting-edge vehicle for gas efficiency and environmental correctness. Now hybrids are on display at many of the auto companies at the show. Electric cars (including those all-electric or aided by gas engines) are now starting to emerge rapidly.
It's tough to boil down an auto show that's rich in new engineering, friendly technology and pure eye candy.
Here are five "must sees" based on a preview visit:
1 Rise of the electrics: Don't go to this show without a good look at the Chevy Volt. Florida is not one of its first-wave states when it goes on sale, but it will be here soon enough. It's a four-seater with plenty of bells and whistles starting at $41,000 (before a $7,500 tax credit — so make that $33,500).
There's another all-electric vehicle on display that you've yet to see. It's the Wheego, of Chinese origin but made in California, brought to you by the former CEO of MindSpring, the early Internet company. Two models — one to run around town at up to 35 mph and one for the road that can hit 65 and go up to 100 miles before a recharge — will be sold in the coming weeks by a new St. Petersburg dealership called Suncoast Electric Vehicles on Fourth Street.
2 Friendlier dashboard technology: Check out Ford's new "MyFord Touch" sync screens on its Edge crossover vehicle. Down from Detroit, Edge marketing manager Brett Burin offered an in-depth demo of the screens (both on the center console and the instrument panel behind the steering wheel). I'm no techie, but even I could appreciate the consumer-friendly features that allow easier control (by voice or button touch) and customizing of the auto's entertainment, phone, navigation, climate and many other features. All this means less, not more, gadget distraction to drivers.
3 Expanding safety features: Consider the radar-guided cruise control to minimize rear-end accidents, chime alerts to wake sleepy drivers (Volvo's XC60 has it) and warning signals for cars hiding in the notorious "blind spots" on each side of drivers (Ford Edge). And, of course, there is the inflatable rear seat belt in Ford's newly styled Explorer.
4 Something about Hyundai: What is it about this auto company that continues to sell so briskly and appeal to Gen Y? Now it's pushing new luxury models in the face of upscale Mercedes and Lexus. In greater Tampa Bay, the Hyundai of New Port Richey dealership continues to outsell all other auto dealers.
5 Better mileage: Look at all the vehicles with improved gas mileage. From its Fiesta to 2012 Focus, Ford alone has four models topping 40 mpg.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.