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Cadillac ATS, Dodge Ram take auto-of-year honors

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  • The Audi exhibit at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

    Associated Press

    The Audi exhibit at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

  • Toyota Division General Manager Bill Fay unveils the Corolla Furia Concept on Monday.

    Associated Press

    Toyota Division General Manager Bill Fay unveils the Corolla Furia Concept on Monday.

  • General Motors Senior Vice President Mary Barra, President of North America Mark Reuss (center) and Cadillac Chief Engineer David Leone react after th...

    Associated Press

    General Motors Senior Vice President Mary Barra, President of North America Mark Reuss (center) and Cadillac Chief Engineer David Leone react after the Cadillac ATS is named North American Car of the Year on Monday.

DETROIT -- Monday was validation day for Detroit's automakers with the Cadillac ATS chosen as the North American Car of the Year and the Ram 1500 as Truck of the Year.
The winners were announced at an event to open the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The ATS won over finalists the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord -- the first win for Cadillac in the award's 19-year history.
On the truck side, the Ram beat the Mazda CX-5 and Ford C-Max Energi, a plug-in hybrid crossover. It was the first truck win for Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler since 1994, the first year of the awards.
The winners were chosen by 49 jurors, veteran journalists who spend a lot of time evaluating each year's new crop of vehicles.
The ATS is a compact car that expanded the brand's lineup into entry-luxury and takes direct aim at the BMW 3 series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4 and Lexus IS as a world-class competitor.
The Ram is a traditional truck with stop-start technology for better fuel economy as well as an eight-speed transmission and voice-recognition software in the latest version of Chrysler' Uconnect infotainment system.
Toyota retakes sales lead
Toyota has once again dethroned General Motors as the world's top-selling automaker.
The Japanese company sold 9.7 million cars and trucks worldwide in 2012, although it's still counting. GM sold 9.29 million.
Both companies saw higher sales, but Toyota's growth was far larger as it rolled out new versions of popular models like the Camry. GM executives promised sales growth this year, especially in the U.S. Both companies say publicly that they don't care about who wins, but concede that the crown is an important morale booster for employees.
GM was the top-selling carmaker for more than seven decades before losing the title to Toyota in 2008. But GM retook the sales crown in 2011 when Toyota's factories were slowed by an earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The disaster left Toyota dealers with few cars to sell. The company has since recovered.
Redesign coming for Corolla
The Toyota Corolla is getting a facelift. But the jury is still out on how extreme its makeover should be.
Toyota is hinting at a more daring style for the 2014 Corolla with the Furia, a concept car unveiled Monday at the Detroit auto show. The concept allows the cautious company to see how people react to its styling changes before it releases the final version of the Corolla, which is expected to go on sale sometime this year.
The world's largest automaker knows it needs to update the stale Corolla if it wants to attract younger buyers, who have been flocking to newer, more stylish rivals like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. The Corolla was last revamped four years ago.
Even though Corolla's U.S. sales rose 21 percent to 290,947 last year, they trailed the Honda Civic, which was new in 2012. Civic sales jumped 44 percent to 317,909.
Still, it's risky to toy with one of the best-selling cars in the world. Toyota has sold 200,000 Corollas every year in the U.S. for nearly two decades.
The Furia ditches the current Corolla's soft, bland styling in favor of sharper lines, a dramatically sloped windshield and hood, narrower and more aggressive headlights and a large, blacked-out grille that's reminiscent of Toyota's luxury Lexus brand. Toyota says it wants the car to look like it's in motion even when it's parked. The Furia is slightly longer, narrower and lower than the current Corolla.
Toyota also needs to up the ante on horsepower, fuel economy and options in an increasingly competitive market. The current Corolla starts at $16,230, slightly more than the Ford Focus. But the Focus has better fuel economy and a more powerful engine. Toyota doesn't offer an optional rearview camera, which is now available on every other competitor, or safety features like blind-spot monitors, which are found on the Chevrolet Cruze and others.
Toyota builds 70 percent of the cars it sells in the U.S. in North America. The Corolla is currently made in Canada. Toyota hasn't yet said where the 2014 Corolla will be made.
The Corolla -- which means "crown" in Latin -- was introduced in Japan in 1966 and came to the U.S. two years later. The new sedan went a long way toward changing U.S. buyers' perception of Toyota as a maker of cheap, poorly built cars. The Corolla was still inexpensive, but had innovations like two-speed wipers, an improved suspension and more comfortable seats. Buyers were further impressed when Toyota -- responding to the U.S. market -- quickly added more powerful engines.
As a result, the Corolla became the go-to car for generations of young graduates and their downsizing parents, who bought for quality and price despite the ho-hum styling. Last year, it was surpassed only by the midsize Camry and the hybrid Prius in Toyota's U.S. lineup, and it was the 8th best-selling vehicle in the U.S.
Dart flopping in U.S.
Chrysler made the new Dodge Dart a little too European for American tastes.
And the company's CEO says that fact is holding back sales of Chrysler's first innovative small car in years.
The Dart, unveiled with much fanfare at last year's Detroit auto show, is off to a slow start after going on sale in May. Only 25,000 were sold last year, which CEO Sergio Marchionne concedes is below his expectations.
Chrysler, owned by Italy's Fiat, had touted the sleek compact as the perfect blend of aggressive American styling and Italian technology. It was supposed to be Chrysler's first competitive compact since the Dodge Neon came out in the 1990s.
But on Monday at this year's Detroit show, Marchionne said the company made the mistake of rolling out the Dart with transmissions and engine combinations that were ill-suited for American drivers. The car initially went on the market with only a manual transmission, which accounts for less than 5 percent of U.S. sales. Then Chrysler offered two six-speed automatic transmissions, one that shifts like cars in Europe, and the other paired with an engine too weak to make the Dart accelerate quickly.
Marchionne said the European transmission shifts more often and accelerates more slowly than Americans are used to.
"It's a great fuel mileage solution, but it's got to meet consumer expectations, and were not quite there," Marchionne said. "If it's a mismatch to consumer expectations, you're going to pay the price, and we have."
The solution, he says, is a nine-speed automatic transmission. The added gears will help the car accelerate faster and give it great mileage. Chrysler is developing such a transmission 3in America that will first appear in a revamped Jeep Liberty small SUV later this year. The Liberty is to be unveiled at the New York Auto Show in March.
Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports' director of automotive testing, said Darts with a 2-liter four-cylinder engine, and a conventional automatic transmission, are too slow. The European automatic behaves more like a manual transmission and isn't to the liking of Americans, he said.
Nissan cuts price of Leaf
Nissan is lowering the price of its Leaf electric car to try to boost sales.
The 2013 Leaf will start at $28,800, which is $6,000 lower than the previous model. Federal tax incentives can bring that below $19,000.
Nissan expected Leaf sales to jump 50 percent last year after it expanded the number of dealerships offering them. But worldwide sales rose just 22 percent to around 27,000. U.S. Leaf sales were up just 1.5 percent.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn says the lower price should help attract more customers. He says the company is spending less on some parts and on manufacturing. Nissan recently moved production of U.S. Leafs to Tennessee from Japan.
Ghosn says the lack of recharging infrastructure is also hurting electric car sales.

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