Detroit – Walking across the auto show floor, a ranking German executive at General Motors Co. paused, pointed in the direction of the Jaguar Land Rover stand and muttered something like: biggest surprise in the industry.
Under the Indian ownership of Tata Motors Ltd. since 2008, the one-two punch of rugged British style and urbane refinement has been transformed into a credible luxury marque finding its own way — and mostly succeeding. Quite a journey, that, for the under-delivering twosome Ford Motor Co. controlled for nearly a generation.
"I don't think we'll go straight after the Germans" with Jag's new XE sports sedan, says Joe Eberhardt, the one-time Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Group executive who is now CEO of Jaguar Land Rover North America. "It would not be right to copy their approach, but reinterpret it in our own way."
The market will decide just how persuasive Jag's interpretation is. But the sum total of the Jaguar and Land Rover rebound under Tata ownership — and the parallel resurgence of Detroit's hometown automakers — suggests that competition and results can change reputations, even the likes of this town's frequently maligned players.
Little stays the same in the global auto industry, witness the gleaming displays at the North American International Auto Show opening Saturday to the public. That's unreservedly good for Detroit and folks whose livelihoods depend on a successful reinvention of the hometown industry.
It seems like only yesterday that employees hoisted cheesy rah-rah signs on GM's stand as federal dollars coursed through the automaker's financial machinery, bankruptcy loomed and a president-elect mulled whether to double-down on the incumbent's bailout or risk the consequences.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who recalls vividly the barren Chrysler stand exuding about as much excitement as cold pizza. Or the false bravado of CEO Bob Nardelli, whose military bearing and GE training masked a Chrysler both gutted by private-equity management and facing imminent collapse.
That was then, a time when just about the only positive note in an otherwise discordant Detroit dirge was the red-headed Kansan named Mulally, whose optimism and focus leading Ford projected calm confidence in short supply. Not anymore.
Just about everyone's on the muscle, and not afraid to say so. Jag and Land Rover, Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV's Alfa Romeo and GM's Cadillac are taking another run at the German hegemony in the sport luxury space. Nissan Motor Co. is making another, arguably more credible, run at the full-size pickup stronghold of Detroit.
GM is aiming its 200 miles-on-a-charge Chevrolet Bolt at Elon Musk's Tesla. Ford is pushing performance in ways all but the most sanctimonious environmental scold should appreciate — better fuel economy on smaller displacement engines generating more horsepower pushing lighter weight materials.
FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne is banging the "consolidation" drum accompanied by long explanations sounding eerily like a damsel in search of a suitor never identified. Ford's executive chairman offered a simple response: "I know," Bill Ford said. "He can look elsewhere."
And competitive juices? Back, too. Marchionne, as is his wont, promises the coming Alfa sports sedan will concede nothing to the Bavarians at BMW AG. Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen, a veteran of Infiniti and, more importantly, Audi, concedes nothing to the competition, either.
"The actions are deliberate," de Nysschen said at the unveiling of the 640-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V. "We are here to disrupt and shatter the status quo. We are challenging them precisely where they are strongest."
That's one way to talk smack, albeit without the benefit of a strong sales performance last year to back it up. For now, that's arguably less important than whether an increasingly independent Cadillac strongly supported by the mother ship really can show signs of building a brand identity to match its lineup.
Finally, don't discount the symbolism of this week for this industry in this town. Detroit's annual automotive rite is unspooling in a revived Cobo Center surrounded by a city freed from Chapter 9 bankruptcy and fueled, for now, by optimism grounded in reality.
Talk about a turnaround. GM and Ford, especially, are generating more profit in their home market than anytime since the 1960s. That's no guarantee of future success in a notoriously cyclical business, but it's evidence that surprises can be built in Detroit, too.
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found here.