Although the North American International Auto Show doesn’t officially open to the public until Saturday, General Motors (technically still a Michigan automaker) is already creating quite a buzz. On Sunday, GM sent a jolt through the industry by snagging the car and truck of the year awards for its Saturn Aura and Chevrolet Silverado. Could it be that there’s life in the Big Three yet?

Sarah Royce

While the good press will generate interest, only quality, innovative products will boost sales and keep American automakers on the field against Japanese power players Toyota and Honda – not to mention the up-and-coming Chinese challenge. It’s refreshing to hear that GM – if not Ford – retains an occasional grasp on consumer demand and environmental common sense. This is proven by the Chevy Volt concept car, an electric car that GM swears will go into production. Seriously.

The Volt has an all-electric 160 horsepower motor, powered by lithium-ion batteries similar to the ones in music players, cell phones and laptops. The batteries can be charged not only via a wall outlet but also by the Volt’s three-cylinder gasoline engine, which only burns fuel to recharge the batteries. GM estimates that the car could get the equivalent of 150 miles per gallon on a 60-mile trip, and it looks snazzy, too.

The Volt demonstrates an electrifying leap for the previously static mindset of American car companies that until recently pushed gargantuan SUVs, even as market share and Michigan jobs evaporated. What’s also pleasantly surprising is that such a strategy leapfrogs even the environmental consciousness of reputedly green Japanese auto companies like Toyota and Honda.

Before we get too excited about good old American ingenuity overcoming all, however, it’s important to maintain perspective. GM’s accolades still come in the wake of news of an inventory backlog at Chrysler. Ford is borrowing on everything but the FieldTurf at Ford Field in hopes of preventing – or at least delaying – the crash of one of America’s most iconic brands.

GM itself, despite another strong performance this year from its Chevrolet unit, will probably have to hand over the title of “world’s largest automaker” to Toyota sometime around summer. And the Volt? An electric car can’t do much good if it isn’t put into production, and while it’s clear that GM plans to build the car, battery technology and other obstacles will keep the Volt off the roads for at least a few more years.

Alas, the fate of Michigan’s economy remains tied to the fate of the Big Three. The hemorrhaging of funds and jobs in the American automobile industry has left our once booming state with the highest unemployment rate of any state in the country except Mississippi. While it’s commendable that at least one of the Big Three seems serious about turning its fortunes around, the state can’t afford to depend on car companies anymore.

We’d love to buy an entirely electric car when it becomes available – curbing CO2 emissions is cool any day of the week. But the automotive or manufacturing industries can no longer be the bread and butter of our state; we’ve seen the carnage of that over the past few years. Attracting innovative jobs to the state and ensuring that it has the educated workforce to do such jobs must remain legislators’ top priorities.

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