DENVER - Car sales are plummeting, General Motors is fighting off bankruptcy and the automaker's chief was just fired by the president of the United States.
Not a great week to have the Denver Auto Show.
But carmakers in town for the show said they are pressing ahead with plans to deliver cleaner, more efficient vehicles to buyers right away, not 20 years down the road.
In a Monday symposium, Ford and Volkswagen officials shared their plans for putting cleaner cars on the road.
"Whatever we do has to be affordable and available for millions. It can't be a niche project," said Thomas Niemann of Ford Motor Co.
The economy and the environmental ethic are mixed news for auto dealers, said Michael Banovsky, an automotive journalist for The Toronto Star.
Dealerships will sell fewer cars and need less land, he said, because people are holding onto their cars longer. But dealers can expect to do more business in parts and service, he said.
"I do see an increasing market for people actively spending money on upgrading their cars," Banovsky said.
In fact, auto parts stores are reporting brisk business as drivers try to extend the lives of their existing cars, he said.
Also, the quality of cars is getting better, so drivers replace them less often, Banovsky said.
As if to prove his point, Niemann talked about Ford's new goal of putting efficient cars on the road.
For starters, Ford's engineers are getting better performance out of traditional gasoline engines. Ford's EcoBoost program improves fuel efficiency by 20 percent through direct fuel injection and turbo charging, Niemann said. Those technologies used to be reserved for muscle cars, but by 2013, they will be in 90 percent of the cars Ford sells, he said.
While most of the buzz about electric cars belongs to the Chevy Volt, Niemann said Ford has its own plans. By 2012, Ford will be selling at least four battery-powered electric models, including a delivery van called the Transit Connect, which has a range of up to 100 miles per charge.
Environmentalists on the panel are enthusiastic about the advent of electric cars and plug-in hybrids - cars that can be charged overnight and use gasoline as a backup fuel.
But there's an environmental catch, said Mike Salisbury of the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project.
"Plug-in hybrids are good, but unless you have the electricity coming from renewable sources, you'd not going to see the kind of sustainable green change we'd like to see," Salisbury said.
Plug-ins aren't the only way to reduce fuel consumption. Volkswagen wants to bring more of its zippy European models to the United States, but the German company is hurting just like its U.S. counterparts.
"Our industry is currently in a big trauma, and 2009 will be an extremely difficult year," said Günter Schiele of VW America.
VW engineers have devised similar improvements to traditional gasoline engines as Ford. Direct-injection, turbo-charged cars are more efficient, and they're more fun to drive, too, Schiele said.
VW also wants to sell more diesel-powered cars in the United States. Half the cars sold in Europe are now diesel, compared to just 5 percent of American sales. Today's diesels aren't anything like the dirty, noisy trucks of the past, he said.
The Denver Auto Show runs today through Sunday at the Colorado Convention Center.