Detroit brings European models home

Some of Detroit's newest models may look more at home on the autobahn than the interstate.

That's because U.S. automakers are scouring Europe for models to freshen their American lineups.

The latest unveilings reflect the continuing trend toward vehicles that can be sold globally or those that offer a quick-fix to prop up ailing American nameplates.

Crossing the Atlantic:

•Ford Motor. The European-engineered Ford Transit Connect, a car-like compact cargo van, was introduced last week at the Chicago Auto Show. At last month's Detroit show, Ford unveiled concept versions of the Verve small cars, designed by Ford f in Europe, that will cruise America in 2010.

•General Motors. GM's gm Opel unit in Germany has become a major source of new cars for the Saturn division in the USA, including the Aura and Astra sedans.

•Chrysler. Dodge markets the big European-built Sprinter van that's left over from Chrysler's ownership by Germany's Daimler.

More could be on the way. Just as GM has livened up the Saturn brand with imported designs, Ford could comb its European subsidiary for ways to energize its fading Mercury brand. Ford's European Mondeo sedan, for instance, would be a perfect candidate, says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific.

Infilling U.S. brands with some of their better European models is a tactic that has largely eluded Detroit.

"They should have been doing that for decades," Peterson says. A problem is that many European cars are more fully featured than U.S. counterparts, raising fears people here will resist resulting higher price tags.

Automakers would love to build models that can be sold worldwide, a goal for the Verve. But sometimes they cherry-pick models that might work in a particular market because they are unique. Ford's Turkish-built Transit, due by 2010, works for the USA because "in Europe, this tough small van has carved out a niche for itself," said Ford Vice President Derrick Kuzak.

Likewise, Ford believes it has small-car expertise in Europe. Verve would be its smallest car in the USA.

Stewart Reed, transportation design chair at the Art Center College of Design, says he sees vehicles that would make great candidates for the USA every time he's in Europe. American drivers will appreciate a car's European heritage even if it's sold by the Big 3. "They can sense the DNA of these products," Reed says.

The latest offerings show Detroit is finally learning how to take greatest advantage of its strengths around the world, says Alexander Edwards, president of research firm Strategic Vision. All three "want to be known as leaders worldwide," he says. "They can do that by leveraging European vehicles."