By Jeff Gilbert, WWJ Auto Beat Reporter

DETROIT (WWJ) – Media previews for the 2013 North American International Auto Show opened on Monday with a sense of optimism for 2013, and a feeling that the domestic industry has come a long way since the difficult days of 2008 and 2009.

“It’s difficult for me to look at the three and a half years in hindsight and say, ‘It’s been a hell of a ride,” said Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

Chrysler and General Motors celebrated wins in the important North American Car and Truck/Utility of the Year Awards, with the Ram 1500 pickup and Cadillac ATS.

The 2013 auto show features new pickups from General Motors and Ford, and a lot of luxury cars.  Ford’s Lincoln brand hopes to compete with those imports with a new small SUV, called the Lincoln MKS.

Chairman Bill Ford says they took a hard look at the Lincoln brand, and even considered eliminating it, before they decided to go ahead with a complete transformation.

“We concluded with such a great heritage, had a great tradition of styling that really was unmatched anywhere in the industry, and the name really still resonated with customers,” he said.  “We felt it was really worth an effort to re-launch the brand.  We know it’s going to be a long road.”

And, it’s not an easy road. analyst Jessica Caldwell said Lincoln has an image problem that it needs to correct.

“People who are buying those type of cars, they want the brand association as well.  I think that’s Lincoln’s first hurdle.  But I think developing consistently good cars, with a good design, it’s a start,” said Caldwell. “We’ve seen Ford’s turnaround.  Hopefully, they can do the same thing with Lincoln.”

This show comes as car companies finish a year that was better than expected, and expect improvements in the coming year.  But, there is also the concern that inaction on the nation’s debt and other issues, could hurt the economy.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally said Congress needs to treat the economy like it was a business.

“That means we need to live within our means,” Mulally said.  “And we need to reduce the debt.  We need to reduce the deficit, including the trade deficit.  And, we need to do everything we can to create an environment in which business can grow.”

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