The North American International Auto Show is more than an opportunity to kick the tires and ogle the latest models. It's also an ideal time to take the pulse of the industry and the companies that make it tick.

For instance, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda says understaffing was a key reason why the auto maker has experienced a raft of quality issues in recent years.

Speaking to select media on the sidelines during the auto show, Toyoda says the speed at which the auto maker's volume grew in the last decade exceeded its hiring and training of workers.

Now Toyota is making “very focused efforts” to nurture the human-resources side of its business, he says.

For Audi, it's only a question of time before the German auto maker launches vehicle production in the U.S., CEO Rupert Stadler says.

On hand for the debut of the A6 sedan, Stadler predicts continued double-digit growth for Audi in the U.S. this year on top of 2010's record volume of 101,629, and says the OEM will decide in the “medium term whether to have a plant here.”

Local production would shorten the supply chain and allow Audi to react quickly to the market, executives say.

Saab Automobiles Chairman Victor Muller says the economic meltdown that nearly reduced the global industry to cinders in 2009 changed the automotive world for the better.

The crisis killed suppliers, closed dealerships, eliminated time-honored car brands and left thousands jobless. These outcomes were painful, but ultimately beneficial, Muller says. There exists now a new openness that fosters innovation.

“(Since) the storm, everybody is willing to share everything with everybody,” he says, specifically referring to Saab's agreement to acquire some 200,000 4-cyl. engines from BWW for the next-generation Saab 9-3 car line.

Consider also Saab's joint venture with American Axle Mfg., Muller adds. The companies will develop and produce in-wheel electric motors for use in the new 9-3, scheduled to debut in 2012.

At the Mercedes-Benz stand, the '12 C-Class represents “the most in-depth facelift we have ever done,” says Daimler CEO and Chairman Dieter Zetsche.

Mercedes is mum on the cost of the refresh, but the car brand's global sales and marketing director says the auto maker had no choice but to be aggressive.

“We are very successful at the moment, but there are still three years to go” before the next-generation C-Class arrives, Joachim Schmidt tells Ward's.

The Jeep division of Daimler's former U.S. affiliate, Chrysler Group, is contemplating entering new segments and adding new powertrains to its lineup.

Among possibilities are a hybrid or all-electric vehicle, a smaller Jeep and a model larger than the Grand Cherokee, says brand CEO and President Mike Manley.

At this year's show, Jeep unveils three 70th Anniversary models offering olive as a primary color, expected in dealer showrooms before second quarter.

Special-edition '11 Liberty, Wrangler and Grand Cherokee SUVs can be had with dark olive seats that recall the military uniforms in vogue when Willys-brand general-purpose vehicles, later called Jeeps, made their battlefield debut in 1941.

Transmission supplier ZF Friedrich-shafen announces it will build a 9-speed front-wheel-drive transmission for Chrysler beginning in 2013.

ZF says it will be the world's first automatic 9-speed transmission for a FWD vehicle with a transversely mounted engine. Production for Chrysler and other customers will be at a new ZF factory near Greenville, SC, where construction is getting under way.

At Hyundai, CEO John Krafcik is beaming over early Equus sales, the auto maker's most-expensive model ever offered in the U.S.

“The demand has been overwhelming,” he tells Ward's. Hyundai hopes to sell 2,000-3,000 units of the Equus annually, giving it a 5% share of what it considers the premium-luxury segment.

Krafcik says while he feared interested Equus buyers might put off their purchase until the 5.0L V-8 and 8-speed automatic models go on sale later in the first quarter, he only has heard of one buyer who opted to wait.

The Ultimate model starts at $64,500; the Signature Equus at $58,000.

Hyundai sibling Kia says the replacement for its Amanti sedan will not debut until 2012 in the U.S., one year later than planned by Korean parent Kia Motors.

KMA, which has just started selling the next-generation Optima midsize sedan, wants to leave enough time to establish itself in that segment before it begins retailing a bigger, more-expensive model, says Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for KMA.

Within six months, Tata Motors' Jaguar brand will decide how many new models it wants in its lineup.

New product could include a cross/utility vehicle, says Adrian Hallmark, new global brand manager, and eventually a sustainable supercar that uses the gas-turbine technology Jaguar unveiled in the C-X75 concept.

Hallmark says he is starting his analysis of the Jaguar brand and the segments it could enter. In addition to the current XF, XK and XJ, Jaguar has a fourth, unspecified, product in the works.

General Motors Chariman and CEO Dan Akerson says the auto maker plans to electrify at least one product at each of its four brands, and the Cadillac SRX likely will be home to a plug-in hybrid juggled between brands over the last few years.

GM has been trying to find a cross/utility vehicle for its plug-in hybrid electric-vehicle technology, introduced at the North American International Auto Show in 2007, since it decided to kill the Saturn brand ahead of its bankruptcy.

Buick became a candidate, but GM scrapped that idea after the vehicle performed poorly in customer clinics. Cadillac emerged at last year year's Detroit show as a potential destination with XTS concept car.

Micky Bly, who heads all hybrid and electrification programs at GM, confirmed to Ward's a CUV has been identified for the system.

BMW's Mini lineup will include a 2-door version of the Countryman in 2013 or so offering all-wheel drive to customers interested in a sporty version of the bigger Mini.

The final version of the Paceman presented in Detroit will be very similar to the concept, says Ian Robertson, the BMW board member in charge of Mini.

The car will be manufactured in Austria by Magna Steyr on the same line that makes the Mini Countryman.