Electric cars create buzz at toned down auto show


Published: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 9:09 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 9:09 a.m.

DETROIT Chevrolet dealer Joe Magarity liked what he saw Sunday on the floor of the annual Detroit auto show when General Motors executives unveiled their prized models to the international media:

"Less is more."

Like a recession-whipped consumer learning to be frugal, the embattled automaker had eliminated costly floor risers, live music and other big-ticket items for its typically souped-up 100,000-square foot display at the Cobo Hall in the heart of downtown.

GM was not alone. With recession blues pressuring the auto industry, gone were many of the Hollywood flourishes that, in recent years, had turned the North American International Auto Show into a virtual arms race of marketing flash among the world's automotive titans.

Yes, there was a monstrous video screen above the GM speaker's podium. And, of course, there was plenty of thumping, pounding music as a gleaming procession of cars and crossover SUVs rolled down a long, roped-off catwalk lined with reporters and photographers.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, marching along with the much-hyped electric Chevrolet Volt, held high a sign that said "Here To Stay," evoking the precarious condition that has threatened to thrust Detroit-based GM into bankruptcy.

Detroit Tigers announcer Mario Impemba talked up the passing cars like they were MVP hitters.

To Magarity, of Philadelphia, this was good news. It was all about the cars. So many. Sixteen, in fact, four times as many as GM trotted out last year.

"Auto shows are still someplace where the American cars are still big dogs," said Magarity, who on Friday sold his Chestnut Hill (Pa.) Ford showroom and lot to Bowman Properties after shuttering what had been a family franchise, due to poor sales.

"That," Magarity said, pointing to GM's lineup of fuel-efficient sedans and SUVs being promoted onstage, "is going to help me."

Having parted ways with Ford, Magarity has now invested all he's got into his one remaining dealership.

As chairman of the upcoming Philadelphia Auto Show, Magarity wore his Sunday best to attend the big show, his first time here. With the domestic auto industry in a tailspin and dealers like Magarity shutting down franchises to cope, the media kickoff to the auto show here in Motor City was subdued a stab at humility for the swaggering Big Three Ford, Chrysler and GM. Pennypinching seemed the rule overall. Nissan refused to even make an appearance.

"GM not long ago did absolutely anything they wanted," said Tom Libby, analyst for J.D. Power and Associates, who has attended the car show for a decade.

During that time, the companies tried to out-do each other with high-end gimmicks and all-you-can-eat-and-drink junkets for the press.

"A lot of it is like competing with the Joneses one-upping the competition," Libby said.

This year, there is but a trace of such decadence. The economy has changed things.

"That's why you're not going to see a lot of it," said Libby, who tracks and projects North American auto sales. "The companies are trying to save money."

The mood was also shaded by a peaceful mid-day protest outside Cobo Hall by about 100 unionized workers.

With Congress and bailout critics calling for the Big Three to extract deep concessions from the unionized labor force, auto workers made an unusual appearance outside on a slushy sidewalk on a sub-freezing day.

"Cutting wages won't help the industry survive," said Wendy Thompson, past president of United Auto Workers Local 235, whose members work for auto supplier American Axle.

"We support solutions that don't unfairly blame workers for botched corporate policies," she said.

Despite the economic difficulties that have drastically cut U.S. auto sales, the industry has not lost sight of the potency of the U.S. consumer and its importance in any company's success.

"The American market, even in crisis, is the most important automotive market in the world," said Matthias Wissmann, president of the Association of the German Automotive Industry, which organizes the annual auto show in Frankfurt, among the world's largest.

"We hope we can see some light at the end of the tunnel about the crisis already here," said Wissmann, to the throng gathered as the Ford F-150 pickup and Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan won truck and car of the year.

For Chrysler, Ford and GM, whose offerings have long been big and brawny, the buzzwords were fuel efficiency, electric cars, style and value a mantra embraced by newly cost-conscious consumers and the incoming Obama administration.

Ford and GM, in particular, rolled out a number of fuel efficient models and touted in-the-pipeline electric designs. Chrysler, too, talked electric cars but was leanest on new offerings overall.

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