Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Washington Auto Show, 2010

Washington, DC –

The Washington Auto Show returned to the City of Political Fallout this week, with a mission more ingrained than ever before: Look busy, the bosses are watching. The DC show isn’t about big splashy introductions or horsepower, but rather a chance (or penance) for those involved in the US market to tell the policy wonks in town just how upstanding and environmentally conscious and “pro-active” (a phrase I’d love to see go the way of Saturn) they really are.

This year, however, isn’t the same as every other.

With Toyota in the midst of its biggest PR nightmare ever, and with GM and Chrysler still on the hook for a few dollars to the Feds, it seemed most of the big players were keeping a low profile and giving the impression “sorry, we’re keeping our heads down and, oh this is a car show? We’re GREEN!

GM, which for years had rented the “up front” space near the main doors of the Center, this time moved rearward and offered a scaled-down display featuring – among other cars – a 2009 Cobalt. The new Regal was on display, as was the Cadillac Converj concept and the “what on Earth is that supposed to be” GMC Granite shoebox on wheels, but the standout at GM, if there was one, had to be the 2011 Chevy Aveo. GM brought one, and put it behind the rope. It’s not ready to be touched yet, you see. The same treatment was afforded the new Cruze, which really should’ve been open-for-business on the floor.
From DC Auto Show 2010

To prove that GM isn’t just about odd shoebox concepts and rebadged Opel sedans, a squadron of Camaros (including the Transformers’ own Bumblebee) and Corvettes (Z06, ZR1, and Grand Sport) took up the half of the display and gave the kids something to dream about.
From DC Auto Show 2010

Chrysler, also in the midst of trying to re-tool and pay back loans from Uncle Sam, could offer little in the way of new sheet metal – of its own, anyway. So, beside the existing production lineup and one-off rides on display, were a pair of attention-getting Fiat 500s. In only a few minutes of speaking with a Chrysler rep on the floor, the sheer volume of people walking over to ask “when will the 500 be on sale” was huge. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t “now” but rather “in a little while…”

While Chrysler is waiting out most of this year for fresh sheet metal and new engine bits to come down the line, the recent earthquake devastation in Haiti prompted them to donate a 300C for Haitian relief efforts. On display was the 300C, having been signed by most of Hollywood after the Golden Globe awards. Chrysler’s new CEO, Olivier Francois was on hand to dedicate the car – which he pointed out had been his own ride – and share the podium with officials from the American Red Cross and Leake Car Auction.
From DC Auto Show 2010

From DC Auto Show 2010

I had the chance to get Olivier Francois alone for a few minutes - he was looking for a place to have a smoke, so I escorted him out front for a spell. I got to pick his brain just a little bit, both on his impressions of America (and DC) as well as his vision for where he wants to take Chrysler. Without going into too much detail, he certainly has vision, and if -- this is a might IF -- but if things pan out as planned, we should have some astonishing new cars under the Pentastar in years to come.

Indeed, it seemed the group that really wanted to put on a show and enthusiastically tell people about its new and upcoming products was Ford. As you enter the Convention Center, the first plot of floor space you see is draped all in blue, and all manner of Fords – their whole Domestic lineup – is situated in such a way as to greet you and say “welcome – this is OUR house, and the rest are just here to take notes.” It’s no joke. Displays of Mustangs (including on on its side, the better to admire the glass roof), Taurus, Focus and the new Fiesta were out in front, while its big trucks were on display just off the main walk – passenger cars are the new thing, it seems, after two decades of SUV craziness.
From DC Auto Show 2010

Alan Mulally flew in to kick off the show, and gave the assembled media an enthusiastic yet brief speech, emphasizing Ford’s turnaround in the marketplace and how the company has adapted in the toughest of times. Mulally is the image of a man who was born to do exactly what he’s doing right now, and his appearance at the DC show was a welcome change from the typical boilerplate policy-based nonsense we’re so used to hearing.
From DC Auto Show 2010

While Ford made the most of the spotlight, one absolutely major company was doing its best to stay out of the glare.

Toyota, once the darling of the media – and of numerous Senators from the South – placed a number of production cars on the floor and tried its best not to answer any questions about the production shutdowns, recalls, lawsuits, and outright hammering the company is taking as a result of three years of sudden acceleration problems in a variety of its vehicles.

If the recall fiasco wasn’t enough, factory workers from Toyota’s NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA had been flown in to protest Toyota’s planned closing of the facility. NUMMI is a UAW plant, and Toyota has wanted out of that deal for years – regardless of the number of workers put out on the street.

So, with reporters inside the Center questioning Toyota about its bungling of a defect that has led to an increasing number of crashes, injuries, deaths, and lawsuits, and with workers outside handing out literature saying “Toyota is trying to shut down our plant and create even more unemployment,” the former media darling is now chasing its tail trying to find the right answers and lay low, VERY low, until the storm passes.

No wonder they didn’t bother bringing out the LF-A.

That’s it for now – I’ll see you at Sebring.

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