New York show is last stop for automakers' PR efforts

When the New York International Auto Show rolls into town this week, it will attempt to graft, if only for a moment, its Motown/LA car ethos onto the Big Apple.

When the New York International Auto Show rolls into town this week, it will attempt to graft, if only for a moment, its Motown/LA car ethos onto the Big Apple.

But New York is a place where driving (and parking) is not the free-wheeling lifestyle choice automakers describe in ads. It is one of the few remaining US cities whose design and economy are defined and supported by rail lines - where commuting still means reading a paper on a platform.

There are other reasons auto execs probably aren't tingling with glee at the thought of this show. New York is the caboose on a train of six major international car shows, the other five being Frankfurt and Tokyo in the fall, LA in December, Detroit and Chicago in the first quarter. Executives can't be faulted for viewing the show as a speed bump before summer vacation. The subtext: "Let's just get it over with."

That is precisely why New York tends to be the most candid, even coherent of shows. At last year's event, in fact, GM chairman Bob Lutz suggested that his company might not be married to all of its brands. The major reveals and concepts are over. There are fewer reporters, a less saccharine spin on news, and a more businesslike atmosphere. It's where you'll see more near-production vehicles and fewer flights of fancy in sheet metal. It's where automakers, who in January spun golden fables of the year to come, will now either publicly try not to eat humble pie or openly bask in the glow of Q1 results. To wit: GM and Ford will avoid the pie, and Chrysler will positively spin its market share gains, even though it has bought them with steep discounts and is sitting on huge inventory of its new midsize pickup, Dakota.

Things will kick off with Nissan's Carlos Ghosn giving a speech Wednesday morning, in which he no doubt will explain why he's moving North American operations from Orange County, CA, to Tennessee.

And with its PR chief Jason Vines, we can count on Chrysler having the most entertaining press conference, with CEO Dieter Zetsche starring in a ClearBlue-designed combination of Cirque du Soleil and Will Rogers Follies. Chrysler will also recreate rugged driving conditions in an indoor arena to show off its Jeeps, even as it moves that brand away from the trails.

And I can tell you now that Toyota, which tends to make New York its futurist soap box, will do something pixilated on a large digital screen - probably with lycra-enshrouded performance artists dancing about with video projectors attached to themselves - as it unveils something in a nice shade of hybrid. In this case, a gas/electric version of Camry.

GM likes to make New York a showcase for Saturn, probably because it's the most blue-state of its brands. And the show will be something of a coming-out party for Steve Harris, who recently replaced Tom Kowaleski as communications chief.

The grand message of PR in the panoply of press events, unveilings, and speeches, is that besides gas prices, the environment, the saturated car market, and the economy, automakers are worried about the fragmenting - make that shattering - media market and the ascension of consumer-directed "pull" marketing.

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