Carmakers rev their engines at auto show
After the forklifts roll out of the Convention Center this morning, the curtain will rise on the 2010 Philadelphia International Auto Show, a spectacle trimmed and humbled after the most tempestuous year ever for the automotive industry.
The show opens today to the media, tomorrow to the public, with a pall lingering over the event. Before double-digit unemployment and the Great Recession, the show glistened with the promise of monster vehicles for a nation accustomed to limitless consumption.
Not so anymore. Not yet.
Just this week, Toyota Motor Corp. entered crisis mode with a massive recall and a sales and production moratorium on millions of its most popular models. The recall is battering the Japanese automaker's reputation for reliability.
The chairman of the auto show, Dominic Conicelli Jr., is a Toyota dealer, and as such has been hammered by media interest in that story, rather than the show for which he is a volunteer ambassador.
"I'd like to put an emphasis back on the auto show," Conicelli said.
Other casualties are notable, too, by their absence.
Four brands no longer under General Motors' umbrella because of GM's bankruptcy reorganization are gone from this year's show floor: Saab, Hummer, Pontiac, and Saturn. General Motors Co. is instead devoting more floor space to its surviving brands: Buick, GMC, Cadillac, and Chevrolet.
Twenty new-car dealers across Southeastern Pennsylvania are gone, too, thanks largely to forced closures stemming from last year's federally supervised Chapter 11 bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler L.L.C. A year ago, there were 210; today, there are 190.
All things considered, there is optimism, a top auto show organizer said, albeit "subdued."
"It's not that things are great or even necessarily good, but they're certainly better, and they're moving in the right direction," said Kevin Mazzucola, executive director of the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia, which organizes the hallmark event to boost regional auto sales and raise money for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
"That bodes well," Mazzucola said, "for an industry that was historically hobbled in 2009."
A year after the storm, there are signs that automakers are doing what they can to spark consumer enthusiasm and recapture some of the millions of lost vehicle sales.
Just yesterday, Ford Motor Co., the only U.S. automaker to avoid declaring bankruptcy and in second-place behind Toyota in U.S. sales, grabbed headlines by reporting that 2009 was its first profitable year since 2005.
Ford chief financial officer Lewis I. Booth said profit was helped by cost-cutting, but also an attractive car lineup.
"We are improving our revenue position because our new products are valued by customers," Booth said.
Among those products, he said, is the new Ford Fiesta, which he hoped would turn heads at Philadelphia's auto show.
"It's a beautiful car to look at, it's wonderful to drive," Booth said. "It's just a car that you dream about."
GM said it would expand exhibit space for its remaining four brands to ramp up enthusiasm for its vehicles.
Research conducted during the Philadelphia show typically indicates that visitors are influenced in their car-buying decisions.
"Philadelphia is a crucial market for us," said Scott Settlemire, GM's auto-show event planner.
Last year, show attendance fell to 206,000 - down from 230,000 in 2008 and much lower than its peak year in 2004, when 279,000 people turned out, Mazzucola said.
Organizers are hoping to hit 225,000 this year, a more normal figure, he said.
GM heads into the show shining its spotlight on the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, a fuel-efficient sedan that goes on sale later this year and boasts up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway.
"I believe that Chevrolet has a future that is brighter than in any other time in its history, when I look at it from a global perspective," said GM design chief and Berwyn native Ed Welburn.
But as automakers regroup, rejected dealers want their franchises back. Of the 789 decommissioned Chrysler dealers nationwide, 409 had applied for arbitration as of yesterday, said Chrysler Group L.L.C.
GM dealers also are pursuing arbitration claims.
Mazzucola said it had been a "sad" year - one he will talk about years from now. It will go something like this:
" 'You think it's tough now? You don't even know what you're talking about, Sonny, because I was there in '09,' " Mazzucola said. "I can see myself in a rocking chair saying that to someone."
Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or email@example.com.