Business, Finance & Economics

A lean New York auto show

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NEW YORK — The 2009 New York International Auto Show is delivering a Spartan message.

In tough economic times, the near collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and struggles even among Asian and European stalwarts, the 2009 show, at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, has rid itself of loftier, expensive settings and scenes of so many years past.

Those kind of extravagances would surely offend taxpayers who are bailing out the industry to the tune of billions of dollars.

Cast off are the indoor streams and heaped dirt off-road trails; gone are four-course dinners, exhibitions, aerialists suspended in high performance before adoring crowds of journalists, cars crashing through shimmering sheets of plate glass for their introductions, Arnold brazenly taking a Hummer into Times Square and straight through the gaping window of a network television studio.

And this is a good thing. It's time for car companies to gather their belongings — or at least assess what they still might hold.

Indeed, there were no breathtaking introductions, no serious sizzle for the masses (well okay, look up the BMW M6).

Instead, you had venerable companies — Land Rover, Subaru, Mazda, Chrysler — sticking to what has recently served them best, even in lean times.

And what one company — Ford — did not do, may have been most significant, at least as a touchstone for the times.

Ford did not hold flashy intros or strut boldly across any floor. But it did march into the show still not having touched federal bailout money and, seemingly, on course to launch from the line whenever the economy can boost such an explosion down the straightaway.

Chrysler President Jim Press rode onto the stage in a subcompact Fiat 500 — a nod to President Obama’s pointed instructions that Chrysler has until May 1 to finalize a merger with Fiat in order to qualify for $6 billion in federal bailout money. Obama said that Chrysler needs Fiat as a majority-ownership partner because the Italian automaker can build fuel-efficient cars in the U.S. that Chrysler cannot build on its own.

And then, in a seemingly contrapuntal move, out came Chrysler's looming new Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Now I have colleagues in the press who snorted, ``What are they thinking?’’ And yet, consider this: Jeep, long a mainstay in the Chrysler brand, did not bring Chrysler to its knees. In fact, at the moment it may be its healthiest asset. Keep the Jeep, I say, and let Fiat fill the gaping hole — the lack of small cars.

Mazda redefined its CX7 and CX9 "crossover" vehicles, giving them even more than ever the look of a sleek station wagon than an SUV/minivan in full camouflage.

Subaru stepped out, ever so slightly, with a sleeker, more aggressively nosed, and somewhat larger version of its Legacy sedan and followed that with a similarly repackaged version of its Outback wagon. Subaru just keeps being, well, Subaru, even as Korea continues to advance, this time with the new Kia Koup, aimed at Honda Civics and similar tuner cars.

Land Rover, trapped between the roiling, cold seas of England and the ownership of Tata of India, one of the British empire's former colonies, stood fast with the promise to overhaul its three hot offroad vehicles from recent model years. Even in the midst of a literal sea-change in ownership, Land Rover clung to what has worked best most recently, putting forth updates of the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, and LR3 — the last inexplicably casting off a name that has worked on the assumption that ``LR4’’ will somehow be more appealing. Hell, let’s just go to LR21 and trump the table.

Not all fun has been sucked from the car culture — but this may be one of those rare plays where the scenery tells you more than any emotive outpouring from the players.

Consider that auto shows have long been the events where manufacturers from around the world cast flashing lures into the sometimes murky — today stilled — waters of an industry ever in ebb and flow. Their goal has always been to lure a hungry press in what has long been a fishing expedition.

Nobody comes to an international auto show with fly-fishing gear. Too subtle, too precise.

Instead, the waters are chummed, baited with the meat, blood, chicken parts, and lubricants of dinners and parties and gifts. And journalists have always plied these waters as if they were the fishers, not the catch, looking for the big ones that must not get away.

This year’s Hyundai Genesis (2009 North American Car of the Year), the hot new sports car, the truck or SUV that will overcome a sudden worry about effiency, cleanliness, gasoline and diesel prices.

And yet this year, there were no big ones to land. Instead there was subtlety of content and message.

We await our first seat time behind the wheel of the reborn and iconic Chevrolet Camaro, cannot wait to push hard on the edges of the BMW 6 Series new M car, but also watch in hushed fear as both GM — in particular — and Chrysler do a dance at death’s door with a suitor named bankruptcy.

More GlobalPost dispatches by Royal Ford:

Decoding the global lure of all wheel drive

The Nano lands in India

Designing cars for old folks

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