Dispatches from the New York Auto Show

Auto shows are usually filled with fun, frolic and hoopla. Usually the press conferences are stuffed with optimism, even from brands that have no real right to be optimistic. But at the recent New York International Auto Show, there was no shortage of dreariness filling the halls of the Jacob Javits Center. And it’s not hard to reason why. The background economic news was certainly disheartening: the home mortgage business largely a mess, home equity plunging in virtually every major urban market, home-building slow and a major financial house teetering on the brink of the abyss. It is no wonder that there was no move to pull out the paper party hats and noisemakers and have a celebration. 

But when others saw the glass half empty, we chose to see it as at least half full.  And despite what executives euphemistically call “headwinds,” there remains a lot of vibrancy in the new light-vehicle market, which should make 2008 a very interesting year. Of course, you can understand why so many car company executives and industry observers are pessimistic. Certainly there were negative signs at the New York show. The number of interesting concept vehicles introduced at the show was down drastically from previous years. Big players like Ford Motor Company didn’t have a press conference (though one broke out “spontaneously” on their show stand), and Toyota cancelled its previously scheduled press conference. Additionally, some of the “news” smacked of rehash -- either vehicles that had previously been seen at the Geneva motor show just weeks before or derivatives of vehicles we have seen before elsewhere. Given the tenor of the times, this was not unexpected. As a top design executive for a major global automaker told us, “When economic circumstances are difficult, you are much less likely to commit resources for that pie-in-the-sky concept vehicle. You’re much more likely to back projects that have complete production intent.”

In spite of all that, there were still several very interesting developments.  Perhaps the most interesting of all was the fact that General Motors’ Pontiac brand took center stage with not just one but three concepts that all offer production feasibility and could point to a strong revival of that brand. Once Pontiac built excitement, but it has been years since the brand built the excitement it created at the New York show with a GXP performance version of the G8 sedan (surely meant for production), plus a “Sport Truck” version of the G8 that channeled the old Chevrolet El Camino, and finally, an exceptionally sweet-looking coupe version of the Solstice -- the model that marked a significant change in direction for Pontiac a few years ago.

Several other important vehicles were unveiled to American audiences for the first time in New York. Among the production vehicles that deserve mention were new versions of the Acura TSX, Honda Fit, Nissan Maxima, Infiniti FX, Mercedes-Benz SL and a fleshing-out of the white-hot Dodge Challenger line. To those were added several new models, including the Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which has gained a remarkable amount of interest on the Kelly Blue Book site in its previous “concept car” incarnation, and the extremely attractive Volvo XC60 crossover, which marks a new design direction for the veteran Swedish make. 

For those who love concept vehicles -- whether they are bound for the market or not -- the New York show had some daring stuff. Intended for those who favor tattoos and body piercings, the Scion Hako Coupe and Nissan Denki Cube blazed new trails that baby boomers might not understand, while the more traditional Suzuki Kizashi 3 concept sedan and the Kia Koup concept (yes, it is a coupe) marked departures for those brands into new, challenging segments. Finally, the Saab 9X BioHybrid, a Geneva star, indicated a budding revival at Saab.

So while others might have looked at New York and seen nothing there, our opinion is that there was plenty to see -- and get excited about. One marked trend was the fact that the vast majority of the most interesting production and concept cars came from brands that are not generally regarded as first tier. That means new-car buyers will have even more great options from which to choose in the years ahead.