Winter of Discontent, Part II

If you needed any more evidence that the auto industry is a follow-the-leader business, you can find it in the most recent missed opportunity represented by the Chicago Auto Show. For those of you who are unaware, the Chicago show is one of the premier auto shows in the United States and one of the most well attended auto shows in the world. It annually draws an estimated one million visitors during its nine-day run, and, its 840,000 square feet of exhibit space places it among the largest auto shows in America. Through the years it has been the traditional site of major model introductions, including the unveiling of the original Mazda Miata. But this year, sadly, the Chicago show might best be remembered as being the site of missed opportunities for many manufacturers.

For a variety of not-very-good reasons, auto manufacturers from around the world have decided that the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in early January is the place to unveil new concept vehicles and production models. There is some sense in that view since the Detroit show does draw more individual members of the press than does Chicago (and for that matter New York and Los Angeles.)

This year the Los Angeles show had the unenviable luck to occur right after New Year's Day, placing its media preview days between Christmas and January 1, a veritable Death Valley for media coverage, so it is not surprising that car companies made just a smattering of important announcements in LA. Unfortunately, the herd instinct induced one car company after another to make scores of big debuts in Detroit just days later. And while at first glance that seems like a good idea, the fact is that the nation's press can only absorb and report on so many auto-related stories at a time.

That is why interesting concept cars like the Chevrolet Nomad, Ford Bronco, Land Rover Range Stormer, and Nissan Actic didn't get much press play. That is also why important production models like the Ford Five Hundred, Pontiac Solstice, and Dodge Magnum were also largely ignored by the press. Fifteen minutes of fame? Forget it! More like 15 seconds.

And woe to the second- and third-tier (read low-selling) manufacturers! Subaru's newly re-designed Legacy was recently named Car of the Year in Japan, but it caused barely a ripple in Detroit. The Hyundai HCD-8 is a pretty good-looking concept coupe, but it didn't generate much ink, nor did the Mitsubishi Concept-E that featured a hybrid drivetrain. The new Kia Spectra might as well have been introduced on an ice flow in the Arctic Ocean for all the heat it generated, and Suzuki was notable only for its difficult-to-watch press conference that the press most often failed to report on.

What one has to wonder is why a car company will pay $1 million or more to design and build a concept vehicle, throw in another $250K - 500K to do a splashy unveiling to the press only to see their beauty sink from sight before the last vestige of fake smoke has wafted off the stage?

The answer, of course, is the herd instinct. Or should we chalk this up to the lemming instinct, since, just like lemmings, the car companies seem quite willing to follow one another right off the cliff when it comes to spending money on auto show press introductions?

One solution to this rampant waste is the Toddling Town, Chicago. Sure, car companies do some debuts in Detroit. It is the Motor City and the capital of the American car industry. But why not spread the wealth out a bit and use great historic shows like Chicago (and LA and New York) to introduce other new models instead of throwing your money into the cold Detroit air and watching it blow away?

Mazda with its Ibuki, Hyundai with its Tucson, and Buick with its La Crosse did just that this year, and you can bet when the coverage is tabulated, it will confirm that their decisions were excellent strategic moves. And now that Chicago has announced plans to add more than 369,000 square feet in McCormick Place's North Building to its already cavernous exhibit area on the shores of Lake Michigan, the Windy City seems the perfect venue to make a big splash.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad has been covering major international auto shows for more than two decades.