There’ll be less to see at cut-back auto show

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / November 26, 2009

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There won’t be as many GM or Chrysler cars slowly spinning to show off their latest sparkly makeover. Flashy concept cars won’t be anywhere to be found. And don’t bother looking for a Porsche, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, or Land Rover.

About 500 cars will still be on the floor when the New England International Auto Show returns to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on Wednesday. But something else will be on display, too: a battered industry that’s cutting back any way it can, even as it seeks to entice consumers.

To save money, automakers are scaling down their presence at car shows - or staying away altogether. Nine brands have pulled out of this year’s show in Boston, and 200 fewer cars will be on display - leaving one of the exhibit halls at the convention center empty. To take up some space, show organizers have invited car clubs and private owners to bring in 150 of their own modified vehicles.

Automakers “all had to cut costs drastically,’’ said Barbara Pudney, a spokeswoman for Paragon Group, which produces the 53-year-old Boston auto show. Pudney expects attendance to be similar to last year’s - about 35,000, according to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority - but acknowledges that there are probably fewer people looking to buy new cars.

Nissan will be at the Boston show, but the costs are being paid by local dealers instead of by the company. And Nissan’s luxury Infiniti brand won’t be there at all. Nissan and Infiniti won’t be at larger upcoming shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, or Chicago either. “Basically, it’s just watching the pennies,’’ said Steve Oldham, a Nissan spokesman.

Auto enthusiasts expect to be dazzled when they go to auto shows, said Seth Hedstrom, president of the New England Saab Association. Saab, facing extinction after a Swedish buyer refused General Motors’ offer, will debut its first new 9-5 sedan in more than a decade at the Boston show this year. But the prospect of a scaled-back show is disappointing, said Hedstrom, who lives in Maine and isn’t planning to attend. “You go for the hype, and it’s not there.’’

Many car companies are looking for cheaper ways to debut new models. Volkswagen, for example, introduced its 2010 GTI last month in an iPhone application. In September, Honda used Facebook to unveil its Accord Crosstour.

Many other auto shows have also shrunk this year, reflecting the industry’s sputtering sales. “Trade shows and consumer shows mirror the industries they serve,’’ said trade-show industry analyst Michael Hughes.

Erich Merkle, an analyst with the research firm Autoconomy, witnessed this at last month’s Tokyo Motor Show, which he describes as “decimated.’’ Merkle also saw fewer new-car debuts at February’s Chicago auto show, and noticed Chinese automakers on the main floor in Detroit in January - a prominent position usually reserved for big brands.

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which attracts about 700,000 auto enthusiasts, is known for its over-the-top productions. Chrysler Group LLC once put on a cattle drive to introduce a new truck, and Mercedes-Benz built a skating rink to demonstrate how its cars handled on ice. But several car companies pulled out of the 2009 January show, including Nissan, which created a 60,000-square-foot hole.

“The sky just was falling,’’ said Doug Fox, chairman of the 2010 event in January.

Lately, sales have been leveling off for the beleaguered auto industry. In October, sales of cars and light trucks were down just 3.8 percent from the previous October, Merkle said, a big improvement over the 35 and 40 percent drops early this year.

And some of the upcoming auto shows are exhibiting signs of life. The Los Angeles event, running Dec. 4-13, will feature the debut of the Cadillac CTS Coupe - a car that was supposed to be introduced at last year’s show, said spokesman Brendan Flynn. The January Detroit show is full, said Fox, who is expecting major product news from Ford Motor Co., GM, and Chrysler.

But the days of car companies building indoor ice rinks may be over, and auto manufacturers are working hard to make up the difference on the cheap. In Boston, Cadillac and Kia will let attendees tool around town in their new models, Pudney said - a first for the show.

Alternative-fuel car companies are also playing an increasingly important role at car shows as bigger manufacturers cut back. California-based Tesla Motors, maker of the $109,000 all-electric Roadster sports car, is bringing at least two models to Boston, and the company plans to open a showroom in the area next year.

Still, the show will be quieter than most.

“You can’t expect the party to be the same when so many attendees are ill,’’ said Rebecca Lindland, director of the automotive group at IHS Global Insight in Lexington. “It’s just not going to be as fun.’’

Clifford Atiyeh of the staff contributed to this report. Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at


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