Chrysler and General Motors are still showing off their newest vehicles at the Los Angeles Auto Show, but their displays were noticeably quiet Wednesday while Asian and European companies unveiled new models that will likely chip away at the U.S. market share.
Casting a shadow on the annual event's glitz was the absence of press conferences or new vehicle debuts from GM or Chrysler, whose top executives were in Washington pleading for $25 billion in loans they say they need simply to stay in business.
"Most of the events here seem to be not a lot of razzle dazzle; it's more of a somber, 'Here's the car, we know we're in tough times, we're going to make it through,'" said David Champion, director of Consumer Reports' auto test center.
General Motors Corp.'s space showcased its Chevrolet Volt, the extended-range electric vehicle expected to go on sale in late 2010. Chrysler LLC's display includes its three electric prototypes — a Dodge, Jeep and Town & Country EV — one of which it plans to put in showrooms around the same time.
Normally, however, they would have a stronger presence, unveiling important new models and concept cars and sending top executives to meet the press.
"Quite frankly, I applaud them," said Al Castignetti, a Nissan vice president. "They are in survival mode, and if I were in survival mode I'd do the same damn thing."
A year ago, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz introduced a new hybrid Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, its first full-size hybrid truck and the concept version of the now much-anticipated Volt. In 2006, Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner was the keynote speaker, and the company unveiled a hydrogen-powered concept vehicle.
Chrysler last year introduced hybrid versions of its full-size Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen sport utility vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. maintained a larger presence at the Los Angeles show, although its CEO, Alan Mulally, also appeared before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. His company unveiled the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans, and new hybrid gas-electric versions that the Dearborn, Mich., company hopes will take sales away from the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Chrysler brushed aside criticism for not revealing a new model after announcing its electric models at its Auburn Hills, Mich., headquarters in September.
"The auto show gave us some flak, 'You should do an unveiling,'" Chrysler spokesman Scott Brown said. "Why? They've already unveiled (the electric vehicles)."
Chrysler product development chief Frank Klegon said all the company's major new product development is still on schedule. "That includes car renewals, sport utility renewals and importantly, powertrain and component renewals," he said.
The lack of unveilings is likely to go unnoticed by most people who will visit the show when it opens to the public Friday, said Brendan Flynn, a spokesman for the auto show.
"GM and Chrysler ... their displays are the same, their vehicles are here, they just aren't having any press conferences," he said.
Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn kicked off the show's two days of media previews with a somber warning that he expects the crisis in the auto industry to knock out some competitors.
"We're still stuck in a situation where credit is not flowing normally, and the recession that began in the United States is not only deepening but spreading across the globe," Ghosn said. "It's fair to say that no one, no one had predicted how the global economy would be so volatile in 2008."
The auto industry's health is worst in the U.S., where high gas prices sparked a sales decline leading to last month's worst sales rate in 25 years. But foreign companies also are starting to see sharp sales decreases as the economic slowdown spreads globally.
Nissan and its Japanese rivals, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., have cut their production plans and have slashed their profit estimates for the year.
But that didn't stop them from introducing new innovation Wednesday. Honda showed off a version of its new Insight gas-electric hybrid, which it plans to put on sale early next year. It also unveiled a concept car that uses the company's hydrogen fuel cell technology in a lightweight, three-seat sports car with high performance potential.
Volkswagen AG unveiled a Touareg V-6 TDI sport utility vehicle as part of a showcase of diesel-powered technology it hopes will overcome tough emission requirements — and Americans' memories of the smelly, noisy diesel vehicles of decades past.
Toyota's luxury division, Lexus, held the world premiere of its top-selling RX-series crossovers, including an all-new RX 450h hybrid with new features that improve fuel-efficiency.
And BMW's Mini brand started things a day early by showing off an all-electric version of its eye-catching compact cars. More than 10,000 people have already inquired about leasing one of 450 that will hit roads in California, New York and New Jersey next year as part of a one-year test program.
GM had planned to unveil its new Buick LaCrosse sedan at this week's show, and Lutz was supposed to be back, but the Detroit automaker scaled back its presence to focus on the company's financial problems.
The Detroit Three are seeking a federal rescue after GM and Ford reported burning through a combined $14.6 billion in the third quarter. GM has said that it may not have enough cash to survive into next year, and the situation for Chrysler appears similarly dire.
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