Auto show focuses on affordable small cars

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Forget the supercars and green machines. At this year’s LA Auto Show, the emphasis is on affordable small cars and minivans.

The auto industry, trying to climb out of its worst sales slump in decades, wants the spotlight on vehicles it can sell — now.

Last month’s tepid U.S. sales figures only underscored the industry’s need to focus on getting consumers to buy cars, instead of trying to impress auto critics.

So the big global debut at this year’s LA show, which begins Friday, is a redesigned Toyota minivan. And much of the pre-show buzz has surrounded mass-market econo-cars such as the Ford Fiesta and the Chevrolet Cruze.

“It’s a very straightforward way of doing things,” said Dave Thomas, senior editor at online auto site “A Toyota Sienna minivan? That’s not the type of thing you would normally debut at the LA Auto Show. It’s certainly not a sexy car, but it’s a big deal for Toyota.”

Chrysler, which had to endure media jibes for its cut-rate display at last year’s show, certainly got the message.

The focus on practicality also is reflected in the show’s lineup of exhibitors. High-end car makers Bentley, Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, which have suffered major sales declines during the economic downturn, will not be on hand this year, even though Southern California is one of their biggest markets. Even Nissan’s Infiniti luxury brand will be absent.

Not that the LA show, known for its environmental bent, will be devoid of glitz and green. The event will feature the North American debut of the $245,000 Rolls-Royce Ghost. For the green crowd, Toyota will stage the North American debut of its Prius plug-in hybrid concept, first unveiled in September at the Frankfurt Auto Show.

But the automakers clearly are focusing much of their car-show marketing efforts on vehicles that will put up big sales numbers — in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 10,000 units a month — and which are priced under $30,000.

The LA show, for instance, will feature the North American debuts of the Cruze and Fiesta compacts — two small cars that the American automakers are hoping can win fuel-economy fans away from the Asian manufacturers while helping them meet tough new mileage standards.

Both will have starting sticker prices of around $15,000.

“The Fiesta and Cruze should outsell the [Honda Insight hybrid] by 2-1, easy,” Thomas said.

Other debuts with mass-market potential include the redesigned Kia Sorento and Hyundai Tucson — both car-based SUVs — and the Mazda 2, which shares the same platform as the new Fiesta.

The show also will feature plenty of concept cars — the futuristic vehicles that often look great on auto-show display stands but rarely make it to dealer showrooms.

SEE ALSO: Consumer Reports: Cruze most significant car of L.A. car show

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