DETROIT – Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche didn’t break into a soft-shoe, but came close to it in the company of dancing girls singing “anyway you want it, you’re going to get it” in praise of new minivan seats. It was at a performance billed as a “press conference.”

Zetsche, wearing a stylish fedora (at least it wasn’t a straw hat), ended the little act before a tightly packed audience by plopping down with the dancers on two rows of car seats and asking, “Who says minivans can’t be sexy?”


Welcome to press days at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It may seem like show business at times. But this is the brutally competitive auto business, and an undercurrent of seriousness tugs away at the frivolity.

For instance, beneath the song-and-dance routine is Chrysler’s mother-bear determination to protect its industry-leading 38% share of the minivan segment. Towards that end Zetsche and company introduced a new “Stow-and-Go” seating system in which both rows of rear seats fold into the floor.

Chrysler invented the minivan in 1983. The auto maker boasts many segment firsts. But the Honda Odyssey five years ago introduced third-row mini seats that fold into the floor. Chrysler unwisely stuck with removable back seats. Honda started selling a lot of Odysseys. Now Chrysler is fighting back by introducing not one but two rows of fold-away seats.

The dancing girls kept it tasteful. Gone are the days when voluptuous and scantily clad young ladies were hired to dress up the auto show, says veteran auto journalist Jerry Flint during a break in the action at the Cobo Convention Center.

“Now it’s: ‘No sex please, we’re an auto show,’” chuckles Flint.

Flint notes another big change in Detroit’s annual auto extravaganza in the epicenter of the American auto industry.

“In the old days, auto makers only talked about and displayed vehicles that were in dealership showrooms,” he recalls. “The cars at the show in January were introduced two months earlier. Now they’re showing product that’s two years away.”

In Detroit, auto makers from the U.S., Europe and Asia unveiled 40 production vehicles and 18 concept cars during three days of “press conferences” that are not press conferences.

They are essentially sales presentations ranging from offbeat to off the mark, from stagecrafting to sonorous speeches, from bright lights and loud music to minimalist settings (you can tell who’s on an austerity budget), from flawless performances to “what else can go wrong?”

While ballyhooing the unveiled 2005 Legacy sedan and wagon, Subaru of America Inc. Executive Vice President Fred Adcock was interrupted by audio feedback that went from a low-pitched groan to a high-pitched screech. Then it stopped. Then it started. Stopped. Started.

“Enough with the sound effects,” Adcock joked, early on, before he started to look rattled.

Afterwards, he said to a young technician wearing a headset, “That was crazy! What happened?” The technician was honest enough: “I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, in another category of audio-visual excess, American Suzuki Motor Corp.’s debut of its Reno compact included what’s arguably the longest and corniest video ever made for an auto show.

The Reno is named after the Nevada gambling town. That should have been the first clue. The video depicts the travels of a real-life guy named Jason from, you guessed it, Reno and three other twentysomething friends, the kind of buyers auto makers demographically covet. Those crazy kids have all sorts of fun as they goof around on a cross-country trek in a Suzuki Reno en route to, you guessed it, Detroit.

In the audience watching this seemingly endless travelogue was General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner. GM owns a stake in Suzuki, which explains his front-row presence. He watched attentively as the video began. So many minutes into it, he started reading papers on his lap.

When the video finally ended, the same four young people suddenly pulled on stage in their Reno. Surprise, surprise. They were, like, geeked. Where are the dancing girls when you need them?

I asked Wagoner later if he liked the video. “Oh yeah,” he said, unconvincingly.

Some auto show presenters are naturals appearing before an audience of reporters, industry competitors (there were an estimated 15 “suits” from Nissan in the audience of Toyota’s press conference) and others of undetermined origins.

Conversely, some awkward presenters have no more business appearing before a crowd like that than those goofy guys in the Dodge Hemi commercials. (Wait a minute, those two did show up on Chrysler’s stage.)

Give polished-performance credit to Stephen Odell, Mazda Motor Corp.’s senior managing executive officer. Except for an occasional peek at his note cards, he memorized his remarks, although some of them were open to interpretation.

For example, when he said, “We’ll fix the U.S. and fix it fast,” he meant Mazda plans to improve its business strategy in the world’s largest market. But to the uninitiated, it sounded like Mazda was about to launch nation-building plans here.

Most auto executives taking the stage relied on teleprompters. Some still messed up. American Honda Executive Vice President Richard Colliver at one point called his company “American Handle.” (There is an American Handle Co. in Philadelphia, but they don’t make cars).

Colliver was hosting the debut of the Honda SUT, touted as the Japanese auto maker’s first “truck” although it isn’t one, actually. Honda has steered clear of building real trucks. Instead the SUT is on a car-based platform. It has a short pickup truck bed. It looks like a little Chevy Avalanche.

Due out in 2005, it’s targeted at “cool dads” (to wit: active fathers who want to haul around kids and stuff other than bags of cement). Honda execs used the term “cool dads” so much it sounded like a mantra. At least they didn’t show a video of a hip father and his brood driving to the Detroit auto show.

Some cynical auto journalists referred to the three dozen press presentations as dog-and-pony shows. I didn’t see any ponies. But I saw leashed dogs with law enforcement officers patrolling the show floor. It was part of stepped-up security.

Flint is right. The Detroit auto show sure has changed.

sfinlay@primediabusiness.com