DETROIT – The North American International Auto Show skips the extravagance this year but doesn’t go to the other extreme by becoming a gloomy reflection of a troubled industry.

Some people had feared misery from tough economic times might work its way into the fabric of the Motor City’s big hometown event.

Those expecting a dark mood are relieved, “and that includes just about everyone I’ve talked to,” show co-chairman Doug Fox, a native Detroiter and an Ann Arbor auto dealer, tells Ward’s.

“The first thing you see is the stylish nature of the displays is alive and well,” he says, walking the show floor.

“With all the bad news about the industry, a lot of people thought it might carry over to the show, not that we haven’t had challenges,” Fox says. “But now it’s all about the cars and a little less about the displays.”

Ironically, the toned-down show, the product of unwelcome austerity, may represent a new direction of how the event will look from now on.

“It’s very Geneva-esque,” Fox says, referring to a popular Swiss auto show. “Detroit’s floor is more open now. You can look out and spot virtually every brand. The floor is easier to navigate. There are fewer sight restrictions with some of the big displays gone.”

Noticeably absent in Detroit this year is a giant waterfall wall that marked Chrysler LCC’s territory at the Cobo Center exhibition hall. “That waterfall was getting outdated anyway,” Fox says.

Chrysler made its exhibit area less flashy for various reasons, says spokeswoman Eileen Wunderlich. “We scaled back due to the economy, to focus more on products and because it was the right thing to do.”

Detractors might have deemed it wrong for Chrysler to get ritzy at the auto show after borrowing $4 billion from the federal government to stay afloat.

In past years in Detroit, Chrysler has staged dramatic unveilings ranging from 2008’s Dodge Ram-related cattle drive down Jefferson to cars crashing through Cobo Hall’s plate glass window.

This year’s Chrysler press event featured sheets being pulled off a few prototype electric cars. That was preceded by Chrysler President Jim Press giving a business overview of an auto maker that saw its year-to-year sales drop 30% in 2008.

“The best way to recap 2008 is that it was like two years in one,” Press says. “The first half was pretty decent for us. But then the second half came, and our world was changed overnight.”

General Motors Corp.’s 2009 display is without its towering double-decker exhibit of previous years.

GM bypassed grandiose unveilings and settled for new products, led by the impending Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, being driven down a roped-off pathway on the floor.

What the event lacked in high drama, it made up for in enthusiasm. GM employees, supplemented by production company workers brought in for the occasion, lined the pathway, cheered and waved signs saying, “We’re Here to Stay.”

In a boon year, GM might have constructed an expensive ramp for the vehicles to make a grand entrance. This year’s simplicity worked, according to Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn.

“I loved GM’s idea of just bringing the cars down the middle of the exhibit,” he tells Ward’s.

Schienberg was among those who wondered what the Detroit show would look like in such a dire time. He was pleasantly surprised.

“Actually, I think it looks great,” he says. “There’s a good vibe out here. The situation reminds me of playgoers at a new comedy not being sure at first when to laugh. But then, as the play gets going, the audience goes with the flow.”

The Detroit Automobile Dealers Assn., which puts on the annual show that dates back 100 years, made 62 revisions to the floor plan, Fox says.

Many of those changes occurred when several auto makers announced they were skipping Detroit this year. Missing were brands such as Rolls-Royce, Suzuki, Ferrari and, most notably, Nissan.

It meant that other brands, such as China’s BYD and Brilliance, which had been relegated to the basement, moved up this year to the main floor. “It’s like a stage,” Fox says. “One player leaves and another is waiting in the wings.”

Subsequent vacant space in the lower level has been turned into a test track for “green” cars. The track winds around a forest-like setting of real trees and assorted native-Michigan flora.

Fox points out one of his favorite exhibits – Volkswagen AG’s dazzling white display area with swooping lines and a second level. “It’s very Euro-chic,” he says.

Adjacent to it is the Mini brand exhibit space, where a new convertible made its debut by crashing through a wall of faux ice. “There’s your dramatic unveiling,” Fox quips.

Scaling back too much would have been counterproductive, organizers say.

“The show is intended to generate excitement and to get people to go out and buy a new car,” Fox says. “I have a lot of faith the industry will come back. In eight to nine months, we’ll see a new confidence.

“There may be different names at the executive levels and fewer dealers, and we won’t be selling 17 million units a year in the U.S.,” he says. “But the industry crashed with such a velocity, I think we’ll see it come back just as fast.”

The Detroit auto show is particularly important because it is the first one since the U.S. government gave GM and Chrysler $17.4 billion in bridge loans, Howard Polirer, AutoTrader.com’s director-industry relations, tells Ward’s.

“The tone of this show is just right,” he says at the Chrysler exhibit. “We’re not here to party or celebrate.

“This show has the chance to turn things around and send a message to the rest of the country,” Polirer says. “Part of that message is, ‘We’re doing what you want us to do. We get it.’ The other part is showing this is a vital industry, an American industry.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com