Going to the Top

When asked to provide more details on Toyota’s two upcoming hybrids, CEO Katsuaki Watanabe, making a rare appearance in Detroit, at first invites inquiring journalists to “come back next year” to see the vehicles’ debut at the 2009 show here.

But seeing the media’s disappointment, he throws out a crumb, offering that the hybrids will be larger than the Prius and likely built in Japan.

“Now if I should go beyond that, our engineers will be angry. But I’m the president of the company, after all,” Watanabe says, prompting the media room to erupt in laughter.

Sometimes it pays to go to the top.

Kia’s Net Zero

Attendees at Kia Motors America’s press conference were taken back in time to when professional basketball players were men, not boys, and didn’t have a rap sheet as long as their scoring records.

To drum up interest in its press conference and emphasize its recent sponsorship deal with the National Basketball Assn., Kia brought out NBA stars of yesteryear for an inpromptu game of hoops. However, we suspect too much time on the links since their retirement has had a detrimental effect on their basketball skills.

“I thought it was going to be an honor to share the stage with these NBA All-Stars, (but) you need to score more guys!” exclaimed KMA CEO Len Hunt after Spud Webb, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin and Bill Walton missed each of their attempts at scoring on a net wheeled onto the floor. Walton even cheated and got close to the hoop, making a second attempt.

Asked how difficult it was to bring the stars of yesteryear together, including Willis Reed, an exasperated Kia spokesman says, “You have no idea!”

We just hope they had a money-back guarantee tied into their appearance fee.

Zero Emissions

GM’s Saturn division ran into problems as it unveiled the Flextreme, a concept car it shares with the Opel brand in Europe.

The vehicle combines a small diesel engine with a lithium-ion battery under rapid development by GM, officials tell the media.

It appears the auto maker still has plenty of work ahead – the concept had to be pushed onto the stage after it lost momentum climbing a ramp.

Now that’s eco-friendly.

Honda Comes Clean

With the cold and flu season here, and thousands of journalists from all over the world converging on Detroit, the odds of getting sick at this week’s North American International Auto Show are pretty good.

So in addition to drinks and snacks offered to journalists gathered to interview executives, Honda’s local staff has stocked the auto maker’s show suite with five bottles of hand sanitizer.

“It was the best money I’ve spent all auto show,” Honda PR guru Chuck Schifsky says of his attempt to keep things clean.

After an interview with John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president, reporters, as well as Mendel, passed the lotion around the room and shared a chuckle. No offense taken, Chuck.

Getting a Grip

Though not as flashy as the appointment last year of former Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli to Chrysler chairman, another home-improvement store/auto maker connection is revealed here today.

Steve St. Angelo, president of Toyota’s Georgetown, KY, manufacturing plant, confides to reporters the Japanese auto maker leaned on the expertise of Lowe’s recently for tools to assemble the exterior antenna on its new Venza CUV, unveiled at the show here.

“If you look at the antenna, (it’s) on the center of the vehicle towards the rear,” he says. The risk of scratching the vehicle and causing workers ergonomic injury led some Georgetown “team members” to check out the local Lowe’s home improvement store for an installation solution.

“One of the solutions was to buy one of those grippers,” St. Angelo says.

With the gripper, sometimes used by the wheelchair-bound to reach items on their counter, the workers safely installed the antenna.

Time for a joint venture?

Macho Mercedes Man

A few years ago, a group of evangelical environmentalists tried to make the case that if Jesus were around today, he would drive a Toyota Prius hybrid-electric vehicle.

However, it seems not all religious leaders are on the same page. Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche points out to some journalists at press preview that since last December, the Pope has been driving a macho Mercedes G-Class SUV, the Mercedes equivalent of a Hummer.

It’s a convertible version, specially designed for him and painted “Vatican mystic white,” says Zetsche, with a Teutonic straight face.

Hyundai Tough Love

It’s talking the talk, but can it walk the walk? For an auto maker that has seen more than its share of sales setbacks recently, Hyundai Motor America is talking tough about the launch of its new luxury flagship Genesis sports sedan.

At a press conference introducing the sedan, John Krafcik, vice president-product development and strategic planning, referred to the introduction of Toyota’s Lexus premium sedans 20 years ago in Detroit as a “disruptive force,” because the cars delivered so much luxury and so many features at a shockingly low price.

Turning the tables, Krafcik says Hyundai’s new sedans, slated to debut in U.S. showrooms this summer, could unleash a similar disruptive force in the luxury-car segment.

Journalists, analysts and other industry observers taking a quick look at the Genesis following its unveiling were a tad skeptical. However, one well-known Detroit car guy gave the Genesis a quick look and said he was impressed with the interior and feature content, quickly adding he is reserving judgment until he actually drives it.

Just Like a German Train

Volkswagen of America’s move from Auburn Hills, MI, to Herndon, VA, is running smoothly and on schedule, but what else would you expect from a German auto maker?

“We’re on track,” says VWA chief Stefan Jacoby on the sidelines of the auto show. “It’s running like a typical German machine. We know who will move with us, and we’re now recruiting new people (to fill in open spots).”

The German parent announced in September it would relocate headquarters for VW and Audi of America to Virginia as a way to get closer to its key markets and make travel between the U.S. and Germany less onerous. VW’s Bentley brand also is shifting U.S. operations from Auburn Hills to Boston.

Speculation is that VW wants to get closer to the Southeast because it hopes to locate a new assembly plant there. Reports this week suggest North and South Carolina and Georgia are among leading candidates to land the plant, expected to be up and running by 2011.

Michigan again will be left waiting at the station, as VW moves 400 of its 1,400 jobs to Herndon, leaving only 600 in Auburn Hills.

Dressed for Success

GM Chairman Rick Wagoner might run the world’s largest auto maker, but the executive tells journalists even he encounters the occasional wardrobe dilemma.

In preparing for Saturday night’s “GM Style,” a hip gathering of world-renown musicians, local dignitaries and fashionistas, Wagoner admits mining his kids for advice.

“I asked my high school-senior son last night, ‘So it’s supposed to be casual chic. How do I look? Dad,’ he said, ‘you look like you always look.’”

– Compiled by Barbara McClellan