Standup Comedian

Addressing a post-lunch crowd at the Society of Automotive Analysts conference at Detroit’s Renaissance Center, Jim Press, president-Toyota North America had a few zingers to keep the audience awake.

He went off script, telling the teleprompter operator he wouldn’t be using the device, and started out by saying: “We’ve made so much money manipulating currency, we’re going to manipulate the (Thai) baht, as well as the yen.”

The joke apparently was in reference to comments made before lunch by SAA panelists about the Japanese auto maker.

Then he told those predicting doom and gloom for the U.S. auto industry to look on the bright side of life, recycling a favorite joke of his about visiting maternity wards and seeing all the future car buyers warm and snug in their bassinets.

Stiff Upper Lip

Leave it to the British to be civil when talking smack.

Responding to Rolls-Royce Chairman and CEO Ian Robertson, who says the $412,000 Phantom Drophead Coupe unveiled here is “a car for owners to drive and enjoy,” an insider from competitor Bentley observes: “Rolls has an owners’ club. Bentley has a drivers’ club.”

Asked if Rolls has a comeback, a spokeswoman declines. “We rise above that,” she sniffs.

Dressing in Style

Long known for its emphasis on what’s under the hood vs. the hood itself, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui says the auto maker is placing more importance on vehicle design.

“Every year, I have increasingly felt styling is very important,” he says in an interview at the show. When asked what the impetus was for this change, Fukui says it was the much-reviled last-generation ’01 Civic compact car.

“It was a boring design,” he says, adding Honda presented the ’06 Civic in much more stylish dress. No coincidence then that the Accord Coupe Concept is generating much buzz for its sporty, sleek look.

Big-Name Endorsement

Volkswagen insiders still are laughing, albeit quietly, about the official name of the auto maker’s small cross/utility vehicle, referred to as the “baby Touareg,” after the brand’s midsize CUV.

The aggressively styled Tiguan (pronounced TIG-won), on display here after making its world debut at November’s Los Angeles auto show, gets its name from the words “tiger” and “iguana.”

“We’re changing the Touareg’s name now,” jokes a VW source. “We’re calling it the Biguan.”

Form & Function

Chrysler Group dominates the second annual Eyes on Design Awards this year, taking two of the four prizes awarded by a panel of design professionals.

The Chrysler Nassau concept coupe claims the award for aesthetics and innovation, while the Jeep Trailhawk concept SUV wins the industrial design prize.

The ’08 Cadillac CTS luxury sedan wins the concept implementation award and the Kia Kue concept cross/utility vehicle takes the top prize for functionality.

Dodge Hodge Podge

As NASCAR phases in its “Car of Tomorrow,” Dodge will have two entries on America’s top racing circuit: the Charger and new Avenger, unveiled here.

“With NASCAR Nextel Cup racing two distinct cars for 2007, it makes perfect sense to have the Avenger join the Charger in the Dodge racing family,” Mike Accavitti, Chrysler Group’s director-Dodge motorsports and SRT product planning, says.

NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow program aims to develop a safer, less expensive racecar using a more common design. The design will be phased into NASCAR competition through 2010, beginning with 16 races this year.

The Dodge Avenger racecar is scheduled to make its competition debut at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 25.