Costly Previews Highlight Detroit's Annual Auto Show

Bill Durman was one of 15,000 people willing to spend $175 to preview the North American International Auto Show Friday.

"It's a great opportunity to check out all the new cars and all the people," the suburban Detroit insurance examiner said as he queued up for a black-tie charity gala, an evening event that brought out some of the world's top automotive executives and Detroit's community leaders.

Nearly 50 cars, trucks, and prototypes were unveiled at this year's Detroit auto show. Traditionally, these previews are open only to the press, about 5,000 of them this year from more than 50 different countries. But for the introduction of the completely redesigned Corvette, Chevrolet "simulcast" live television images on the Internet.

"People on the Net are the type of folks we want to talk to," explains Chevrolet's George Hanley. "They've got higher incomes and are better-educated" than those who typically come to auto shows.

Despite such experiments, don't expect auto shows to go away. Up to 800,000 people will tour Cobo Hall before the show closes its doors Jan. 21. Based on surveys by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, more than half of them will be in the market for a new car some time this year. With today's typical automobile costing almost $20,000, that could generate as much as $8 billion in business.

So it's no surprise automakers spend so much time and money at the show. The typical display costs at least $2 million, according to industry sources. And Chrysler reportedly spent several times that much for a series of lavish press previews. "It does get expensive," hints Chrysler spokesman Steve Harris. "And the costs keep going up each year."

Almost 2,000 people attended the roll-out of the redesigned Chrysler Concorde and Dodge Intrepid mid-size sedans. In Chrysler's usual flashy fashion, torrents of "rain" flooded the stage, while lightning bolts sizzled across a giant screen.

Special effects aside, the new cars are critical to Chrysler. When they first debuted in 1992 they launched the automaker's financial turnaround, helping it win a reputation for cutting-edge styling. But with the fast pace of change in today's auto industry, they're already out of date.

"We started over," says Chrysler vice chairman Robert Lutz. "We scrapped virtually everything from the older models."

Chrysler also unveiled five striking concept cars, including the Dodge Copperhead sports car, which underscores one of this year's themes.

Since the late 1980s, sports-car sales have waned in the US. Quite a few models, including the Nissan 300Zx and the Mazda RX-7, have been pulled from the market. But this year's show brought a blitz of high-performance products, such as the Corvette, the restyled Acura NS-X, and the new Mercedes-Benz SLK, which was recently named North American Car of the Year.

Another eagerly awaited introduction was that of the Porsche Boxster.

"Our problems are a thing of the past," declared Porsche president Wendelin Wiedeking as the tarp was rolled back on the two-seat convertible. Detroit was an appropriate place to unveil the Boxster, first shown here as a concept car four years ago. Back then, Porsche was struggling to halt a five-year slump, during which its US sales had slipped by more than 90 percent.

Today, sales volume is on the mend, and the $40,000 Boxster, with its 201-horsepower V-6 engine, is expected to bring Porsche a new generation of customers who can't afford the company's other model, the $65,000 to $95,000 911.

Much of the show was devoted to the other end of the automotive spectrum.

Light trucks have become the hottest segment of the American automotive market, accounting for roughly 47 percent of the 15.5 million new vehicles sold last year. And to many consumers, when it comes to trucks, bigger is better. Chrysler's Dodge division introduced its eight-passenger Durango sport-utility vehicle, while General Motors' GMC division displayed the Denali, the prototype of a mid-size sport-ute set to go into production next year. Ford rolled out its first luxury sport-ute, the Lincoln Navigator. Starting at just under $40,000, it has all the features one used to find only on the most upscale versions, like a leather and burl-wood interior, a CD changer, and memory-operated power seats.

As more and more customers trade in their sedans and coupes for sport-utes and minivans, the market is booming. Luxury sport-utility vehicles accounted for 75,000 units of volume in 1995, but Lincoln Division general manager Jim O'Connor sees big growth ahead: "We think it will be around 300,000 units by 1998."

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