Hard Times at the LA Auto Show

At the height of the automotive industry crisis, carmakers tried to smile through the pain
Ferrari California
Probably the most attractive exotic car on the floor was Ferrari's California, a brand-new V-8 powered hardtop convertible whose image will soon decorate the bedroom walls of teenagers everywhere. Seth Fletcher

The movement of the crowds at the semi-funereal 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show said it all. No one, it seemed, wanted to hang out with the most beleaguered of the Detroit automakers, Chrysler and GM. As plenty of attendees noticed, Chrysler’s large expanse of showroom floor was all but empty most hours of the day. Same across the room at the General Motors stand: Aside from a small group milling about the Chevy Volt, all was quiet. The mob of journalists appeared smaller than normal this year, and they congregated around the imports: Nissan attracted a good crowd, as did the German manufacturers and Hyundai. Aside from Ford, which did its best to put on a happy face, Detroit was present mostly as the constant subject of grim conversations. “This is the last auto show ever, you know,” joked a journalist friend. We laughed, sadly, and then thought ahead to January—what will the_ Detroit_ auto show be like?

During Nissan CEO Carlos Gohsn’s keynote address the opening morning, it was possible to imagine a post-Detroit future. While the CEOs of Detroit’s Big 3 were in Washington, taking their lashes before an unsympathetic congress, Gohsn was speaking soberly and authoritatively about the challenges at hand and convincingly about Nissan’s plans to deliver mass-market electric cars within the next two or three years. In a post-Detroit future, Asian automakers would probably rule the mass market with their small, sporty, fuel-efficient cars, while German brands like Mercedes, BMW, and Audi will continue to dominate the luxury market. And then there are the wild cards: What about Tata? What about China? What about small automakers that don’t yet exist?

Neither GM nor Chrysler gave a press conference. Ford unveiled a new Mustang and an impressively practical Ford Fusion; Mazda, which is owned by Ford, revealed the new Mazda 3, one of the nicest looking small cars at the show. These are good cars that should sell, as soon as people are in the mood to buy cars again. Yet the crowd at the show seemed most excited about clean diesels from Germany (like the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which won Green Car of the Year), and the electric cars available for test drive—the Mini E, the Mitsubishi iMiev.

This was the backdrop on the second day of the auto show’s press preview: Detroit’s Big 3 CEOs left Washington with nothing more than an order to present business plans to Congress in early December. California Rep. Henry Waxman, an ardent environmentalist from Los Angeles, replaced pro-Detroit congressman John Dingell in his post as chairman of the house energy and commerce committee, making it all the more likely that automaker will soon face much more stringent environmental and fuel-economy regulations. The Dow dropped to nearly 7,500. And by mid-afternoon most journalists had left the showroom floor, wondering what on earth the automotive industry is going to look like this time next year.

Please click here to launch the gallery of cars.

Audi Q5
Acura TL
BMW 7 series
BMW 335 tdi
Chevy Volt
Chevy Volt
Cadillac CTS-V
Dodge EV
Saturn Flextreme
Ford Fusion
Ford Mustang
Honda FC Sport
Honda FC Sport 2
Hyundai HED-5 I-Mode concept
Lotus Evora
Mazda 3
Mercedes SL65 Black
Mercedes Vision
Mini E
Mini E charge meter
Mitsubishi iMiev
Nissan 370 Z
Nissan Cube
Nissan Cube 2
VW Jetta TDI
VW Jetta TDI 2