Detroit Auto Show: The party's over

With a grim economy as the backdrop, the nation's biggest auto show will be a much more subdued affair this year.

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By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Reporters hoping for a free appletini mixed by Chrysler chief executive Robert Nardelli at the Detroit Auto Show are in for a disappointment this year.

The automaker is canceling its open bar and cutting back on the showmanship normally associated with its product unveilings - like the herd of live cattle it trotted out last year to introduce the new Ram truck.

"These are unfortunate but necessary steps to help return Chrysler to a solid footing," spokesman Rick Deneau wrote on Chrysler's media-only Web site. "And with the government loan to help Chrysler bridge the financial crisis, it's the right thing to do."

Cutting back makes sense: With the economy in recession, auto sales are at crisis levels and things aren't expected to improve soon. In all, it's not the best time to host a major auto show. And with Chrysler and GM on the hook for $13.4 billion in federal loans to stay afloat, a little austerity might be in order.

The North American International Auto Show - which has been running for 21 years - attracts automakers and media outlets worldwide, and opens to the press on Jan. 11.

Running lean

"It is going to be a very somber show," said industry analyst Todd Turner of California-based Car Concepts, "and I don't think anyone going into the show is thinking they are going to go against that grain."

Some automakers won't be going to Detroit at all. Nissan, America's 6th biggest selling automaker, will not display there this year.

Number five, Honda, will have a booth at the show, where a sheet will be pulled off the final production of the Honda Insight hybrid. There will be no press conference, though, just that very literal unveiling.

And Toyota, which is expected to report later this year that it suffered its first operating loss since 1950, is cutting back. The carmaker will be flying in fewer top executives from Japan, and it has called off its usual lavish dinner for select journalists.

Events of the past year may have forced a lot of changes in what the automakers will reveal at this show, said Motor Trend magazine's Detroit editor, Todd Lassa. A shuffling of line-ups may have taken place, he said, caused by economic distress as well uncertainty about new government fuel economy standards, which are still under review.

"I think they closed down the 2008 Detroit show thinking they were going to ramp things down," he said, "so now they're ramping them down even more."

What's coming

There will likely be fewer eye-popping concept cars at this year's show, Lassa said. Overpowered show cars like the Jeep Hurricane, an off-roader with two Hemi V8 engines that appeared at the 2005 show, are off-limits now.

"I think there are probably some introductions that were pulled because they want to show real cars and appear to be sensible," Lassa said.

But the industry still needs to show - and sell - new products.

"Our product cadence has not changed," said Ford spokesman Jay Ward.

Ford (F, Fortune 500) will reveal several new models at this year's show including a redesigned Shelby GT500. A completely new version of the Ford Taurus is also expected to debut. Ford will be holding press conferences to showcase its new vehicles, but it will not provide lunch for reporters.

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) will show off entirely new versions of the Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV as well as all-new versions of the Cadillac SRX crossover and the Buick LaCrosse sedan.

Toyota (TM) is expected to reveal the next-generation Toyota Prius as well as the new Lexus HS 250h sedan, the first Lexus to be available only as a hybrid.

For its part, Chrysler has been tight-lipped about exactly what it will unveil in Detroit next week, but the automaker promises it will reveal something surprising.

Media cuts

The media, affected by reduced ad spending, is also cutting back. Outlets will send fewer reporters to Detroit, said Sam Locricchio, a spokesman for John Bailey & Associates, the public relations firm that handles press access for the show.

"I think the theme for this year's show is efficiency, efficiency, efficiency," he said.

There may be fewer reporters, but because of increased global interest in an industry on the brink, more media outlets will cover the show, Locricchio said. He expects the number of reporters to drop 10% to 5,500 from last year, but he sees almost 50 more publications - most from overseas - covering the show.

Despite the lack of banquets and bars for reporters and lavish performances at car unveilings the show will be just effective when it opens to the general public on January 17, said Lonnie Miller, an industry analyst with R.L. Polk & Co.

"They've got to make sure dealers have confidence that new product is coming and they've got to draw consumer awareness," he said.

The public never saw the cattle drives and bars, anyway, he said. In the end, all they ever saw was the cars. To top of page

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