New York City Hosts the Season's Last U.S. Auto Show

New York auto show
New York auto show

Spring may be just getting underway, but the arrival of the New York International Auto Show is a sure sign that the 2010 model year is fast slipping away. The event, held annually at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, is the last major auto show of the season. With the winter's record snows still fresh in many East Coasters' minds, automakers no doubt hope the warmer weather will put New Yorkers in a car-buying mood.

Media types will be treated to a series of informal parties Tuesday evening with two days of previews beginning in earnest Wednesday, when Ford Motor (F) CEO Alan Mulally delivers the event's keynote address. Mulally has much to crow about. His company is the only one of Detroit's Big Three not to succumb to government bailouts and is expected to report an annual profit. Still, the former Boeing (BA) executive will likely take a broader view, highlighting not only the advances of his own company, but those of others as well.

Shiny New Wheels

Product roll-outs will follow Mulally's speech, with the event opening to the public Friday. Among new model debuts: Cadillac rolls out a high-performance CTS-V version of its CTS sports wagon; Acura adds a wagon to its line-up; and Korea's Hyundai unleashes a hybrid version of its Sonata mid-sized and its sister company, Kia, introduces redesigned versions of its Optima family sedan and Kia Sportage small SUV. Also look for a new hybrid model from Toyota Motor's (TM) upscale Lexus nameplate, the CT 200h.

On Wednesday General Motors plans to unveil the Chevrolet Cruze Eco, a high gas mileage version of the compact car that was first unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show late last year. It goes on sale this fall. Just how fuel efficient is the Eco? Chevy believes the car can be certified at 40 miles a gallon, within striking distance of the fuel efficiency of many hybrid models, such as Toyota's popular Prius.

But the Cruze isn't a hybrid. Chevy has combined a small 1.4 liter engine along with a turbocharger and variable valve timing to achieve its high-mileage goal. GM is also debuting the Cruze RS, an appearance package that can be added to the Cruze's LT and LTZ trim lines. In addition to some unique styling queues outside, the RS also gets an upgraded instrument cluster inside.

The Cruze replaces the venerable Cobalt compact, which never struck a cord with car buyers. The new model promises to be a step up both in style and substance, and GM expects it will be a hit. Built at the same Lordstown, Ohio, plant that built the infamous Chevrolet Vega subcompact car of the 1970s, GM is already planning a third shift, adding 1,200 workers to smooth the ramp up of production at the plant.

Sales Turning Up

Auto makers are eager to boost sales after a dismal 2009. While 2010 has been an improvement for most car makers, the industry is on track to record one of its worst sales years in recent memory, with sales of just shy of 12 million by year's end. The industry routinely sold in excess of 16 million vehicles annually for much of the last decade.

Ford and GM both reported higher sales in February, in part driven by interest in each car maker's entry into the revived pony-car market. GM's Chevrolet Camaro is a hot seller, and is driving interest in a segment long given up for dead, which in turn has helped pump up in interest in Ford's Mustang.

Toyota, meanwhile, has struggled in recent months as recalls and concerns about quality have kept customers at bay. But a healthy dose of incentives has helped to revive sales in recent weeks. Speaking Tuesday, Toyota's U.S. sales chief James Lentz said he expects sales will be 30%-35% higher in March compared to a year ago. Other Asian auto maker are seeing increased traffic in showrooms, with most reporting sales improvements last month over the comparable period a year ago.