'Just looking' no surprise to the auto show folks

The Baltimore Sun

Hear the one about the slumping auto industry? It was in a recent Doonesbury.

Guy walks into a car dealership and looks at an SUV the size of a battleship.

Beleaguered salesman offers the guy 50 percent off. Guy says, "No thanks, just looking." Salesman says, "OK, I'll take another 30 percent off because you're wearing a red sweater." "Sorry, not interested," the guy says.

Crazed with desperation, the salesman says he'll let the car go for the cost of prepping it.

"And that's with the in-vehicle HD system!" he adds. "Your kids will absolutely flip!"

When the guy says he doesn't have a kid at home anymore, the salesmen bellows, "Stewart!" and a mop-haired boy in a hoodie appears.

"My firstborn!" the salesman says. "He's yours! Take him right off the lot!"

Oh, it was a funny Doonesbury - unless you happen to be in car sales. Then you wanted to whack Garry Trudeau over the head with a folding chair.

I thought of that comic strip yesterday while previewing the 2009 Motor Trend International Auto Show, which runs today through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center.

They have some beautiful cars there - more than 400 cars, trucks, SUVs, hybrids, alternative fuel vehicles, all dazzling under the bright lights. They have pre-production models like the 2010 Chevy Camaro, with its retro muscle-car look, and the hot 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid, which gets 41 mpg and which I test-drove in rush-hour traffic on Pratt Street.

They have jaw-droppers, such as the sleek 2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, which has a 635-horsepower engine, costs $117,000 and was off-limits for media test-drives for some strange reason.

("This isn't about fuel efficiency," said show spokeswoman Dee Dee Taft, when I noted the 'Vette got only 14 mpg in city driving. "This is about midlife crisis. This is about going fast.")

They have every kind of car gadget you can think of, like the Sirius "Travel Link" in new Fords and Mercurys that provides GPS navigation, real-time traffic info, weather conditions, gas prices, sports scores, movie listings and does everything but cook a steak.

But holding a car show in this economy is like holding a Tupperware party in the midst of a famine.

Question: What are people going to do after they take in the car show?

Answer: Probably not buy a new car.

C'mon, didn't anyone notice last month's sales figures? They were enough to have car dealers thinking about taking in a happy hour at 7 in the morning.

There's a reason those CEOs of the Big Three Detroit automakers went to Congress in their private jets to beg for bailout money. And it's not because customers are crowding into showrooms.

Still, Taft said she expects the show to do well in Baltimore, as it has in other cities.

"Participation from manufacturers has remained strong," she said. "Attendance-wise, what we've done is be more aggressive with discounts, and because of that, attendance has been strong. Some shows have been up, some shows have been down. But all in all, [attendance] has far surpassed our expectations.

"There's still a love affair with cars," she continued. "People still want to come out and see them."

But buy them? Not so much.

"Since September, our business has just fallen off a cliff," said Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association, who was at the show hoping for a break in the relentless gloom he's dealt with for months. He looked as if he had a bad case of indigestion when we talked about how car dealers are doing in the Free State.

This is how bad it's been, he said: In 2005, 260,000 new cars were sold here. In 2008, sales had dipped to 200,000. This year's projected figure is 185,000. Not only that, but 15 dealerships, some long-established, closed, a considerable number for a small state.

"People are looking at their 401(k)s, and they're down 30 percent, and the value of their homes are down," he said. "Does that make you want to go out and buy a car?"

It was strange to have such a downer of a conversation surrounded by all these gleaming new cars.

Fifteen feet away was a snow-white Chevy Tahoe hybrid, and next to that the $117,000 'Vette, and they were rolling in another 'Vette that probably achieved vertical liftoff and fired Sidewinder missiles.

Gazing around at all this polished chrome and steel, Kitzmiller seemed to brighten.

"Times are tough, but this is a good place to bring your family," he said. "... At least for three or four days, we talk about cars and trucks instead of bankruptcies and CEOs flying in on jets."

if you go

The 2009 Motor Trend International Auto Show will be open noon-10 p.m. today, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Tickets are $4-$10; free for children 6 and younger. Go to autoshowbaltimore.com.

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