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Safety, Clean Fuels May Steal Thunder at Auto Shows

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page G02

Yuletide is a peculiar season in the automotive industry. There are the usual closing events -- corporate parties, inventory-dumping year-end sales and annual sales reports. But there also is a rush to begin anew, a preoccupation manifested in preparations for upcoming car shows.

In the District of Columbia, that means setting the stage for the 2005 Washington Auto Show, which begins today and ends Jan. 2 -- finishing its run days before the opening of January shows in Los Angeles, Detroit and Tokyo.

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Chicago owns February with the Feb. 11 opening of its international automotive exhibition. The Geneva International Motor Show -- a favorite of global automotive rivals, primarily because Switzerland is regarded as a "neutral market" with no automotive industry of its own -- begins March 3.

The automotive world's attention turns to New York in the spring with the March 25 opening of the 2005 New York International Auto Show; and the spotlight swings back to Europe on Sept. 15, when the Frankfurt International Motor Show begins its 2005 run.

In between and all around those major exhibits will be a series of regional car shows, global vehicle launches for individual car companies, national and international meetings of automotive dealers (including the 2005 meeting of the McLean-based National Automotive Dealers Association in New Orleans, Jan. 29 to Feb. 1), and exhibitions by automotive equipment manufacturers and suppliers.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to sell more cars and trucks and move more products in the automotive aftermarket -- that segment occupied by sales of tires, wheels, waxes, mirrors, suspension and engine enhancements and just about anything and everything else that can be attached to or installed in a car or truck.

We're talking big money here.

As often is the case in automotive industry accounting, figures vary. But all of the numbers, regardless of their origin, amount to huge dollars. For example, according to Houston-based Plunkett Research Ltd., which specializes in manufacturing industry research and analysis, sales of new cars and trucks for U.S. franchised dealers alone amounted to $699.2 billion in 2003.

As implied, that number does not include the billions of dollars in sales of used vehicles in the United States, nor does it include the billions more generated by sales of ancillary automotive services and goods.

U.S. automotive aftermarket sales totaled $183 billion in 2003, according to numbers jointly compiled by the Bethesda-based Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association in North Carolina.

The bottom line is that -- despite their traditional glibness, glitz and glitter -- the car shows and their counterpart events are serious business, and they are about to become even more serious, according to Don Esmond, senior vice president and general manager of the Toyota Division of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

In remarks last week at the media preview luncheon of the Washington Auto Show, Esmond said the world's car companies and governments must become more serious about producing safer, cleaner cars and trucks. International automotive exhibitions, as a result, will have to reflect those concerns, Esmond said.

Automakers sold 16.7 million new cars and trucks in the United States in 2003. With the help of rebates and incentives, they will sell nearly 16.9 million in 2004, Esmond said.

Continued U.S. population growth, largely through immigration, and overall good, basic U.S. economic fundamentals mean "we are on the cusp of a new golden age for the industry" in the United States -- an era in which sales of 20 million new cars and trucks "could be the rule rather than the exception," Esmond said.

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