washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

2009 Washington Auto Show

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009

This isn't your Motown auto show.

In Detroit last month, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was the lone federal legislator to grace the show, setting off a stir when he appeared on the floor. This month in Washington, automakers will have more of a chance to mix with lawmakers, so they're coming prepared. Manufacturers are trooping to town -- including some that didn't bother to show up in Detroit -- with their own agendas: hobnobbing with powerbrokers, lobbying to preserve and extend their federal aid, and unveiling new technologies deployed in fuel-efficient vehicles.

The 67th Washington Auto Show gives General Motors and Chrysler the opportunity to show politicians that they are building cars Americans want to buy. Shortly after the displays are packed up, both automakers will be back in front of Congress, detailing viability plans that include significant cost cuts and union contract renegotiations. Failing to impress lawmakers could put the survival of GM and Chrysler in jeopardy, as each needs to borrow billions of dollars of taxpayer money beyond the $17.4 billion loan already allocated.

Manufacturers are bringing 700 new cars and trucks to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. They will be showing their latest fuel-efficient technologies and batteries, as President Obama has made it clear that he'd like to put 1 million American-made plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015 and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

"It gives the automakers an opportunity to showcase and strut their latest and greatest in front of Congress and U.S. regulatory agencies, which are for better or for worse their partners in automobile design," said Gerard Murphy, president of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, which produces the show.

General Motors will show off the prototype of its Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric car that can go 40 miles without consuming a drop of gasoline, and its luxury concept for using this battery technology in the Cadillac Converj.

Ford will highlight its new Ford Fusion hybrid sedan, which the company says has better mileage than the Toyota Camry, and Ford Flex with EcoBoost, a technology that combines direct fuel injection and turbocharging to boost fuel economy without any performance loss.

Chrysler, which has been fending off accusations that it cannot survive without a merger, is determined to prove itself viable with a display of several of its advanced technology vehicles. Its futuristic concept Chrysler 200c EV, a battery-powered sedan, lacks the traditional nobs, buttons and toggles; instead, the car is outfitted with a giant touch screen that controls the temperature and navigation, and connects the driver and passengers to the Internet.

Foreign automakers will also have a role in the showcase frenzy. Honda is showing off a redesigned Insight, which in December 1999 became the first gas-electric hybrid to hit the U.S. market. Toyota is exhibiting its third-generation 2010 Prius, a roomier version that features better mileage and solar-panel roof. Volkswagen has its concept Blue Sport roadster, a sporty car employing advanced diesel technology. Nissan, which skipped the festivities in Detroit last month, will be in Washington with its 370Z coupe, the first full redesign of the Nissan Z since 2003.

"We're hopeful it'll do what auto shows are supposed to do, which is excite the public's imagination and stimulate consumer confidence to bring buyers back to the market," said Murphy, noting the steep declines in 2008 sales that are expected to continue through the first half of this year.

Industry leaders will have ample opportunity to discuss policy. Today the industry executives, policy wonks and environmentalists will meet on Capitol Hill for the Green Car Journal's second annual Green Car Summit, a forum about the technological challenges and possibilities for cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

Tomorrow, the show's official policy day, the convention center will be filled with a mix of politicians and executives, including former transportation secretary Norman Mineta, Volkswagen chief executive Stefan Jacoby and Margo T. Oge, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality. The industry will also honor its champion, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who was recently ousted as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Washington and Detroit have long had a rocky relationship, battling over fuel economy and safety regulations. In recent months, the two have repeatedly clashed over the future of the auto industry.

Detroit's cash-strapped top executives flew to Washington on separate corporate jets to ask for a government bailout in November. Instead they were chastised and ridiculed.

When they returned -- this time driving to Capitol Hill in fuel-efficient vehicles -- a more respectful tone prevailed, but lawmakers still were not receptive to their pleas for financial help.

It was only as GM and Chrysler teetered on the brink of bankruptcy that the Bush administration reluctantly delivered a $17.4 billion lifeline in December. Since then, the automakers' finance arms have grabbed their own slice of the Treasury's financial rescue plan.

It's no wonder the show's tagline emphasizes Washington's grip on the auto industry: "The 2009 Washington Auto Show: The Automotive Seat of Power."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company