Washington is getting serious about upgrading its annual auto show, which last year attracted 928,000 visitors and generated $23 million in revenue for area businesses, according to the latest numbers available from the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, the show's primary sponsor.

Now, with a new Washington exhibition center that rivals the world's best, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and a group of Washington metropolitan car dealers last week attended the sprawling Paris Expo complex and the 2004 Paris auto show to lobby the world's car companies for bigger and better exhibits to help boost the Washington show's prestige.

But the D.C. delegation is not alone in that quest. Hot on its heels are lobbying groups from other cities, including Detroit, whose Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick told automotive executives here that his city's Cobo Center will freeze the labor rates contractors charge for installing exhibits at the North American International Auto Show there.

Kilpatrick is proposing that the rate freeze go into effect beginning with the 2005 show in January.

At an exhibit-installation wage rate of $82.14 an hour for skilled workers such as electricians, Cobo Center has one of the highest convention labor rates in the nation, according to Tradeshow Week magazine. A comparable wage rate at the new Washington Convention Center is about $50 an hour, according to D.C. convention center officials.

But Williams and Orange and the D.C. dealers were not talking about wages. They were selling the District as what Williams called "a unique venue" for an international auto show.

"Not only are we the home of Congress and all of the federal agencies that regulate the auto industry, we are a world center, much the same as Paris," Williams said in a meeting with top General Motors Corp. officials. "We also buy a lot of cars," the mayor added.

Williams and the dealers, led by Washington Auto Show chairman George Doetsch and Gerard N. Murphy, president and chief executive of the Washington area dealers group, agreed that their show's traditional Dec. 26 to Jan. 2 schedule has been disadvantageous for car companies.

Those dates force the automakers to make an easy choice. The big shows in Detroit and Los Angeles, which attract thousands of international media representatives, are held a day or so after the D.C. show ends. Big auto show exhibits costs tens of millions of dollars. Where are you, as a car company executive, going to spend your money -- in Detroit and Los Angeles, where you are almost guaranteed a big media hit, or in Washington, where Congress, federal regulators and all of the automotive lobbying offices in the city have closed up shop for the holidays?

To get over that hurdle, the District's convention and tourism agency recently announced that, beginning in 2006, Washington Auto Show dates will be Jan. 23 to 29, a move strongly endorsed by this column and, based on the favorable responses that Williams and Orange got in Paris, much appreciated by the world's carmakers.

The District also is adding a Congressional Day to its 2006 show and is working to establish the automotive equivalent of an Embassy Row, where representatives of emerging automotive economies such as China, India, South Africa and other countries will be invited to set up displays.

The D.C. delegation did not get concrete commitments from the car companies. But clearly, based on my subsequent talks with auto manufacturers here, their voices were heard. "They had a lot of good ideas," said G. Richard Wagoner Jr., chairman and chief executive of General Motors. "We're going to see what we can do."

* Hot Picks at the Paris Show

There are many models I wish we could buy in the United States but that are primarily aimed at the European market. They include the new European-specification Ford Focus and Opel Astra GTC (Gran Turismo Compact). Both are tight, attractive little urban runners. The new Focus shares a platform with the Volvo S40 sedan, V50 wagon and Mazda3 hatchback. The Astra GT is a hot little number with a variety of engine offerings, including a 2-liter turbocharged 200-horsepower engine.

There is also the Mercedes-Benz A200 city car, which can be had with a diesel or gasoline engine.

* Marketing Strategy Change

Chevrolet primarily has been a U.S./North America and Latin America brand. That is changing. Chevrolet, beginning in 2005, will become a global brand, replacing the Daewoo Motor name in Europe and elsewhere. GM is a major joint-venture partner with South Korea's Daewoo Motor (in fact, it's now called GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co.), which sources many of GM's smaller cars worldwide. GM does not have exclusive control of the Daewoo name. "But we do have exclusive control of the Chevrolet name," said GM's Wagoner. Chevrolet thus will become GM's global value-leader brand for small and mid-size family cars.

The Paris auto show is one of the car world's major exhibitions. Some people in the District, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, would like to see Washington's show reach that level.