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A Candy Store for L.A. Drivers

Event * Auto makers will showcase more than 1,000 models at the 98th Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

January 02, 2002|MARRY SORENSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think of the 2002 Greater Los Angeles Auto Show as a chance to design your perfect car or truck.

No, there won't be a booth where you can create your dream machine on a nifty computer- assisted-design program. But the show, opening Saturday, is a chance to let auto manufacturers know what you want, in a venue where they will be listening closely--and even paying consumer research firms to divine your automotive likes and dislikes.

"For car makers, shows are all about concepts and reactions to concepts," said Art Spinella, vice president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore. "The key focus is to showcase new ideas, gauge reactions and build enthusiasm. We conduct focus groups during and after shows to do just that."

Of course, whether you're a car buff or an everyday commuter, you may be seeking more from the experience than the chance to influence yet another rendition of the ubiquitous sport-utility vehicle.

Those in the market for a new vehicle can looky-loo to their hearts' content, comparing more than 1,000 models from 40-plus manufacturers in an environment devoid of salespeople. Owners looking to customize their current cars or trucks can check out the latest aftermarket trends in oversize wheels, effects kits, exhaust systems and more.

"If I had millions, I'd waste it all," said Victor Boyce, a 39-year-old data analyst from Van Nuys who as a kid started attending the show with his father and this year plans to take his own 21/2-year-old son. "I go so I can dream about all the stuff I'll never have."

Although the North American International Auto Show in Detroit reigns as the country's top such consumer event, Los Angeles has gained respect in the last four or five years, said spokesman Barry Toepke, noting the two dozen North American and world debuts at the show and a growing media presence.

This year's show, the 98th, runs through Jan. 13 at the L.A. Convention Center, with promoters hoping to beat last year's attendance of 935,000. The event, under the direction of General Manager Andy Fusezi, is again endorsed by the more than 250 members of the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Assn. The Times returns as the show's media sponsor.

Even with the events of Sept. 11 fresh in Americans' minds and all indicators pointing to the recession continuing at least through midyear, analysts and industry insiders remain optimistic about prospects for this year's show and the 2002 auto sales season in general.

That confidence is reflected in the fact that manufacturers have not scaled back on floor space or their usually elaborate exhibits, spokesman Toepke said.

Ford Motor Co. will use this year's show as something of a coming-out party for its Western operations. The company will present nearly 97,000 square feet of displays from its Ford and Irvine-based Mazda, Mercury and Premier Automotive Group luxury brands (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln and Volvo), which completed their move Nov. 9 to Orange County.

"The L.A. auto show exemplifies why we moved here," said John Clinard, Ford's Western region public affairs manager. "It's the largest concentrated market of our buyers. We've moved into the market. It's a natural for us to look at this as the home show and unveil major new models and concepts here."

More broadly speaking, the company finds some positive news, in a year in which it took its share of knocks, in recent robust industry sales.

"There's been an almost trend-defying propensity for consumers to buy new cars, which has been helped by incentive programs like 0% financing," Clinard said, referring to the no- and low-interest loans started by archrival General Motors Corp. and matched by Ford and some other major manufacturers.

Indeed, 2001 sales are widely expected to top 17 million units when final tallies are issued Thursday, second only to the 17.4 million chalked up in 2000.

"2002 looks like it's going to be a really strong year too," analyst Spinella said, forecasting unit sales next year of 16.7 million, which would rank as fourth-best ever.

California remains a big factor in any forecast, accounting for 12% of U.S. auto sales, Spinella said. And Los Angeles show goers tend to be serious buyers.

"In L.A., 20% of attendees are serious about buying within a year, 50% within 18 months," Spinella said. "Compare that to [shows in] Chicago, which is maybe 10% to 12%, and New York, which is around 5%, and you can be sure the car makers are watching L.A. very closely.

"L.A. is important because of its location and the people who make up the market. They tend to be younger and more open to new ideas. That makes L.A. a better place to show a concept car than, say, Detroit. At the L.A. show, you get a good sense of what people are going to like in the future."

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