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The Garage: Focus on autos

L.A. car show gains ground

The Detroit conference still rules, but some automakers prefer the Southland stage to roll out their new models.

August 18, 2007|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

When BMW introduced its retro-inspired Mini Cooper to Americans in 2001, it did so at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, the biggest tent in the industry's annual exhibit circuit around the country.

This year, the German automaker's new five-door version will make its North American debut not in the Motor City but at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Why? Stephen Saward, manager of national sales for Mini USA, a division of BMW of North America, calls it the "numbers game."

"Detroit represents 1% of our sales," he says, and "Southern California represents 13% of sales."

It's pretty easy to do that math.

So easy that carmakers -- especially foreign brands -- are paying greater attention to Los Angeles. Porsche, for example, announced in June that it was pulling out of Detroit altogether, saying it wanted to focus more on markets where its cars sold well. (The company sold 292 cars in Michigan last year and 8,800 in California.)

And several new models will be unveiled this year in L.A. Among them: the first Bentley ever to top 200 mph and Nissan's much anticipated GT-R sports car.

But the L.A. show still has a long road to travel. Despite Southern California's well-known love affair with the automobile, Detroit is still the world's new-car-buzz epicenter.

Organizers of the L.A. show have been working to change that by putting ever greater distance between the event here and Detroit's January confab. Last year, the L.A. show ran in early December rather than in early January, and it paid off with exhibitors. The number of worldwide and North American debuts grew to 35 models compared with 26 the year before.

Attendance, though, was down 17%.

So this year, the L.A. show will start even earlier, on Nov. 16, and continue through Nov. 25 -- the end of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Organizers figure that will work some magic.

Anyway, it's what the automakers wanted.

"They said they needed an earlier date and so we moved it," says Brendan Flynn, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Auto Show. "We are really here to help the auto industry to make sure they have what they need."

Just don't expect L.A. to steal all of Detroit's thunder any time soon. Car shows are, for the most part, media-driven events, and the Detroit show attracts an army of reporters and TV crews.

"We had 6,600 journalists from all over the world" in January, says Carl Galeana, senior co-chairman of the North American International Auto Show. Flynn says the L.A. show did not disclose the number of journalists who attended its convention.

Galeana doesn't see it as a competition. "What L.A. is doing is great," he says. "I don't think that it is a question of one show is better or the other. They are different shows."

Saward of Mini USA doesn't disagree. He says creating early buzz with motorists in Southern California will help build credibility with car lovers elsewhere.

"It is such a well-known car culture," he says. "If it is accepted there, the rest of the country will eventually follow."

Angling for that acceptance will be the new Mini Clubman, a roomier version of the earlier models with more storage space and legroom.

The car's most striking feature is the new doors. The hatchback-style back has two doors that open in opposite directions to give broad access to its luggage compartment, and a similar split-door design on the passenger side allows riders to easily get in and out of the rear seats.

The Mini Clubman, which will make its worldwide debut next month in Frankfurt, Germany, before its U.S. unveiling in Los Angeles, will go on sale next year.

Nissan's GT-R, a much-talked-about concept sports car whose production version is hitting American showrooms next year as well, will make its first appearance in Tokyo in October.

Frankfurt, Tokyo and Detroit are widely regarded as the three most important car shows in the world, each serving different corners of the planet. But California is one of the largest markets and where trends start, says Jan Thompson, Nissan North America's vice president of marketing.

The GT-R, for example, is aimed at Japanese import enthusiasts who put a premium on affordable performance and the ability to upgrade their cars with aftermarket parts.

"Now, we can focus on the import turf that is the West Coast," she says. "We don't have to split our efforts" between Detroit and Los Angeles within a span of weeks.

Bentley Motors Inc. is hoping to capture attention on another import stage, the high-luxury sector. The company is introducing its new 600-horsepower Continental GT Speed capable of topping 200 mph.

"It is not that people in other parts of the country don't love their cars," says Bentley Motors spokesman David Reuter. "But people in California absolutely love their cars."

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daniel.yi@latimes.com

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