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New York Auto Show 2011: The Extravaganza Grows

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The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle: lower and wider.



The New York International Auto Show is growing like some kind of amoeba. I've been to it every year for probably the last 20, and it used to be something I could take care of in a day's visit. Now it sprawls through a whole week of previews and introductions, blasting right through Passover and requiring journalists to pack larger suitcases. The show officially opens to the press on Wednesday and to the public on April 22 (coincidentally, also Earth Day).

It's been a momentous year in cars, with automakers finally bringing electric vehicles from concept to showroom-floor reality, and with those same companies beset both by brand sell-offs (Saab) and natural disaster (Toyota and every other Japanese car maker you could name). But the industry puts on a brave face for these annual shindigs, the champagne is poured, and the spokes models once again point to shiny new vehicles.

I've just started going to things, but I can offer some insights and advance sightings. I attended the debut of the new Volkswagen Beetle in lower Manhattan on Monday, and it had all the trappings of modern VW unveilings: Very loud teen-oriented music (the company wants to skew lower, and got a heavily tattooed Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy to spin the discs), hip young Europeans (they must import them), great nouvelle cuisine and an eco-theme (in this case, appropriately enough, bugs in a rainforest).

The car is lower and wider, though it retains its essential Bug-ishness. The Beetle has the largest percentage of female buyers of any car sold in the U.S. (more than 60 percent), and VW is out to expand its market  (and sell a million vehicles a year by 2018). I sat down with VW's U.S. CEO, Jonathan Browning, earlier today and he said, "Anytime you're updating such a well-recognized product as the Beetle you have to have a fine balance between being true to the heritage but also moving forward. We wanted to hold on to the female buyers, but also extend the car's footprint in the marketplace." I guess that means leather shift knobs instead of bud vases, and it explains the brawny 200-horsepower turbo model.

The Bug rolled out at the very tip of Manhattan, and I then went north to the uptown environs of the Plaza Hotel to see Toyota's new Entune system, which rolls out in the Prius V (the people hauler edition) later this year. It's yet another system based on the cloud, and built around the cellphone. GM, Ford and many others have similar infotainment offerings, which means you'd better update your phone. That antique you got for Christmas five years ago doesn't have enough power.

Almost all of these systems have Pandora as one of their initial apps, and I can see why. It's free to automakers, and it enables a whole world of listening in the car.  I've spent some time with it, and it goes deep on musical knowledge.

The Nissan Leaf Nismo RC: very cool, but where will it race?



I'm not sure what Nissan is getting at with the lightweight Nismo RC, a race version of the Nissan Leaf that would be left in the dust by any self-respecting Tesla Roadster. Is there a race series for EVs that top out at 93 mph and can spend only 20 minutes on the track before running out of juice? It's cool looking, though, and maybe that's the point. Soon the Leaf will be an icon itself, so I'm glad they retained the shape.

I'm looking forward to seeing the new Chrysler 200 (sedan and convertible). This most beleaguered of the Big Three desperately needs a hit. I'm not sure this little guy will be it, though, because it was the protagonist in a nasty drama over at the Detroit News. The paper's critic panned the car, calling it a "dog" that made him angry, and the paper (responding to angry advertisers) chopped up his review, causing him to quit. Ouch. But the story has a happy ending because the story was restored and the reporter rehired.

Also debuting is the Fiat 500 convertible, which uses the kind of rollback roof design we saw on European mini cars from the 1950s and '60s. The retro 500 is nostalgic enough, but the convertible is even more so.

The Chevrolet Malibu will, the company hopes, build on the success of the car that showed there was still life in General Motors back in 2008. GM is going for "world car" with this new iteration of the Malibu, which is simultaneously being rolled out in Beijing.

Also debuting is the U.S. version of the Audi 7, said to have "more curves than Megan Fox." Megan Fox must really be getting tired of analogies like that. And the Kia Rio hatchback looks good, too. Any bets placed on Korean automakers won't go wrong.

Lexus' LF-Gh hybrid is a luxury tourer that goes with the celebrity chefs.



Tonight, I'm attending the debut of yet another Lexus hybrid, the LF-Gh concept. It explores the idea of the "premium grand touring sedan," and it goes right along with Lexus' partnership with celebrity chefs and emphasis on fine dining. I hear that TV's "Iron Chef" Morimoto is going to be there tonight. Quite a step up from the cardboard diner pie I'm eating right now....Where's the waiter with my coffee refill?

More on the auto show in due time.

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