At the New York auto show, it wasn’t hard to grab the spotlight

NEW YORK — I showed up at the Auto Forum here, held in the $1.5 billion — with a B — expansion of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, and was confronted by a friend:

“Are you going to write another death of auto shows column?”

I said I would have to see what I see. And now that I’ve given it proper consideration, my answer is firm: sort of.

I am writing a column about the show and about the state of shows because they have been important to the industry, both as venues to present new models and technologies to national or global media and as events at which all of the brands and industry leaders can come together and share space.

In New York, was there another sign of the end of traditional international auto shows with attention-getting press days? Not necessarily, but neither was the show a roaring comeback for the seriously strained business model.

The economics of major shows remain a challenge for corporate marketers. And for local retailers, for whom auto shows remain vital, the rethinking of these events is eroding what has traditionally been a nice bump in manufacturer-funded consumer awareness and interest in new vehicles.

But, OK, back to this New York show.

Bottom line: It wasn’t great, but it was better than I expected.

There were cars that weren’t “news” per se but could be seen in person in North America for the first time, such as the Alfa Romeo Tonale and the Kia Niro.

But for me, as a newsman, the show benefited most from Jose Muñoz — COO of Hyundai Motor Co. and CEO of Hyundai Motor North America — making news left and right.

First, at the Auto Forum, hosted by J.D. Power and the National Automobile Dealers Association, he announced plans to make the Hyundai Santa Fe hybrid and electric Genesis GV70 at the plant in Montgomery, Ala.

(Quick aside: The “Electrified GV70” is a terrible name for an EV — it both undersells the technology and adds to confusion around the clean-vehicle lexicon. “Electrified” is usually used as a hyped-up word for a hybrid or as an umbrella term for everything that derives any propulsion from a motor. The Genesis nomenclature — generated in South Korea, perhaps? — is an even worse understatement than when Chrysler named its plug-in hybrid minivan the Pacifica Hybrid.)

(Aside No. 2: I covered the opening of that Alabama plant in 2005, and the experience — especially the hospitality of a former Hyundai spokesman — revealed to me a progressive side of the Deep South that blew my Midwestern mind and inspired a family vacation years later.)

Then on the actual press day, Muñoz dropped another bomb: At the end of a press conference to unveil the freshened Palisade crossover, he said the company will build a dedicated electric vehicle plant in the U.S.

Discussing it later, he indicated that the plant was implied in Hyundai Motor Group’s commitment to invest $7.4 billion in the U.S. by 2025 on factory improvements, EV production and mobility tech. But it wasn’t clear to everyone that a whole new plant would be forthcoming — as opposed to merely an Alabama expansion or some other, lesser measure — so the proclamation was pretty exciting.

Not that there are a lot of details yet: A site may be chosen this year, which is typically when investment amount, hiring and product segments — maybe brands — are announced.

But in an interview immediately after the announcement, Muñoz told me that it will include battery assembly as well as vehicle assembly — in line with the industrial logic of many peers that are eager to minimize shipping costs.

So it was a big show for Hyundai — which also got to celebrate its Ioniq 5 electric crossover winning World Car of the Year — and to a lesser extent for sibling brand Kia. Both showed off freshened versions of their hugely successful large crossovers: the Palisade and the Telluride.

It also looked like a good show for Stellantis, with its Jeep Wagoneer L and Grand Wagoneer L extended versions, which seemed well timed with gasoline prices falling from the thermosphere to the stratosphere. A dressed-up Chrysler Airflow Concept and a little news about the development of the Ram EV added to the fun.

But otherwise, automakers’ engagement with the show was pretty limited. Several brands — most prominently the European luxury marques — didn’t even bother to put up a stand.

Toyota had a huge stand — it seemed like an acre of space — though it didn’t hold a press conference this year. North America sales chief Bob Carter said it was just a function of the timing of new releases.

But then the following week, Toyota unveiled the Lexus RZ electric crossover online. And Lincoln, which also had a large and beautiful display at the Javits Center, unveiled its first EV concept — an inspiration for the brand’s future — at an event in Los Angeles. That concept had been planned for the Beijing show, which was not held last week because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

(Aside No. 3: Sure, the U.S. is behind the curve on electrification, but Lincoln’s preference for Beijing over New York was a striking contrast to pre-pandemic times when Matthew McConaughey helped show off the redesigned Navigator at the Big Apple show. Though I see he is still connected to the brand — joining brand chief Joy Falotico on stage in L.A.)

Those slights to New York could be forgiven, perhaps, as a product of the shifting calendar. But BMW unveiling its redesigned iconic 7 Series online after briefing media in New York (outside of the show) is a powerful condemnation of the present — and possibly the future — of auto shows.

First, it may just be the present. Last month, Honda’s Jay Joseph told me that the company didn’t see much point in using auto shows to draw consumers into the shopping funnel when the company can’t produce enough vehicles to satisfy current demand. Honda, like BMW, did not have a stand at the show.

And the decisions may have to do with the recent past: After so many stops and starts — especially for the New York show — automakers with key reveals may be understandably wary of hanging their product rollout plans on the city that has been a bellwether of the pandemic in America.

This year, it felt a lot like a Chicago-level auto show from the Before Times. Some refreshes and new trim levels. Some smart walkarounds. And aside from Hyundai, not a lot of star power.

Is it the end of the auto show as we know it? I hope not. And the end wasn’t proved by this show, but it wasn’t disproved, either. If the pandemic continues to recede and the next year of shows — from Detroit in September to New York next spring — don’t get more participation, they really could become events for dealers and consumers only.

Online reveals are clearly the wave of the present. If they’re also the wave of the future, we’re going to need events such as the Auto Forum and our Automotive News Congress more than ever.

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