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Published: Sunday, 4/17/2011

N.Y. auto show set to open amid worries in Asia

NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK -- In essence, an auto show is a dealer's showroom with higher production values -- a chance for the local sales force to convince shoppers that now is the time to buy.

With the 2011 New York International Auto Show preparing to greet multitudes of shoppers on fact-finding missions, dealers would prefer to focus on the latest models and the news of their building sales momentum. But events in the Far East -- the natural disasters in Japan and a headline-grabbing auto show in China -- highlight the industry's global interdependence and how those links can bring profit and pain.

The show's two days of media previews start Wednesday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. Even then, Japanese automakers will be racing to minimize any new-car shortages from post-tsunami shutdowns and slowdowns, especially those popular hybrids, luxury models, and niche entries made only in Japan. Showroom arrivals for some promising models displayed at recent auto shows will be delayed, analysts say.

In China, a scheduling coincidence has the Shanghai auto exhibition overlapping New York's century-old event. Like a married couple divvying up holiday duties with the in-laws, auto companies and their executives must choose which show to attend and which cars to send to each. BMW said it will send global executives to China and deploy its United States officials to New York.

Rather than play favorites, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz will hold dual unveilings of important cars -- the 2013 Malibu from Chevrolet and an A-Class concept from Mercedes -- in both cities.

No one can blame automakers for cozying up to the Chinese market.

Michael Albano, who recently returned to Detroit after three years in Shanghai to become Chevrolet's communications director, acknowledged China's growing influence on GM's designs, sales, and profits. Even as the firm slid toward bankruptcy, its Chinese sales were booming, from fewer than 900,000 cars in 2006 to nearly 2.4 million last year.

Shanghai's show won't overshadow Manhattan's exhibition, said Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association. The Javits Center will have more all-new models than any show in decades, with roughly 56 cars making their world or North American debuts, he said, adding that advance ticket sales were up 34 percent. The public show, which drew more than 1 million attendees last year, opens on Friday and runs through May 1.

Inside the convention center, carmakers have scheduled a flurry of off-site press events. Lexus will show its LF-Gh hybrid concept on Tuesday night.

Toyota, still recovering from its safety recalls, must scramble to restore its factories to full-tilt production. Since the quake and tsunami last month, the firm has lost more than a quarter-million units of production; the shortfall for Japan's seven largest automakers amounts to 510,000, according to a trade publication, Automotive News.

Recovering from those losses won't happen overnight. Even when factories return to full output, filling the pipeline will require some six to seven weeks of overtime to make up for each lost week, Michael Robinet, director for global production forecasting at IHS Automotive, said.

Buyers here, however, may be among the first in line: Japanese makers will concentrate on stocking dealers in North America, Europe, and other key export markets, Mr. Robinet said.

''Whatever happens, the Japanese don't want to lose market share outside of Japan," he said.

For now, the effects of Japan's disasters on Detroit have been relatively minor. But glitches may yet lurk in the global supply chain.

Jesse Toprak, vice president for industry trends at TrueCar.com, said that the average vehicle had 30,000 parts, and it took only one to drag production to a halt. "You can't say, 'Sorry, there's no air-conditioning button or the computer chip for your transmission,'" he said.



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