Gear Heads Prepare For Los Angeles Auto Show

It's time for the Los Angeles Auto Show, the first major North American auto show of the season. It's known for presenting cutting-edge technology and design. Mark Phelan, automotive critic for the Detroit Free Press, talks with Renee Montagne about what will — and won't — be on the floor of the convention center this year.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The top executives from the Big Three automakers were in Washington yesterday, talking about a bailout for the car industry. Today here in Los Angeles, the talk will be about new car models. That's because it's time for the L.A. Auto Show. That's the first major auto show of the season. And it's a show known for presenting cutting-edge technology and design. Joining us to talk about what will and won't be on the floor of the convention center this year is Mark Phelan. He's automotive critic for the Detroit Free Press. Good morning.

Mr. MARK PHELAN (Automotive Critic, Detroit Free Press): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: This is not only the first big auto show of the season, it's also the first one since this huge economic crisis really hit. What kind of presence will the Big Three have at the L.A. show this year?

Mr. PHELAN: Well, it's very interesting because this show does come just on the heels of the meltdown, and the response was quick and pretty dramatic. First of all, all of the companies will still have their vehicles here during the days the show is open to the public. But during the two days of press conferences beforehand, they changed their plans quite a bit. Ford will still be introducing a new Mustang and a new version of its Fusion, its sedan.

But General Motors had planned to introduce the Buick Lacrosse, which is, you know, quite important to them, and a small crossover SUV. And they looked at the amount of money that they would spend doing that, bringing a lot of journalists from China, where Buick is a very popular brand, to see the introduction. And they decided, you know, we can save a few million dollars if we just postpone this introduction and do it at the Detroit Auto Show in January. So General Motors won't have any executives here at all.

MONTAGNE: Very, very telling. Now, that January Detroit Auto Show, do you think there will still be a Big Three at that show, as opposed to maybe a Big Two?

Mr. PHELAN: I believe so. I believe that there will still be the three, you know, Detroit-based automakers. The idea of the Big Three really sort of disappeared a few years ago. Ford and General Motors are still viable, independent automakers. Chrysler after, you know, its 11 years as part of Daimler-Chrysler, and now being owned by private capital, is in a different place. Most of us assume that the current owners want to shrink it down, make it a small and appealing acquisition for some other company, because Chrysler no longer really has the ability to exist as an independent company. But all three of them will certainly still be around in January.

MONTAGNE: You know, switching gears just a bit, you wrote a column for your paper, The Detroit Free Press, this week called "Six Myths about the Big Three." Could you rattle off for us what the top myth is about the automotive industry?

Mr. PHELAN: The first myth is that nobody buys their vehicles. And actually, Ford, GM, and Chrysler sold eight and a half million vehicles in the United States last year and millions more around the world.

MONTAGNE: I think myth number two, you say, Detroit builds unreliable junk.

Mr. PHELAN: Right. And this is something that certainly was true in the 1980s and 1990s. But over the past few years they've done a lot to address the sins that they committed in those days. The most recent independent quality surveys find that Ford's reliability is now on par with good Japanese automakers. And another survey scored many of the U.S. brands as high or higher than brands like Audi, Acura, BMW, and Honda.

MONTAGNE: Mark Phelan, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. PHELAN: It's my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Mark Phelan is an automotive columnist for the Detroit Free Press, and he's here in Los Angeles for the L.A. Auto Show, which begins Friday.

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