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Car wars: New York auto show can't compete with Shanghai

Visitors flock to the Shanghai Auto Show.


Well, it wasn't Shanghai. Indeed, the New York International Auto Show may never again be as big a draw as the upstart Shanghai show against which it found itself competing this spring.

The fact is, North America now plays second fiddle to Asia in terms of the size of auto markets. Dieter Zetsche, head of Daimler AG, has said China may some day be a market where 30 million new vehicles are sold every year - nearly twice the size of the best year seen in the United States.

In other words, the East has overtaken the West in the car business. One industry executive suggested that it's going to take a little time for Americans to get over the idea of their new cars being designed for the Chinese market first.

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Many industry experts say the Shanghai show is likely to capture the brighter spotlight from now on. Who knows if Donald Trump will ever get over it?

We know this, though: while we saw the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, a Mercedes-Benz A-Class concept vehicle and the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle on the floor of Manhattan's Jacob Javits Convention Centre, the actual world auto show debut of all three happened in China hours before.

Both the Beetle and the Malibu are important models for General Motors and Volkswagen, respectively - and not merely in America - and Mercedes is a huge player on the luxury side in China, too. GM, VW and Mercedes are leading Western auto makers in China and these car companies expect nearly all of their future growth to happen there, and in Asia generally. GM, for instance, sold nearly 2.4 million vehicles in China last year, up from 900,000 in 2006.

Of this year's auto show cars, the Malibu is the mass-market model competing in the cutthroat mid-size segment. Chevy is GM's global brand and GM would dearly love to have the Malibu emerge as the global player it has never been.

In a nutshell, GM plans to make Chevrolet far more than an "American Revolution" brand, which has been its prominent slogan. Expect Chevy to play down that marketing approach; it has little appeal in China. Instead, the plan is to extend Chevy's appeal far beyond patriotic themes signified by baseball and hot dogs and apple pie.

Interestingly enough, the duelling auto shows that underscore the changing of the automotive guard happened as a result of unexpected circumstances. Candida Rominelli, the New York show's general manager, pointed out that her show always kicks off with the Easter weekend, which means it came unusually late in 2011. And the Shanghai show's dates were changed because of a Chinese holiday. Thus, they landed on top of one another.

"It was unfortunate," she said. "It doesn't help anyone. It doesn't help the manufacturers. It doesn't help the press." It won't happen again for the next five years, either, she added. Organizers for both shows met in Geneva to iron out non-conflicting dates.

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Some of us on hand felt the subtle but palpable changing of the auto show guard, however. When the big, global premiers are actually happening half a world away - when the Big Apple is actually dissed - it's a sobering moment in history for an industry dominated by the United States for 100 years. Mark this date. Asia is in the ascent, the U.S., with its massive deficits and debt and utterly dysfunctional politics, is in decline.

Nonetheless, the show floor still had plenty of interesting sheet metal. That concept A-Class, said Mercedes-Benz USA president Ernst Lieb, a Canadian citizen and the former head of Mercedes-Benz Canada, is going to show up as a production car in North America, if not exactly as shown on the stage. Yes, the A-Class is coming across the pond and that's a good thing for Canadians buyers.

We also saw the 2012 Fiat 500 Cabrio convertible and it's as cute as anything ( Click here for photos). Subaru was talking up the refined interior and 30 per cent fuel economy gain of the 2012 Impreza, too. Toyota's Lexus luxury brand is apparently going to do freshen one of the most dated lineups in the luxury market and the first major hint is the Lexus LF-Gh concept.

Honda brought a chuckle to all by "unveiling" the production version of its 2012 Civic, which went on sale late last week. More than half the journalists on hand had not only seen the showroom Civic, but have driven it in preview test drives.

What Honda didn't show was the bigger story. Many expected Honda to tease us with some sort of concept version of the Civic-based CR-V compact SUV, but nothing of the sort was on offer.

Honda's officials were absolutely stone-faced and thoroughly tight-lipped about the future CR-V and why it had no presence at the last auto show of the season. Speculation: the earthquake and tsunami crisis in Japan is having a far more profound effect on Honda product plans than most would imagine.

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What we learned in New York, aside from the East-versus-West story, is that the North American auto industry is embracing practicality, at least for the time being. The Javits floor was littered with new versions of family sedans, sensible compacts and fuel-sipping hybrid and electric cars.

What we didn't see was a new Cadillac of any sort, nor a new Lincoln. America's luxury brands apparently remain a work in progress and that progress will be revealed at a later date. Ford showed a sedan, but it was the 2013 Taurus slated for sale next spring, in 2012.

German luxury maker BMW had some new things, too, but not what you'd call traditional luxury cars. No, the main course at BMW was its full-electric ActiveE 1-Series going on lease in North America. For dessert, BMW shared details about its first four-cylinder engine in more than a decade for a U.S. model.

Nissan used New York for the debut of an all-new economy compact, the Versa. The sedan shown in New York goes on sale in a few months and Nissan Canada's Ian Forsyth, head of product planning, says the refinement of the new Versa is impressive, as is fuel economy. A four-door hatchback will follow, though details remain secret.

Speaking of subcompacts, Hyundai Motor served up the North American debut of the all-new Accent. Hyundai plans to sell a four-door sedan and four-door hatchback Accent, though the two-door hatch is going away.

Aside from the A-Class concept, Mercedes also showed a new version of its C63 AMG coupe. It was a world premiere. Not the only one in New York, but noteworthy because the unveiling didn't happen first in Shanghai.

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