Carroll Shelby and a 2006 Ford Shelby Mustang GT-H
Chris Hondros  /  Getty Images file
Legendary race car driver and designer Carroll Shelby stands next to a 2006 Ford Shelby Mustang GT-H at this year’s New York Auto Show. The car will be available for rent at some U.S. Hertz locations this summer.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/20/2006 3:39:53 PM ET 2006-04-20T19:39:53

Much has been written about the current disarray of the American auto industry, but if anyone has any doubt about where carmakers see the future of their business, a trip to this year’s New York International Auto Show will set them straight.

Continuing the theme of the Detroit Auto Show in January — when retro-styled muscle cars like the Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger concept were unveiled to admiring audiences — a great deal of the focus at the New York show is on vehicles designed to appeal to baby boomers, a generation of 78 million people that spends some $2 trillion annually and increasingly looks for cars that exude luxury and prestige, and remind them of their youth.

“This auto show is so much about the whole boomer generation, and that constituency is having a big impact on the auto market right now,” said Brian Chee, managing editor of Autobytel.com, a Web site for car information.

“These people are coming into money, and maybe their last kid has left home for college and they’ve got some discretionary income and want to buy a car they’ve been dreaming about,” Chee added. “That’s why we are seeing a leaning toward luxury models here, and in my opinion the reason automakers are really focused on giving baby boomers a lot of choices and lots of exciting alternatives.”

The 2006 New York Auto Show opens to the public Friday as both General Motors and Ford, the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 automakers, are wrestling with painful restructuring plans, shrinking market share, billions of dollars in losses and a perception that their vehicles are bland and unreliable. At the same time, Asian automakers are seeing an unprecedented success in North America.

The rivals are locked in a pitched battle for U.S. consumers’ attention, and both are embracing the boomer market, realizing that sentimentality for great cars of the past and a desire for luxury are strong motivators when it comes to buying a car.

Indeed, opening the auto show for the media preview earlier this week, Carlos Ghosn, who runs both the French automaker Renault and its Japanese affiliate, Nissan, appealed to automakers to overcome the blandness of style that has pervaded the industry in recent years and return passion to cars and trucks — a strategy he said would help troubled automakers back to profitability and one he said helped him restore Nissan’s flagging fortunes in the early part of this decade.

Cars have become, in some cases, “just a commodity” instead of an “icon of passion,” Ghosn said. “We are all fighting over the 1 million car enthusiasts and missing the potential 16 million buyers out there,” he said.

Japan's Toyota must have read Ghosn’s speech notes before he read them. It stole the first day of the auto show with its 2008 Lexus LS 600 HL — a car dripping with passion and daring style. Lexus Group Vice President and General Manager Bob Carter unveiled the long-wheelbase luxury sedan early Wednesday, describing it as “the most technologically advanced automobile in the world.”

Carter wasn’t simply exaggerating for the media. The car includes a powerful 5.0-liter, V-8 engine, a safety system that includes a radar-driven anti-collision system and a hybrid power train that’s expected to set a new standard for quietness in a luxury sedan. There’s even a camera that can check to make sure a driver is watching the road. The car, which bears a striking resemblance to the Mercedes S-class, is expected to reach the market in early 2007 for a price of about $125,000.

More cars in the luxury or sporty segment were on display in New York, including a redesigned Mercedes E-Class, the Bentley Continental GTC, the 2007 Infiniti G35 sports sedan, Saturn’s 260-horsepower Sky Red Line roadster and a sportier, more crossover-like looking Acura MD-X SUV. For the nostalgia prone, there was news that Ford plans to reach back into its past and make its sporty Ford Shelby Mustang GT-H available for rent at some Hertz locations this summer. Ford last offered modified Mustangs through Hertz in the mid-1960s.

Ford’s rental car move follows the success of its latest Mustang — recognition of the high esteem the original pony car of the 1960s has among car enthusiasts. And at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, Ford introduced a 450-horsepower Shelby Cobra GT500 as a 2007 model, named after performance car icon Carroll Shelby.

General Motors is playing the nostalgia card too, showing off a Camaro concept in Detroit along with DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge Challenger, which evokes memories of the 1970s muscle car. The two cars are not yet confirmed for production, but given their reception it seems likely they’ll be given the go-ahead.

“These retro cars are designed for those boomers who used to own one in the 1960s and want to relive those memories,” said Chee. “They want to buy a car as a reward, and they don’t want a Toyota Camry because they probably owned one when they had kids, but they might buy a Camaro, or a Lexus LS 600 HL, because they’re looking for more performance, and it’s fancier, so through the popularity of these updated car models you can see the luxury market is expanding.”

The New York Auto Show is open to the public until April 23.

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