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N.Y. auto show has a definite global feel

Automakers are increasingly building and selling variations of the same model in global markets rather than developing models specifically for each market.
The Nissan Juke, a quirky compact SUV, was among the new global models introduced at the 2010 New York International Auto Show. Martin Meissner / AP

The first press conference of the New York International Auto Show featured Mercedes-Benz, the German icon, introducing an improved version of its Alabama-made R-Class crossover with the help of the Olympic gold medal-winning U.S. bobsled team.

This mixed national allegiance epitomized the tone of the show, which featured a slew of vehicles either arriving from or departing to foreign markets.

And even more significantly, manufacturers are increasingly building and selling variations of the same model in global markets rather than developing models specifically for each market.

According to Jim Farley, Ford’s global vice president of marketing, the forces at work here include:

  • A U.S. market where more expensive fuel makes Americans more interested in the kinds of cars other countries have traditionally liked.
  • Foreign markets such as China are increasingly buying U.S.-sized cars.
  • Desperate car manufacturers need to maximize their investment in each new model by selling it in as many markets as possible.

“Now all Americans know that gas could be $4 to $5 a gallon in the future,” Farley said. This will make them more open to the notion of buying the cars that Ford will sell in global markets, including the subcompact Fiesta, compact Focus and minivan Grand C-Max, he predicted.

New global models introduced at the New York show included:

  • The Infiniti QX56, a full-sized SUV that’s a big hit in the Persian Gulf.
  • The Chevrolet Cruz, a Korean-developed compact already for sale in Europe and Asia.
  • The Volvo S60, a sleek Swedish sports sedan whose manufacturer has just been sold to a Chinese company.
  • The Mazda2 subcompact which is built on the same underpinnings as the Ford Fiesta.
  • The Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg SUVs, which the automakers partnered to design.
  • The Acura TSX station wagon, a car that is sold worldwide as the Honda Accord wagon.
  • The Nissan Juke, a quirky compact SUV.

“All the companies are recognizing that the world is becoming too complex,” said Larry Dominique, vice president of product planning for Nissan North America. “So we are seeing the simplification of the global lineups. You will see more synergy between markets.”

This isn’t a new idea, but it is new for virtually the entire industry to embrace the idea simultaneously, as opposed to one or two companies dabbling in it.

“It has been discussed in theory for years,” said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “It took the economic turmoil we’ve experienced in recent years to shock the system and make it happen,” he said.

Even a U.S.-only brand like Scion introduced increasingly global products. The company introduced the iQ mini car to challenge Smart for the tiny car market, selling a model that is labeled a Toyota elsewhere. Scion also debuted a new version of its popular tC compact coupe.

The iQ, in particular, could benefit from changing American tastes because of its innovative approach to fitting passengers inside. Smart is suffering in the U.S. market because, after a brief burst of initial popularity, consumers have cooled to the idea of a two-seat economy car. The iQ, in contrast, has a minimalist back seat.

Toyota engineers concluded that micro car drivers would be willing to sacrifice rear-seat comfort, but that they want the ability to carry people on occasion. So the iQ has a full-sized rear seat behind the front passenger’s seat, with the expectation that the front-seater can slide the seat all the way forward to make room. The driver, on the other hand, needs to drive without being contorted, so the iQ has only a child’s jumpseat behind the driver’s seat.

Scion calls this 3+1 seating, but it gives the Smart-sized iQ the ability to carry passengers when needed, which should lend it broader appeal than the Smart.

Hybrid-electric drive technology has been largely driven by Japanese and American carmakers so far, and Toyota introduced the hybrid Lexus CT200h and Ford showed the Lincoln MKS Hybrid to reinforce their positions in the hybrid segment. But Korean and German companies are increasingly on board with hybrid technology, as Hyundai, Porsche and Volkswagen showed hybrid versions of some of their new models.

German carmakers have especially resisted hybrid drive in favor of fuel-sipping diesel engines, but they have realized that buyers in many markets prefer fuel-efficient gasoline engines to diesels. “We want to offer a car for a customer who wants a gasoline car,” explained Bernd Stiebels, project manager for the Touareg’s hybrid-electric drive train.

The hybrid system, which was developed in conjunction with Porsche and is also used in the Cayenne hybrid, is a parallel design that lets the vehicle retain its brawny SUV towing capacity of 7,700 lbs., but it can also disconnect the gas engine to coast at highway speeds, said Stiebels.

More significantly for the U.S. market where the Jetta is VW’s top seller, the hybrid system is suitable for use in that car too, he added. “That would be a good solution for the Jetta,” Stiebels said.

If the company builds a hybrid Jetta in response to a preference for that fuel-saving technology by American drivers, it would demonstrate that car markets are becoming globalized in both directions, and that it is not simply a matter of the U.S. market becoming more like overseas markets.

Does this really explain why Mercedes’ press conference showed a video of the American bobsled team’s gold medal victory at the expense of the German team, which was relegated to the silver medal by Steve Holcomb and his crew?

It might have been part of it, but maybe not the only reason.

“BMW sponsors the German bobsled team so it was easy for us to cheer for the U.S. sled,” explained a Mercedes executive.