Sex, speed and loud music

The awkwardness of this year's Detroit auto show (plus VIDEO)

Three years ago, Chrysler hired cowboys to herd 120 longhorn cattle through downtown Detroit to generate excitement for its Dodge Ram pick-up truck during the North American International Auto Show. The carmaker has also dropped trucks from the ceiling of the Cobo Center, where the show is held, and driven a Jeep through a plate glass window.

These days, however, over-the-top stunts have largely disappeared from the annual auto industry bash, thanks mainly to the latest recession and a taxpayer bailout of the industry. “People would think we were back on the bottle,” joked one Chrysler executive when asked if Chrysler (now married to Italy’s Fiat) would ever consider rounding up more cattle.

But don’t worry. It’s not as though automobile industry has suddenly purged its long-standing penchant for displays of cheesiness. Despite considerable effort to highlight the improved fuel efficiency of their vehicles (aimed more at government regulators than actual car buyers, according to some analysts), the industry still managed to slip a healthy dose of what it believes truly sells cars into this year’s Detroit auto show: sex, speed and loud music. And the results were frequently amusing.

From rock n’ roll to women wearing tight clothing, the auto show was full of examples of the industry’s marketing crutches. There were burly trucks caked with mud, alien-looking concept vehicles, and modified race cars that appeared designed solely for gear-heads to salivate over. Take, for example, Porsche’s 918 RSR, a hybrid car with a pair of electric motors driven by a giant flywheel sitting where a passenger would normally be. The system wasn’t designed to save fuel, mind you—it’s a way to boost its regular 555 horsepower output to 767 hp with a push of a button.

When it came to dramatic unveilings, Chrysler, perhaps predictably given its past, led the way with its introduction of the Chrysler 300 and 200 sedans. Before the cars were driven out on to the stage, hundreds of journalists were subjected to a frenetic mash-up of pounding hip-hop beats, tinkling piano music, images of cute children and references to underdogs who triumph over adversity. To top it off, the president of Chrysler’s brand, Francois Olivier, recited rap lyrics from an Eminem song. In a French accent.

There were other instances of worlds colliding, awkwardly, when Honda unveiled its 2012 Civic concept. John Mendel, executive vice-president of American Honda, gave the usual car salesman’s pitch about the new Civic’s more aggressive lines—he said Civic fans are typically “young at heart” —but stressed the need to avoid straying too far from the look of the existing model, which has been a big seller. Translation: “Civics used to be popular with young people, but then their parents started buying them too, and so we made them bigger and more boring-looking. And so, in an attempt to please both groups, we came up with this.” Then, as if to underscore the generational conflict further, he introduced Pete Wentz, best known as the bassist and primary lyricist for rock band Fall Out Boy. Wentz looked uncomfortable shilling for a car company, and it’s questionable whether the two or three hundred automotive writers crowded around the stage, many of them from overseas, even knew who he was.

Even Toyota, known for its practical-yet-boring vehicles, also couldn’t resist trying to jazz up its sprawling display with a little pop culture. Dropped between the Camrys and Corrolas was a stretched and lowered “swagger wagon,” a reference to a tongue-in-cheek viral ad Toyota made for its minivans that shows a pair of suburban parents rapping about their ride with three rows of seats. Okay, the ad was actually quite clever. And Toyota should be commended for poking fun at its staid reputation. But CEO Akio Toyoda, the grandson of Toyota’s founder, addressed the more serious subject of Toyota’s slipping sales by saying during a meeting with reporters that Toyota needs to be more adventurous with its designs, particularly now that the competition has caught up on the quality front. “I think cars need to be better-looking,” he said through a translator. “The better-looking the car, the better the car.” A blunt acknowledgment that automobiles are created with cutting edge technology and clever engineering, but they are sold based largely on good looks and emotional appeal. Cue the stirring music and images of open road.

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