It’s the first few days of 2003 and two dozen or so 2004 models are making their world or US premiere at the all-important Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. Oh and there’s just one 2003 car making it’s world debut and it has a different official name in the US, writes John Rettie.

Detroit might get the ‘International’ name tag on its show, which opens to the public one week later. It might get more unveilings of concepts but manufacturers who understand the dynamics of the US automotive market place see Los Angeles as the more important show from a consumer if not a media point of view. With close to one million people expected through the turnstiles in the coming nine days, savvy manufacturers know that they are more likely to sell cars to consumers in Los Angeles than in Detroit. After all with balmy 30C-plus weather outside the enormous convention centre in downtown Los Angeles, people are far more likely to look kindly at plopping down money to buy a convertible compared to their poor counterparts in Detroit who are putting up with miserable weather and the threat of several inches of snow.

ASTON Martin design director Henrik Fisker with the DB AR1 (American Roadster 1), the star of the LA show
It’s no wonder that the beautiful Aston Martin DB AR1 (American Roadster 1) is the star of the LA show. It might be officially described as a concept but when we asked Henrik Fisker, AM’s design director, he calmly says that Aston will build just 99 of these cars and they will only be sold in the US starting at the end of the year. Last year’s DB7 Zagato was not sold in the US but this car has been built on a full length DB7 chassis to meet US standards, witness the slightly larger rear bumpers. It is also considered totally impractical for sale in Europe, as it does not have a roof available; it’s strictly a two seater for use in sunny climes such as California.

At the other end of the spectrum Volkswagen came close to messing up its launch of the new Beetle convertible. It’s already on sale but VW honchos in Germany decreed that the car should be launched in Detroit – potentially in a snow storm, no less! VW dealers in Southern California complained and cooler heads prevailed and the car was first shown to the public in Los Angeles, not in Detroit. The same was true for the Touareg.

Rolls Royce however did appear to seriously miss the boat. It totally ignored Los Angeles, probably home to at least one quarter of the new company’s potential buyers, by choosing to wait and unveil the new Phantom in Detroit. Maybach smartly realised where buyers are by making its North American premiere in Los Angeles.

Porsche also took the opportunity to unveil the Cayenne first in LA. As Fred Schwab, the CEO of Porsche North America said: “50% of Porsche’s worldwide sale are in the US and half of those are in California.” Every year this company takes over a complete hall at the LA convention centre and spends its marketing bucks where Porsche buyers live. It’s significant to realise that smaller players such as Lotus, Mosler, Panoz and Brabus show in LA while they don’t bother with Detroit.

US buyers will finally get their hands on the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo following the model’s debut at LA
Dieter Zetsche, Chrysler Group president and CEO, was the keynote speaker at the opening of the media days in Los Angeles and he said that he could not understand why the Detroit manufacturers ignore California, allowing the import brands to take 58% share of this trend-setting market. He described how Chrysler has ambitious plans to change that by increasing marketing dollars and putting special emphasis on the Hispanic market. He went on to insist that it’s good products that will improve its share. To emphasise this, the company unveiled the Magnum SRT-8, a mean looking powerful station wagon, which is Chrysler’s first rear drive car in over 30 years. Like the soon to be launched Pacifica and Crossfire, the Magnum incorporates Mercedes-Benz technology. In his speech Zetsche also encouraged Californians to look hard at accepting diesel as a sensible interim way to cut down on fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions before fuel cell technology can really take over from petrol engines.

Los Angeles also got to host the official launch of another all new car brand – Scion. The name and marketing plans for Toyota’s “youth” brand were unveiled earlier in 2002 but this was the first showing of the actual cars that will go on sale only in California in June.

So far though, it’s Subaru and Mitsubishi who have captured the hearts of these future buyers with their rally cars. For several years enthusiasts have been clamouring for Mitsubishi to import the Evo. Rally fans in the US are growing by leaps and bounds as the sport gets extensive coverage on Speed TV, a cable/satellite sports channel, and kids play rally games with great fervour on their computers and game consoles. Mitsubishi held the worldwide launch of the 2003 Lancer Evolution in Los Angeles. Everyone thought it would be a 2004 EVO VIII. But only recently Mitsubishi decided to keep it as a 2003 car (legally 2004 cars can go on sale in the US on January 1, 2003) and it has to call it the Lancer Evolution. That’s because Harley Davidson uses the Evo name on a line of bikes. Mitsubishi is obliged to use the full Evolution name but fans will undoubtedly call it the EVO VIII. It’s also the star of the upcoming Fast and Furious II movie.

Toyota’s youth-targeting Scion brand debuts in the US; the XA and xB models are based on Japanese-market Toyotas
Talking of movies – with the close proximity to Hollywood – it’s only appropriate to find many connections with movies being highlighted by manufacturers. Mazda showed off the upcoming RX-8 with a special version of the car that will appear in X2, the next X-Men movie. Aston Martin and Ford have a special display with cars featured in BOND movies over the years.

Movie stars also show up and mingle in the LA crowds looking at cars. They’ve got the money to spend on the Aston Martin DB AR1 and the Maybach. Oh, and the aluminium bodied Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ series which had their North American premieres in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles also got to host the official launch of another all new car brand – Scion. The name and marketing plans for Toyota’s “youth” brand were unveiled earlier in 2002 but this was the first showing of the actual cars that will go on sale only in California in June. “

It might seem parochial to readers outside the US but people in the industry are frustrated by the fact that two of the five major motor shows (New York, Chicago and Miami are the other three big ones) run essentially concurrently each year. History shows that the Los Angeles show was becoming the biggest and most influential show in the country a decade or so ago. While the LA Convention Centre was undergoing a mammoth expansion program and was hurting for space, the Detroit organisers changed the dates of their show to clash with Los Angeles. The domestic companies were determined to create a show they could control. At first this rivalry hurt Los Angeles and for a while it looked as though it would become a second rate regional dealer-organised show (of which there are dozens per year in the US). But reality is that Southern California is home to the US headquarters for all but one Japanese manufacturer and four European importers plus there are more design studios in the area than anywhere else in the world. With annual sales of about two million vehicles per year California also ranks as one of the largest single car markets in the world.

Every single person in the industry who has to make their way to Detroit in January each year would probably agree that the show would be much more pleasant if it were held in May or September when the weather is much better. In the meantime if Detroit insists on keeping its show dates in January perhaps the French-based Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles (OICA), which only grants one international show to a single country, should consider giving the International title to both Detroit and Los Angeles. In this way consumers in Southern California could get to see new cars when they are launched instead of being short-changed by companies, such as Nissan, Toyota and Rolls Royce, who feel obligated to display only in Detroit. Sounds far fetched. Not really, when you consider that the distance between Los Angeles and Detroit is far greater than the distance between Frankfurt, Geneva and Paris. California is about as different from Detroit as France is from Germany!