Doom & zoom

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Getting people to buy cars is a tricky thing.

Each year, the Columbus International Auto Show must adapt to the country's economic climate, environmental concerns and other outside factors as influential to consumers as a powerful engine or a pop-up GPS screen. It has met challenges in the past, like showcasing fuel-efficient models in 2008, when gas crested $3 a gallon.

But the timing this year couldn't be worse. What's facing the auto industry - and, by extension, the show running today through Sunday at the Greater Columbus Convention Center - is a bona-fide catastrophe.

"There's been nothing like this in post-war America, with either the economy or the auto industry," said John Wolkonowicz, a senior auto analyst for North America with IHS Global Insight, a consulting firm. "It's about the economic collapse and the collapse in consumer confidence. Consumers have been hit in every way."

So, too, has the auto industry - a network of manufacturers, dealers, suppliers and other businesses with deep roots in the American landscape.

Job loss, tightening credit lines, crumbling home equity and dwindling investment portfolios continue to make consumers wary of buying automobiles, and the global financial crisis has forced at least seven countries to prop up their domestic auto manufacturers.

Through February, sales of cars in the United States were down more than 37 percent, according to; trucks and SUVs have fared even worse through the first two months of 2009.

Things could get worse before they get better, but the dealers behind Columbus' annual auto extravaganza want to stress that plenty of cars are available for the millions of Americans who need them.

"We just tried to emphasize that people are still buying cars," said show producer Nikki Bragg, who works with the Columbus Automobile Dealers Association. "Sales might be down a bit, but that's also being seen in other industries. People are still buying cars, no matter what you hear on the news."

Coming to town this year are about 350 cars, trucks and SUVs from most major U.S. manufacturers, as well as foreign competitors Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and many others. A few concept models, designed to test ideas of the future, might make an appearance.

"If you are in a market for a car, you can come in and talk to knowledgeable people in a no-pressure environment," Bragg added. "There are good deals to be had out there. Getting more for your money is a hot topic this year."

Automakers aren't only rolling out economical, affordable cars that sacrifice frills for fuel efficiency, though. The 2009 crop will run the gamut in price, style and fuel-efficiency.

"I don't think people want anything different than they did before," said Wolkonowicz, who predicted the auto industry could turn around in the first half of 2010, if finances and federal loans are handled correctly. "They still want something that meets their lifestyle and emotional needs. The axiom that you are what you drive is still true."

Car Talk

The 2009 Columbus Auto Show will bring together about 350 cars, trucks and SUVs. Daily admission is $8. Here are some cool rides coming by.

2010 Chevrolet Camaro

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid

2010 Ford Mustang

2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe

2009 Nissan 370Z Roadster

What: Columbus International Auto Show

When: Thursday-Sunday, March 19-22

Where: Greater Columbus Convention Center, Downtown