TAMPA — Given the dire state of the auto industry, I half expected all of the 2009 show models rolling into the Tampa Convention Center on Wednesday to arrive on crutches. Pummeled by years of rising gas prices, depressed by global recession and financial meltdown, auto sales have dropped faster than George Bush's ratings. But take heart. Here are five reasons it's worth your time to wander through the Tampa Bay International Auto Show, which opens today with more than two dozen automakers and a whole lot of 2009 models.
1 Judging by all the auto show workers gawking at the Airstream, Ford's concept minivan, this vehicle is sure to be an entertainment hit. It's a retro design (inspired by the Stanley Kubrick movie 2001: A Space Odyssey) that's been called a cross between a conversion van, a space capsule and a mirror. Be sure to check out the 360-degree video screen that rises from the floor, the egg-shaped chairs and the retractable cameras used in place of side mirrors.
2 It's taken 113 days for area gas prices to drop 42 percent to $2.358 from a peak price in July. Does it matter? Gas-guzzling muscle cars abound, as usual, showcased by the 2010 Camaro (available next spring). Starting price: $22,995. It's speedsters aplenty at the show, from the Ford concept Interceptor (kind of a stretch Mustang) and Dodge's Challenger and Viper to the Nissan GT-R and the 420-horsepower Audi R8. Don't forget the Cadillac (I kid you not) pre-production 556-horsepower CTS-V with a 0-to-60 time of 3.9 seconds.
3 So where's all the supposed focus on fuel efficiency? At last November's show, when area gas prices topped $3 a gallon, mileage was Issue No. 1. It's hardly a megatrend at this show, but if you look hard, there are about 20 models that feature hybrid engines. Check out the Saturn Vue hybrid that boasts 585 miles on one tank of gas, lots of flex-fuel vehicles that take E85 ethanol fuel mixes, and even the whopper-sized hybrid (is that an oxymoron?) Silverado and Tahoe models. And the subcompact Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit are simply fuel efficient: upper 20s in the city and mid 30s on the highway. Don't care about mileage? Enjoy the Hummer H3T crew cab that, at $41,150, claims to get 14 miles in the city and 18 on the highway. Maybe with a strong tailwind.
4 Could this be Chrysler's last hurrah here as one of Detroit's Big Three? Talk of a GM-Chrysler merger continues, though combining one hard-hit automaker with another hardly seems like a formula for success. For Chrysler, the merger could mean huge cutbacks. Of Chrysler's 26 models, just seven may remain after a blending with GM, a Grant Thornton study says. Among the likely survivors: Dodge Ram, some "core" Jeep vehicles and Chrysler's minivans. Come see the others before they disappear!
5 Check out the extras at the show. Ogle the Czech-made, dorsal-fin-designed Tatra cars from the 1930s, including the T87 model that was a favorite of Nazi officers. Check out the General Lee — a Dodge Charger — from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show. On Sunday, learn how to best protect your dog and other pets when they travel by auto.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.