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At the Tampa Bay International Auto Show, less splash, more sensibility

TAMPA — Instead of women in bikinis stroking automobile hoods, a General Motors magician extols the benefits of saving gas.

Ford plugs its new MyKey system that lets parents limit speeding and stereo volume for their teenage drivers.

Hefty horsepower? Forget it. Let's talk clean diesel, ethanol and plug-in hybrids.

Welcome to the Era of Responsibility at the Tampa Bay International Auto Show, which starts today and runs through Sunday at the Tampa Convention Center.

Since last year's car convention, the industry has absorbed several bumper blows, most notably the bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM and the companies' multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailouts.

Nissan is a no-show this year. So is Mercedes Benz. But most everyone else is showing their wares in the recession-battered Tampa auto market.

"I've never had such a small show," said Chrysler floor manager Colette Ferrell as she measured her display against the three-times-larger space devoted to GM. "This is a selling show for real people who want to see cars. Miami's all about concept cars where celebrities come to see and be seen."

GM is a smaller company than it was last year. Pontiac's gone. So are Saturn and Hummer. That has left Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac to hold up the company's end.

Scott Settlemire, national shows and exhibitions manager for Chevrolet and Cadillac, found himself marketing muscle car nostalgia — a hot orange Camaro rotated on a turntable — while hawking GM's line of economical rides for uncertain times.

"I believe we're going to pay America back with interest," Settlemire said as detailing crews buffed Camaros and a Corvette. "I keep reminding people the money we received was a loan not a gift."

Though Chevy Volt, the company's prototype plug-in electric car, didn't make the show, Settlemire talked up a hybrid Silverado pickup truck. Won't the other guys laugh the hybrid driver off the construction site?

"Will he get laughed at? If they do, let's take it to the drag strip to prove its mettle," Settlemire said.

Mettle — 12 cylinders of growling mettle — came rolling off a car carrier belonging to luxury Italian automaker Lamborghini. Looking like a throwback from housing and stock bubbles past, the $450,000 Murcielago gets a greedy 5 to 8 miles per gallon.

With the bullet-like aerodynamics of the Batmobile, the car came in psychedelic green sporting $10,000 hand-stitched leather seats. A black companion car sells for $700,000.

"That's the last one in the world in that green color," said Joe Sutera, sales manager at the newly opened Lamborghini Sarasota. "You want to buy it, you come to us."

Ford, the only one of the Big Three U.S. automakers to duck bankruptcy, was gearing up to showcase its ultra fuel efficient pilot car: an Escape plug-in hybrid. Technical difficulties spelled the end to that. Progress Energy, partner in the pilot project, told Ford it was worried the auto battery had been damaged before reaching St. Petersburg.

Instead, Ford publicized its safety-conscious Sync and MyKey systems wrapped into a Taurus SHO. Sync is the company's voice-activated navigation, cell phone and music system. It's essentially a talking dashboard with a female voice.

MyKey programs the car to promote seat belt use, limit speeding and dampen loud stereos. It's the ultimate teen straitjacket. If the seat belt is not clicked, the car won't start. Parents lock in the top speed and stereo volume.

"Teens will probably object but they can't do anything about it," said Hana-Leigh Wingle of Bill Currie Ford.

With auto sales and consumer sentiment in the dumps, the new sobriety seems to fit this year's show. The St. Petersburg Times is one of the sponsors.

"Car shows used to be for guys coming after work after two martinis," Ferrell said. "Not anymore. You won't see too many low-cut dresses."

FAST FACTS

If you go

Tampa Convention Center

Today: Noon to 10 p.m.

Saturday: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Sunday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $9 adults, $4 military, seniors, students with ID, children 7-12. Kids 6 and younger free.

Discounts: Free passes, valid today, from Winn-Dixie, Subway. Coupons for $2 off from new car dealers and at AutoShowTampa.com.

At the Tampa Bay International Auto Show, less splash, more sensibility 10/22/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 11:21pm]

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