New Mitsubishi i-MiEV, an electric vehicle that boasts zero-emissions

New Mitsubishi i-MiEV, an electric vehicle that boasts zero-emissions (Los Angeles Times)

LOS ANGELES -- Forget the supercars and green machines. At this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, the emphasis is on affordable small cars and minivans. The auto industry, trying to climb out of its worst sales slump in decades, wants the spotlight on vehicles it can sell -- now.

Last month's tepid U.S. car sales only underscored the industry's need to focus on getting consumers to buy cars, instead of trying to impress the auto critics.

So the big global debut at this year's L.A. show, which begins Friday and runs through Dec. 13 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is a redesigned Toyota minivan. And much of the pre-show buzz has surrounded mass-market economy cars such as the Ford Fiesta and the Chevrolet Cruze.

"It's a very straightforward way of doing things," said Dave Thomas, senior editor at auto website Cars.com. "A Toyota Sienna minivan? That's not the type of thing you would normally debut at the L.A. Auto Show. It's certainly not a sexy car, but it's a big deal for Toyota."

Financially troubled Chrysler, which had to endure media gibes last year for its cut-rate display at the L.A. show, certainly got the message.

"No fancy parties, no press conferences, but we'll have a very strong consumer presence," Chrysler spokesman Scott Brown said. "We need to have sales right now. The auto shows are still a great way to reach consumers, and we need to focus on vehicles that are available to consumers right now."

The focus on practicality is also reflected in the show's lineup of exhibitors. High-end carmakers Bentley, Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, which have all suffered major sales declines during the economic downturn, will be no-shows this year, even though Southern California is one of their biggest markets.

"We had no North American [product] launch, so we decided not to go," Ferrari spokesman Matteo Sardi said. "But we value the show, so we'll definitely be back."

Not that the L.A. show, known for its environmental bent, will be totally devoid of glitz and green. The event will showcase several pricey, niche-market vehicles, including the North American debut of the $245,000 Rolls-Royce Ghost. For the green crowd, Toyota will stage the North American debut of its long-awaited Prius plug-in hybrid concept, first unveiled in September at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

But the automakers clearly are focusing much of their car-show marketing efforts on vehicles that will put up big sales numbers -- in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 10,000 units a month -- and which are priced under $30,000.

The L.A. show, for instance, will feature the North American debuts of the Cruze and Fiesta compacts -- two small cars that the American automakers are hoping can win fuel-economy fanatics away from the Asian manufacturers while also helping them meet tough new mileage standards. Both will have starting sticker prices of around $15,000.

"The Fiesta and Cruze should outsell the [ Honda Insight hybrid] by 2 to 1, easy," Thomas said.

Other debuts with mass-market potential include the redesigned Kia Sorento and Hyundai Tucson -- both car-based SUVs -- and the Mazda 2, which shares the same platform as the new Fiesta.

One surprise is the absence of Nissan and its luxury brand, Infiniti, from this year's show. In a cost-cutting move, Infiniti decided to stage the global debut of its 2011 M luxury sedan at a Beverly Hills hotel this week rather than at the convention center. That move surprised some analysts. While costing a lot more than a Cruze or a Sienna, Infinitis are still in the price range of auto show attendees.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Infiniti spokesman Kyle W. Bazemore acknowledged.

A spokesman for Nissan said the decision to bypass the L.A. show, as well as other shows, was a temporary reaction to the economic crisis that hit last year.

"We will be back in L.A. next year," the spokesman said.

Fans of big engines and equally big price tags will still have plenty to gawk at. In addition to Rolls' Ghost, the show will feature the North American debuts of the Porsche Boxster Spyder and the $375,000 Lexus LFA supercar.

It will also feature plenty of concept cars -- the futuristic vehicles that often look great on auto show display stands but rarely make it to dealer showrooms.

Besides the plug-in Prius, other hybrid and electric vehicle concepts on hand include the Volkswagen L1, which features a two-cylinder, turbo-diesel hybrid motor, and Subaru's Tourer hybrid concept, a sharp-edged car straight out of "The Jetsons."

And the L.A. show will also host the annual Green Car of the Year award, sponsored by Green Car Journal magazine and determined by jurors such as car buff-comedian Jay Leno and muscle-car master Carroll Shelby. The finalists this year are the Audi A3 TDI clean diesel, Honda Insight hybrid, Mercury Milan hybrid, Toyota Prius hybrid and Volkswagen Golf TDI clean diesel.

Overall, the auto show will take up about 500,000 square feet of exhibit space at the convention center, down about 10% from last year. More than half of the reduced square footage is because of the absence of Nissan and Infiniti, noted show General Manager Andy Fuzesi.

Some automakers are taking more space this year, Fuzesi said. Ford, which has been making a comeback this year, is increasing its exhibit space by 30%, he said, and General Motors is taking more space for its four core brands: Chevy, Cadillac, Buick and GMC.

The absent automakers will be missed, Fuzesi said, but he doesn't think it's the beginning of a trend away from auto shows. Decisions on whether to attend an auto show and how much to spend are made months in advance, he said.

"They were making these decisions a few months ago, when the entire world didn't know where it was going," he said. "They had bigger things on their mind than how much space they were going to take at the L.A. Auto Show."