Auto Show forecast: Cloudy with patches of snow

By Alex Taylor III, senior editor


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- This just in from Cobo Hall, Detroit, scene of the 2010 North American International Auto Show:

General Motors has replaced last year's pre-bankruptcy thinly carpeted floors for its exhibit with a raised wooden platform. To close observers of the auto show scene, this is a better economic indicator than the size of the shrimp served at the innumerable cocktail parties. GM show planners must see better times ahead.

Otherwise, the show (and aren't "North American" and "International" in the same title redundant?) reflects a new era of diminished expectations.

Notably, the press preview that opens on Monday used to sprawl sloppily over three days; it has been compressed to two, which has long been the standard for big shows like Frankfurt.

And GM, which last year had to make space for eight brands at its display, now can focus its efforts on just four, with Hummer headed for new hands and Pontiac, Saab, and Saturn rolling toward the automotive graveyard.

Another sign of change in Detroit is the absence of high-profile appearances by CEOs.

Ed Whitacre, GM's new leader, eschewed any formal appearances at the show in favor of a last-minute media conference call. Whitacre showed himself to be the master of the short, utterly logical, and purposely unrevealing answer, which will force journalists to be more creative in order to nudge him out of his comfort zone.

Ford's Alan Mulally, another industry outsider, will likely be seen only briefly at the show and is in danger of being mobbed every time he appears. Mulally is on the verge of being elevated to the same high Detroit pedestal as industrialist Roger Penske. About the only thing the Ford (F, Fortune 500) CEO could do to improve his reputation would be to take over the Detroit Lions and guide them to a winning season.

That leaves the media spotlight to Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, a position in which he will be more than comfortable. The automotive turnaround artist has fascinated Detroit with his marketing vision, grand ambition, and utter confidence in Chrysler's future. Marchionne is scheduled to appear at a media roundtable on both days of the press preview, which should ensure him a goodly share of the next-day's headlines.

Despite their limited visibility, personalities will still overshadow the product at the show. Economics is one reason. Whereas in the past automakers would gin up three or four fanciful concept cars to amaze the audience -- and spend the month of December giving sneak previews for the press -- this year there will about one new idea per manufacturer.

The media, meanwhile, will find its energies split between extolling the virtues of traditional chrome and high horsepower and the fuel-sipping, climate-saving capabilities of more forward looking vehicles.

Really, how do you talk about luxury cruisers like the Audi A8 and the Cadillac XTS Platinum in the same breath that you extol the virtues of the all-electric Nissan Leaf ... or the $3,000 Tata Nano?

Yes, the Nano, a refutation of everything the U.S. auto industry has been doing for the past 50 years, is coming to Detroit, where it is being shown at an invitation-only private event.

Designed as the most basic from of transportation after the bicycle for the crowded roads of India, it won't be for sale the U.S. -- yet. A spokesman allows, though, that it might arrive in 2013 after it gets some mechanical and safety upgrades.

The unveiling of the Tata Nano at the North American International Auto Show -- now there would be an event to remember. To top of page