Hey, Wanna Buy a Minicar?

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General Motors would like you to like them. No, really.

That’s why, at the New York International Auto Show yesterday, they revealed three new concept minicars aimed at the urban market. Called the Groove, the Beat and the Trax, they’re new skins for the same basic guts found in a Chevy Spark or Daewoo Matiz — cars that are already popular, not to mention profitable for GM, in countries around the world.

But to bring something like this to North America, the Detroit behemoth wants to feel what one company executive described as "pull" from US consumers. So they rolled out the amped-up designs (created in GM’s Korea design studio) here in New York, rather than at auto shows in Shanghai or Geneva.

And then, in their GM way, they did their best to sex things up. They reached out to the Internet community, inviting rumpled bloggers (including this one) to shmooze with top executives at a fancy dinner Tuesday night at Metrazur in Grand Central Station.

"Small cars can be cool, small cars can be bold," said Ed Welburn, VP for GM Global Design, insisted as he introduced the cars at the Javits Center. "Small cars can fit urban lifestyles while providing fuel economy." And then the show began.

Dancers bumped and shimmied to a melange of "modern" music (like Elwood’s hip-hop-flavored take on Gordon Lightfoot’s "Sundown"). The lights flashed and the shrouds were pulled off the cars. An announcer intoned slogans about how one model embodied the "adventurous spirit of modern grunge" while another was for "people with a lifestyle embedded in the X Games."

DSCN1418.JPGGM even went the Coors twins one better and found blonde triplets to point at the cars and stand around politely chatting with eager older male auto journalists once the "reveal" was complete.

And they’ve got an American Idol-style voting stunt going on that invites consumers to visit vote4chevrolet.com and click on which of the three models they like the best.

As executive designer David Lyon sheepishly admitted, getting GM to be "cool" is "really hard. It’s like asking the Army to be cool."

It’s easy to poke fun at those attempts, but making minicars desirable on a mass level in the US is also deadly serious business — both for General Motors as a company and for the environment. GM is the biggest producer of automobiles in the world. Globally, it sells mostly cars. But in the US, it’s most successful with its pickups and other trucks. The reveal of the minicar concepts was more an effort to test the waters than to begin an aggressive marketing campaign. All of the GM officials I talked to expressed skepticism that Americans would ever embrace minicars the way Europeans and Asians have — unless the price of gasoline went well north of $3 a gallon.

But all the same executives also acknowledged that GM has to change its own thinking if it’s going to remain a player in a marketplace where environmental concerns are no mere fashion trend — they’re fast becoming a regulatory imperative. The task isn’t likely to be easy if their vice chairman Bob Lutz’s attitude is any indication. "We’re committed to reducing greenhouse gases," said Troy Clarke, president of GM North America, in a response to a blogger’s question about the company’s position on global warming. Clarke’s corporate communications handler looked on nervously as he continued. "We want to be about creating solutions. We’re trying."

GM’s efforts include a number of flex fuel vehicles designed to run on ethanol blends; a hydrogen cell-powered vehicle that is supposed to be available by the end of the decade; and the Chevrolet Volt, a sleek electric concept car that represents GM’s chance to shake its rep as the company that killed the electric car. Problem is, as nice as the Volt looks, the battery is still in development, and there’s no firm date for its release to the public.

What was most surprising to me about the GM executives I had a chance to talk to was their avowed skepticism about their ability to successfully market minicars — to create or even foster a demand.

"The question is, does North America want a car this size?" said Clarke, who admitted to having been forced to see An Inconvenient Truth by his college-age daughter, although he didn’t say what he thought of it. "I want to see it in driveways and on the streets. But I would want the confidence that we would introduce it and that it would stay introduced."

Other executives repeatedly stressed the idea that it is consumers who create demand, and that the company’s marketing is powerless in the face of consumer tastes.

It’s a hard argument to buy from a company as powerful as GM — especially at the auto show, where booming promotions for Hummers blast from video screens and Cadillacs are polished and repolished to give them an enticing gleam. As designer David Lyon said, "It’s more an internal GM thing than an external one. [Bringing minicars to] North America would be a contrarian move. "But the public won’t decide for us."

Photos: Sarah Goodyear 

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