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Glamour Dims as Hecklers Hit the Auto Show

Just a year ago, working as a product presenter at an auto show was a pretty straightforward job. You stood next to a vehicle, you called it a marvel of engineering, style and comfort and then you fielded softball questions like, “What does this baby cost?”

2011 Chevrolet Cruze
Photo by Oliver Quillia for CNBC.com
2011 Chevrolet Cruze

But that was before the bailout. Now that the government has helped General Motors and Chrysler stave off bankruptcy with billions of dollars in loans, these companies are finding somewhat hostile crowds at their exhibits. Which leads to scenes like the one on Friday at the New York auto show, where a blond woman in a tight black dress stood on a rotating platform and pitched the sporty Dodge Circuit, one of five electric cars that Chrysler is developing.

Donald Han, an accountant from Queens, sounded unmoved. “Why now?” he asked the woman, rather curtly, once she had finished her patter. “How come you’ve got to nearly go bankrupt before you come out with a car like this?”

Long a glamorous showcase for carmakers, auto shows have lately become a place for buyers and gawkers to vent. Few of the attendees at the Javits Center, where the New York show runs until Sunday, will ever encounter a top executive from G.M. or Chrysler. But all of them get within heckling range of the presenters and for some, that is good enough.

It does not seem to matter that these women — they are nearly all women, most of them young and attractive — work part time for marketing firms and talent agencies that have contracts to run the exhibits. Many know little about the car companies they are working for beyond the scripts they have memorized.

“I try to explain that we’re not involved in corporate decisions, so complaining to us doesn’t really make a lot of sense,” said Kerri Moss, standing on a large turntable next to a Jeep 4X4 Laredo, a Chrysler product. Recently laid off from her job as a teacher, she is trying to earn some money on the car show circuit, which runs from September to May. “And if that doesn’t work, I tell them we’re doing the best we can.”

Often, that does not work either. One G.M. presenter said a woman told her the company was responsible for the death of American soldiers in Iraq. The logic went like this: if G.M. made more fuel-efficient cars, the country would not need so much oil, and if the country did not need oil, United States troops would never have invaded.

“I didn’t say anything,” recalled the presenter, who like many others here declined to give her name because she is not supposed to speak to the news media. “What can you possibly say? ‘Thanks?’ ”

Even if they ignore the snide comments and occasional jeers, presenting for an ailing car company just is not as fun as working for one that is thriving. The G.M. and Chrysler spaces are smaller and less flashy than they were a year ago.

The Jeep exhibit used to have a 54-foot-wide waterfall that continuously dropped 1,000 gallons of water and was programmed, like an ink jet printer, to spell out brand names and logos in the falling streams. Not any more.

And for the first time, some G.M. presenters are wearing the same outfits they wore last year.

“We used to get a new one every season,” said Christine Alt Parry, during a break from her duties beside a black 2010 GMC Terrain, wearing the flower-pattern dark blazer and black slacks she wore a year ago. “I think they’re trying to save some money.”

Downstairs at the Kia exhibit, meanwhile, it is party time. A D.J. is mixing oom-chick-oom-chick club tracks on an Apple laptop, beside huge LED screens that spell out phrases like “Schwing!” and “Kia Sips Gas.” The men are wearing new Hugo Boss suits, with dark-purple hankies, and the women are wearing designer dresses bought recently at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles.

On Friday, Subaru handed out flutes of Brut Cuvee Champagne to visiting Finnish car dealers. And they are preening over at the Hyundai space, where the staff is decked out in new Armani jackets, Cole Haan sweaters and a few other items picked up at Nordstrom.

"We just smile."

“I haven’t seen anyone who looks as sharp as we do,” said Mark Laffrey, the wardrobe consultant.

The exhibit for Ford, a company in better financial shape than its crosstown rivals in Detroit, is huge and dominated by an atmosphere that could be described as we-didn’t-take-your-money festive. There are slot car races, a magician doing card tricks, and the crew of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” upgrading a car in a cordoned-off section called Mustang Alley, which has a spring-break vibe.

“We’re the bad boys of the auto show!” yells a man who calls himself Flames, one of the ride-pimpers, as he gets to work.

Not that any of these companies are making huge sums of money. But unlike G.M. and Chrysler, they do not need to project an air of austerity and seriousness.

So is this new image winning over potential buyers? Well, there are people who say they would indeed buy from either company. But many attendees echoed the sentiments of Mark Lee, who was photographing his daughter next to the gleaming rims of a 6,000-pound Hummer. “Absolutely not,” he said when asked if he was tempted.

On the other side of the hall, an electrician, Kurt Moore of Pleasant Valley, N.Y., sat in a Toyota Highlander and explained why he was not going to buy American anytime soon.

  • Slideshow: The 2009 New York Auto Show

“You know how they say, ‘Never buy a car made on a Monday or a Friday?’ ” he said, getting comfortable in the passenger seat. “It’s because the people building the cars aren’t focused on the job. Well, how well do you think they’re focused today, with all this talk about how they’re going to lose their jobs?”

The G.M. and Chrysler presenters have heard questions like that, and dozens of variations of it, in the last couple months.

“We get a lot of, ‘You’re going out of business,’ ‘You guys are going bankrupt,’ ” said Shannon Melahn, part of the Chrysler presenting team. She shrugged and added, “We just smile.”

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