For veterans of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the auto industry’s premier event this year was like watching a battered prize fighter come up off the canvass and get a second wind. Automakers displayed a lot more energy and enthusiasm than when politicians roamed the auto-show aisles to check up on taxpayer-funded bailouts in 2010.

In some cases, automakers were refreshingly frank about the near-death experience from which they’d just emerged. At least that was my take on a Chrysler press conference at which Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and its minority investor Fiat, admitted that a year ago, he wasn’t sure Chrysler could last 12 months without introducing significant new models.

But it also seems that automakers have reverted to some of the same unimaginative marketing tactics that helped turn them into wards of the state. It was easier to excuse poor marketing when carmakers had no money. Now, it is harder to be sympathetic.

A case in point: MINI introduced a concept car called the Paceman with a skit that defined the word “lame.” Historians of a future age could grasp this word’s meaning to citizens of the 21st-century simply by watching a video of the Paceman intro. Earlier, Mercedes-Benz had trotted out a pop singer who interrupted a discussion of a fuel-cell-powered Mercedes with a song. Attendees who paid attention could be excused for being mystified about why the two were connected.

One can’t help watch such train wrecks without feeling that automakers desperately need the services of world-class marketers. Consider what probably would have happened if ideas for pop singers and silly skits had been floated past Apple CEO and marketing genius Steve Jobs for the introduction of iPhones. My guess is Jobs would have forcefully shown promoters of such nonsense the door.

The developments at the show that garnered the most comments, of course, were electric vehicles. Whether the public is ready or not, every major automaker has battery-powered versions coming off the drawing boards. But there’s plenty of evidence most car buyers aren’t quite ready to trust a vehicle that doesn’t contain a conventional engine. The industry word for this reticence is range anxiety: the fear of running out of juice in the middle of a freeway.

No wonder, then, that nearly every carmaker has sponsored Magellan-like around-the-world trips by electric vehicles. These journeys, through such places as darkest Africa and Mongolia, are meant to show car buyers they needn’t worry about dead batteries in the middle of nowhere.

Typical of these pioneering efforts was one described by a couple of Danish travel writers. The two crossed Scandinavia, Estonia, Russia, the U. S., and parts in between using an all-electric Nissan Qashqai built in Denmark. They reported that they were never stranded.

Their story was certainly interesting. But it would probably have been more convincing to potential EV buyers had they managed to cross the planet without the help of the portable gas-powered electric generator they carried, or their satellite link to battery-supplier AfutureEV.

Leland Teschler, Editor

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