Few fantasies, but a traffic jam in the middle of the road

Few fantasies, but a traffic jam in the middle of the road

As an occasion known for hosting the arrival of truly benchmark cars, this New York auto show will not touch the 1954 edition, where the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing made its debut. Nor will it compare with the unveiling of the Ford Mustang at the World’s Fair in Queens in 1964, which set off a Beatles-scale national mania for the phenomenon that became the pony car.

With the auto industry and the economy each getting its second wind, this year’s show is notable not for singular superstars but for a committee approach: there are a lot of team-playing sedans and crossovers, as daring as Dockers on casual, all putting their conformist heads together to put “mass” in the market.

Aside from the rebirth of the vaunted Viper sports car and six-figure baubles like the Mercedes SL65 AMG roadster, the show at the Jacob K Javits Convention Center is notably light on fantasies destined to be enshrined on posters in teenagers’ bedrooms. Instead, during media previews, one industry executive after another extolled the dynamic, groundbreaking status of some new — but decidedly mainstream — sedan freighted with obligatory LED headlamps, blind-spot detectors and Bluetooth connections.

The disconnect between description and sheet metal left many in the journalistic scrum scratching their heads.

In fairness, an industry now feeling confident of topping 14 million sales in 2012 must focus on mass-market appeal rather than flashy niche models if it is to have any chance of returning to the days of 16 million annual sales.

As ever, the show’s models reveal automakers’ struggles to balance the quest for a breakout hit like the slinky Hyundai Sonata with a recognition that safe and boring may actually be better for the bottom line.

A prime example, or offender, is the 2013 Nissan Altima. Today’s Altima rose steadily to become America’s second-best-selling car in 2012 (after the Toyota Camry), and the redesigned Altima that made its debut in New York seemed to have been created expressly to defend that position rather than to seize the high ground. Despite new features and re-engineering, the Nissan looks as cautious as a first-time parent, and just as likely to induce sleep among the young.

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