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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 11:36 GMT
The selling of dreams

By Guto Harri
BBC North America business correspondent in Detroit

For a certain kind of man, over a few days in January Detroit becomes something like Wonderland.

Ferrari on show

The city's Cobo centre is transformed from a dull utilitarian space to a land of make-believe, designed for the indulgence of conventional male instincts.

The keywords are all about allure. Power, performance, speed and sexiness. All around, the landscape is dominated by shiny metal, leather seats, lush interiors - and state-of-the-art gadgets of every kind.

More than 40 new cars have been unveiled here - and most are promoted as extensions of the male ego.

Allure

The salesmen certainly don't pretend otherwise.

"When you buy a Ferrari you don't buy a car," says David de Klutzer on the Ferrari stand.

"You buy a world. You buy an emotion. You buy an exclusive thing."

He's surrounded by half a dozen professional models, paid to pose with the vehicles in order to boost the chances of a shot in a newspaper.

Professional photographers crowd round. So do dozens of other men with cameras who are clearly not from the press.

Jeep fountains

With almost 7,000 journalists heading to Detroit over the past few days from 63 countries, every manufacturer pulls out the stops to attract attention.

Dodge Challenger
Some carmakers hope the car will speak for itself

When it comes to the rugged sports vehicles, water is often the chosen medium, flowing under some of the displays and on top of others. One fountain even spells the word "Jeep" as it falls.

Others - such as the one offering baked salmon, succulent shrimp and crisp white wine - rely on the need for reporters to refuel.

At DaimlerChrysler, the venue - lively receptions at an old firehouse across the street - was the draw.

For those who resisted that temptation, the German-US group enlisted the aid of one of the world's premier clown troupes, Slava's Snow Show, and a confetti blizzard, to launch its new sports utility vehicle.

Boys' toys?

Then there were those who let the supposed virtues of the cars speak for themselves.

"This car goes from zero to 60 in four seconds," enthuses Ron Frost at the Lamborghini stall.

"The thrill of this car is that it's so quick... and that thrill is just energising."

Slava's Snow Show clowns showing off new DaimlerChrysler cars
Some carmakers look for the biggest bang they can find

Other models appeal by their novelty. Ford's sports car for the future has solar panels on the roof and above the headlamps, allowing the air conditioning to stay on during a hot American day even when the car is parked and the engine off.

You'll also find drink-cooling cup holders, car lights which double as torches, and the latest iPod accessories ensuring that you can access your entire music collection as you drive.

"Paying attention to the changing lifestyles of the consumer is very important," says Jeff Schuster, an analyst at JD Power and Associates.

"When you have so much competition, differentiating your product over others with a little tiny thing that suits [consumers'] lifestyles may be enough to sway them."

One of the more bizarre inventions is a video game that you play in the car using the steering wheel, accelerator and brake.

Why anyone would prefer that virtual reality to a real drive baffles me - and forgetting which mode you're operating in could clearly have disastrous consequences.

But this is a motor show, and it is designed to urge the imagination to run ahead of the intellect.

There are displays about safety and science. But you'll have to look a little harder for those.




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