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Carmakers Go for Broke at Thailand's Auto Show

Despite falling vehicle sales in Thailand, the Bangkok International Motor Show, with its high-heeled "pretties," was a big draw this year

With U.S. automakers General Motors (GM) and Chrysler battling for survival back home, and Thailand experiencing its worst slump in sales since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, one might expect this year's Bangkok International Motor Show to be a pretty downbeat event. But with its scantily clad go-go dancers, LED screens, and pounding hip-hop beat, this year's show felt more like Vegas than Detroit. The two-week event, which ended on Apr. 6, was expected to pull in 1.6 million visitors, dwarfing the crowd numbers of about 700,000 at the Geneva Auto Show and Detroit's North American International Auto Show. Why such a draw in a country whose entire auto market was just 598,900 vehicles in 2008? "They come for the entertainment," says May Arthapan, director of forecasting at J.D. Power Asia Pacific.

More specifically, they come for the "pretties," women who are unabashedly trotted out by European, Asian, and U.S. automakers as well as parts makers to attract crowds. Even state-controlled Malaysian automaker Proton joined the immodest parade, with women dressed in gold-beaded halter dresses, five-inch open-toed heels, and sparkling fingernail polish who draped themselves over the $11,900 two-door Savvy mini hatchback, while the opening bass line from the 1980s Grandmaster Flash hit White Lines blared over the loudspeakers.

Women and automobiles have always gone hand in hand at Asian auto shows in Japan, South Korea, and (more recently) China. But in Thailand, the use of women to lure crowds is taken to another level. "It's how you attract people," says David Alden, president of Ford ASEAN (F), whose leggy performers in layered miniskirts and halter tops performed a dance routine on a raised platform in front of a shiny blue Ford Ranger as a crowd of amateur photographers, many with tripods, snapped away. "You wouldn't see that in Detroit."

Extolling the Virtues

But these women did more than just serve as eye candy. When they weren't doing the bump and grind or posing for the cameras, they turned on their remote microphones and gave well-rehearsed presentations extolling the virtues of different engines, air bags, and roomy interiors. Ford's "pretties" were well-versed in the selling points of the PowerShift transmission in the Focus TDCi, which offers the performance of a manual transmission with the convenience of an automatic. Honda's (HMC) spokesmodels, attired in silver pants and sleeveless high-collared shirts, introduced the company's 1.3-liter gas-electric hybrid, while Nissan's (NSANY) team explained the features of the new Teana. To ensure smooth crowd movement and to avoid the cacophony of competing shows, each carmaker was allocated time slots during the day.

Luring people to the show was one thing. Getting them to spend money was another, and this year dealers were pulling out all the stops, with incentives for customers who ordered their cars at the show. Ford offered free auto insurance for the first year, BMW gave interest-free loans and an iPod Touch, and GM was selling its CNG-powered Optra Estate wagons at prices 10% lower than six months ago.

Auto sales in Thailand are down about 30% in the first two months of this year, with the commercial-vehicle segment (primarily pickup trucks, which account for more than half of vehicle sales) off 40%. With rising joblessness, an expected drop in gross domestic product this year—the economy contracted nearly 5% in the first quarter—and tighter lending policies by the banks, the near-term prospects for domestic sales look grim. Exports, which accounted for 55% of last year's total production of 1,378,000 vehicles, could be hard-hit, too. Thailand produces as many autos as the rest of Southeast Asia combined. "A lot of what happens in Thailand will depend on how well global markets recover," says John Bonnell, senior director of forecasting at J.D. Power Asia Pacific. Thailand exports pickup trucks to more than 100 countries and is the second-largest maker of these vehicles after the U.S., and they make up more than 90% of Thailand's auto exports.

Contrasting Outlooks for Chery and GM

Still, the slowdown hasn't deterred scrappy Chinese upstart Chery, which is making its debut in Thailand. It introduced its $11,300 QQ ultracompact and the $23,500 Tiggo to Thailand at the show, replete with a couple of people dressed up as giant pandas. On Apr. 1, halfway through the two-week show, Chery's local distributor, Yongtrakit, which also sells imported Peugeots, Volkswagens (VLKAY), and Audis, booked 60 orders for Chery models. "People are confident in my brand," said Weerasak Phanom-Upatham, a Chery salesman. For now, Chery will import Malaysian-made vehicles, but the company told reporters at the auto show it was negotiating a deal to build its cars in Thailand.

Phanom-Upatham's optimism was not shared by salespeople at Chevrolet's stand, where the sense of resignation was almost palpable. Bookings were sharply down from previous years—just 300 cars halfway through the show—as buyers were put off by the uncertainty over GM's future. "Most Thais know about the collapse, but I tell them GM is the biggest car company in the world and the U.S.A. government will not let them collapse," said one dealer who asked that her name not be used. And with good reason. When asked what car she drives, she replied: "A Nissan."

Business Exchange related topics:

Global Auto Industry

Asian Automakers

General Motors

Global Economy

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