NEW YORK -- With car sales hovering 20 percent below last year's poor level, most auto executives gathered to kick off the New York International Automobile Show put practical matters ahead of the romance of driving.
"The theme of responsible motoring sounds the right note for the time," said Lloyd Reuss, president of the General Motors Corp.
And nearly every automaker's display at the huge, five-block-long Jacob Javits Convention Center touted safety improvements, no-nonsense economics and the ecological friendliness of their cars for the show, which is set to open to the public today.
Instead of the traditional leggy starlets, the Ford Motor Corp. has hired conservatively dressed 30- to 40-ish actors to display the sturdy Explorer.
Chrysler showed off its air bags. GM showed off its small electric city car that is about to go into production at its Lansing, Mich., plant.
And Volkswagen representatives handed out sheets of gray recycled paper touting their about-to-be introduced "ECOdiesel," a sedan the German carmaker says has the least-polluting diesel engine in the world.
Speaking to several hundred journalists gathered for a preview of the show on Thursday, Mr. Reuss said that GM was emphasizing economy, environment and safety this year because of a combination of growing competition, higher customer expectations and tightening government regulations.
He described 1990 as "very difficult, very tough," and indicated he would be glad if auto sales in 1991 ended up only slightly lower than last year's.
Although there are encouraging signs, such as an increase in the number of people dropping by automobile showrooms since the end of the war in the Persian Gulf, sales haven't picked up, he said.
The emphasis on the humdrum nuts and bolts hasn't entirely conquered the old extravagance, though.
Cadillacs twirled on floodlighted platforms adorned by curvaceous models dressed in black strapless evening dresses and feathered hats, and the Vector Aeromotive Corp. touted its sleek $350,000 roadster. Volkswagen showed off a small car that, with the push of a button, parks itself -- no driver necessary.