The Washington Auto Show, which begins Wednesday, typically isn't the place where new models are unveiled. But there's no doubt that the event's profile is higher than normal this year, thanks in no small part to the billions of dollars that have been coming from the direction of Capitol Hill.
Is there any other auto show that would mention the attendance of "hundreds of legislative officials" as part of the draw? Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson are among those scheduled to appear at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
"The automakers obviously want to show politicians that the investment in their companies was a good use of funds," said Alan Baum, principal industry analyst at Baum and Associates, a research firm based in Bloomfield, Mich. "Being in D.C. is now a big deal."
Of course, the main attraction justifying the event's $10 admission fee will be the latest cars. And after one of the worst years ever for this industry -- local sales were down 19 percent in 2009 -- there's far more than the usual amount of auto industry hope resting on the latest offerings from Detroit and from carmakers around the world.
About 30 vehicles that made their debut at Detroit's recent car show will be making an appearance at the D.C. show, organizers say, and the underlying theme is clear: " 'Electric' is the big deal this year," says Gerard Murphy, president of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, the event's sponsor.
There's General Motors' coming electric car, the Volt, and BMW's emission-free concept car, the Active-E. A hybrid version of Chrysler's slightly retro-looking Fiat 500 will be on display; it's a battery-operated car that won admiring looks in Detroit, although some also complained about the company's silence on pricing and release dates. Nissan's forthcoming Leaf electric car will also make a showing in the event's first few days.
In a D.C. car show first, organizers have dedicated 65,000 square feet to the "Advanced Technology SuperHighway," which will display alternative fuel cars and feature booths from companies hoping to build the infrastructure needed to make a less gas-dependent future possible.
"Our goal was to create something that consumers as well as policymakers are going to be interested in," said the show's director, Bob Yafee. In another first for the show, GM plans to let attendees queue for a test drive around the convention center in one of a dozen of its new cars.
Since last year's show, industry shakeouts have caused the Washington area dealer's group to lose about 10 percent of the licensed franchisees that constitute its membership. The association now has 203 members.
As General Motors declared bankruptcy last year, Kevin Farrish, who owns dealerships in Fairfax County, was informed that he had lost his GM franchise.
"I was very disappointed. We did a great job for General Motors," he said, "but I focused my energy on things I can control."
Farrish's dealerships now sell Chrysler and Subaru cars, and the executive declared himself "extremely excited" about the coming year, after visiting with Chrysler executives during his trip to Detroit's auto show.
Tammy Darvish, vice president of Darcars Automotive Group, said she'll be keeping an eye on attendance at this year's show as a rough gauge of consumer interest for the year ahead. The Detroit auto show reported about a 15 percent increase in show floor traffic. "It's good that interest is piqued again," she said.
While electric cars are creating buzz today, widespread sales for such models are years away, said Vince Sheehy, the president of Sheehy Auto Stores, with 13 locations and 20 franchises.
The hope for this year, he said, is that sales of "mainstream" cars will "start to grow again naturally."
"We're looking forward to, hopefully, a year of growth and not the roller-coaster ride we've been on for the last 24 months or so," Sheehy said.
His company is expecting Ford to grab a larger share of the market this year from sales of the Fusion and the recently revamped Taurus, along with forthcoming models in the Fiesta and Focus lines.
"Our concern with Ford right now is sales are outpacing inventory," he said, mindful that the automaker had to cut production during the downtown. "I never would've said that five years ago."
John Ourisman, one of the owners of Ourisman Dealership Group, with 27 franchises in 16 locations, said he's projecting that sales this year will be 10 percent ahead of where they were last year, on a month-to-month basis.
"We find ourselves in an incredibly better situation this year, for the most shocking of reasons," he said, referring to the government's auto industry bailouts and the "cash for clunkers" program.
"I guess the lesson is, be prepared for anything," he said.