By Alex Taylor III, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE — Although the Internet has drained much of the surprise and excitement from auto shows, the traditional Easter-time New York event continues to gain momentum. Despite its odd place on the industry calendar, coming halfway through the model year and just weeks before dealers start clearing their lots for next year’s cars, New York is attracting increasingly important introductions and prominent industry executives.
This year’s show, which opens to the public on Friday, marks another advance. There are lots of newsworthy introductions. Unveiled for the first time will be the 2013 Nissan Altima, now the nation’s second best-selling passenger car; the 2014 Chevrolet (GM) Impala, revealed a full year ahead of its actual production; and the reborn SRT Viper, returned to Chrysler’s product cycle by Sergio Marchionne after a two-year hiatus. Top executives representing all of the Detroit Three showed up for the show’s press days, as did prominent leaders from import brands, including Nissan-Renault (NSANY) CEO Carlos Ghosn and Jonathan Browning, CEO of surging Volkswagen of America. Unlike its Detroit counterpart, the New York show has a bit of international flavoring
Just as intriguing as the sheet metal creations that decorated the podiums and roundtables of the under-construction Javits Center were the ones that aren’t there — ghost cars representing brands, models, concepts, and trends from past auto shows that are out of favor, slipping from public consciousness, or simply defunct. Their absence is a stark reminder of the fickle nature of this dynamic business, which is changing faster than at any time in its 125-year history.
The most prominent casualty — and current industry whipping boy — is the electric vehicle, which has suffered a run of disappointing sales and worse news. Nobody wanted to acknowledge this one-time symbol of industry progress except under duress — representing a dramatic shift in conventional wisdom from just a year ago. Anyone who had new battery technology to publicize was whispering, rather than shouting.
Confronted with sales of the Nissan Leaf that have lagged forecasts, Ghosn was constantly forced to defend his prediction that EVs will represent 10% of industry sales in 2020. Stubbornly, he never backed down, and predicted a big jump in sales for the Leaf once production begins in the U.S. Usually unflappable GM North American president Mark Reuss lost his cool after questions about production shutdowns for the Chevy Volt and snapped at an interviewer who was looking for updates. And Henrik Fisker, father of the trouble-plagued Karma, looked harried after reports swirled that he may move production of a new model out of the U.S. in a money-saving move, despite a $529 million loan from the Energy Department.
Gas price anxiety was also missing in action. Analysts and journalists scoured the Javits Center for any sign that American buyers were near as upset about the spike in gasoline prices as they have in years past. While there were amply displays of fuel-saving technologies on hand — who could have imagined a $123,000 Porsche 911 Carrera Sport that turns itself off at stoplights to conserve gasoline? — there were far more visible indications that Americans haven’t lost their appetites for economy-size vehicles. No fewer than three manufacturers showed redesigns of their seven-passenger SUVs: Mercedes-Benz’s G-class, GM’s Buick Enclave, and Chevy Traverse, and Hyundai’s Santa Fe. Manufacturers seem to be simply following their customers. As Mike Jackson, chairman and CEO of AutoNation (AN), told the guests at Fortune magazine’s annual auto show dinner, “Vehicles of all sizes are more efficient and people are discovering they don’t have to give up size or performance to get a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency.”
MORE: Fisker Auto’s bad Karma
Ranking high on the list of no-shows were those former hits from auto expositions past — carmakers from China and India. The once-feared threat of vehicles made by workers who are paid $125 a month has receded in the face of the realization that cars made in developing countries are best sold to residents of those countries until they can come closer to approaching the level of engineering, manufacture, and technology produced by established automakers. With sales in China cooling off, domestic manufacturers like Geely, Chery, and Great Wall are more concerned about holding on to their market share than they are with exporting outside their borders. India’s Mahindra and Mahindra, meanwhile, which announced plans to enter the U.S. back in 2006, continues to battle with its former U.S. distributor about terms of their agreement. As a result, exactly zero Mahindra trucks have reached American buyers.
Also absent from this year’s action was Saab. Loved intensely but by too few buyers, Saab struggled through 2011 to resuscitate itself and find an angel willing to finance its new product plans. After GM, fearing a loss of intellectual property, blocked its sale to Chinese buyers, Saab declared bankruptcy in December. Now it turns out that Saab left behind a financial crater big enough to swallow an auto company several times its size. Court-appointed receivers in Sweden revealed this week that Saab’s creditors are owed between $1.8 billion and $2 billion. Saab’s assets are expected to cover only a fraction of the debts.
Finally, one searched the Javits Center in vain for any sign of the pessimism that has hung over the industry like a dark cloud. U.S. sales rose 13% in March, making it the best March since 2007 and the quarter the industry’s hottest since 2008. The upbeat results caused many forecasters to boost their estimates for 2012 sales to 14.5 million units.
As usual, however, the good news was spread unevenly. Honda (HMC) was one notable outlier whose sales actually fell in the month. And the Detroit Three have good reason to fear faster-moving rivals like Hyundai, Kia, and Volkswagen, whose sales are moving upward with a sharper trajectory. The import brands point toward a longer-term struggle as the U.S. auto market tightens into a battle for leadership among half-a-dozen manufacturers that more resembles the scrambling that goes on in Europe than it does the old Big Three dominance of old. More answers will emerge at the big Los Angeles auto show at the end of 2012 and the landmark Detroit event in January 2013 when it will again be necessary to peek behind the glitzy curtain to find out who isn’t there.