Falling in love with cars again

Beep beep.

This may be the best time to own a car in 30 years, with low gas prices, and more Americans than ever driving the cars of their dreams.

Call it the next automotive golden age; a time of relatively carefree driving that promises to roll right into the next decade.

On the roads of America and the floor of Cobo Hall at the North American International Auto Show, today's cars are the best ever -more useful, better performing and looking.

Buyers can choose from a wide selection of models that satisfy a wider variety of purposes. And after adjusting for inflation and features, these cars cost less every year, thanks to intense competition among automakers facing a glut of production capacity of nearly 40 million cars worldwide.

"We are in a golden age now, thanks to technology, plastics, computerization - things you didn't expect on a car 20 years ago," says Dave Brownell, an automotive historian at Hemmings Motor News in Bennington, Vt.

"Everything about the products and manufacturing is there to make this a golden age," says Brett Smith, a researcher at the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

At the same time, quality is improving. Cars - their bodies, engines, even accessories - simply last longer.

"Quality is the cost of entry today," says Mr. Smith, and the narrow differences between models in consumer-quality surveys demonstrates that they are, in fact, building 'em "like they used to." Maybe better.

Like two earlier automotive golden ages this century - the 1920s-30s and 1950s-60s - these good times deliver innovation, elegance, choice, and affordability to consumers.

Those attributes combined in three trends this year in Detroit - versatility, panache, and environmental cleanliness.

All four Chrysler show cars featured alternative, clean-fuel technologies: natural gas, bio-diesel, electric hybrid, and a gasoline fuel cell.

Two automakers introduced hybrid electric cars for the US market, and two showed electric city cars.

And show cars from Chrysler, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Chevrolet, and others took cues from the 1950s to build excitement in new models.

Versatile vehicles - so called hybrid sport-utilities, cross-overs, or lifestyle vehicles - aim to do it all, from driving off-road to hauling cargo to cruising the interstate with comfort and confidence.

The car that epitomized the show this year was the Chevrolet Nomad, a rakish, two-door wagon with miniature sliding rear doors, disappearing tailgate, and fold-open roof over the cargo area.

Its retro styling harks back to a two-door station-wagon version of the classic 1955-57 Chevrolets. The Nomad lets even sports-car buyers indulge in a touch of practicality.

And then there is the Jeep Commander, a concept car that takes the basic Jeep Grand Cherokee package a step further by adding a superlow emission fuel-cell powerplant. You can drive into the wilderness and leave only tracks, not pollution, a plus for outdoor enthusiasts who would rather ride than walk.

Computer technology plays a big role in automotive advances, says J. Mays, Ford's vice president of design. Computer-aided design allows designers and engineers to test concepts quickly and cheaply - allowing automakers to develop better performing cars and more advanced designs, he says, without significant increases in cost.

Aerodynamics, for instance, can be tested on the computer and refined before building an expensive model and testing it in a multimillion dollar wind tunnel.

"In the next 10 to 15 years we will see more improvements in automotive technology than occurred in the entire 20th century," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson told reporters at the show.

If quality is the cost of entry, what differentiates models today is character, and utility.

Style and elegance are back. Sports and luxury cars - from the Audi TT to Nissan's Concept Z car - have never been more stylish or had bolder personalities.

And sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) are getting better at sport and utility. Their roofs have traditionally compromised their cargo-carrying ability. Several SUVs at Detroit this year showed off a compromise: full-size front and back seats married to a short, open pickup bed.

One even allows long items to spill over inside the cab.

Not only can cars do more than ever, consumers can choose more. Buyers looking for a mid-size sedan have more than 47 separate models to choose from. Mid-size sport-utilities will number 22 by this summer.

The last golden age of the automobile, in the 1950s, saw the introduction of tailfins, affordable V-8 muscle cars, and luxury features, says Mr. Brownell.

Many of its designs have become timeless classics.

After World War II, resources started flowing back into the private sector in the US, Europe, and Japan, resulting in new models and car companies. Honda, Saab, Porsche, Ferrari, Lotus, and Land Rover, all celebrated 50th anniversaries in 1998.

The early European cars brought innovations, and Detroit invented plenty of its own: fuel injection, automatic transmissions, those V-8 engines, seat belts, and hard tops that folded away into the trunk.

In the 1970s, a truckload of government regulations for fuel economy and emissions began to dominate design choices.

Prices rose as cars shrank to meet these regulations. And cutbacks in the face of rising costs and import competition brought poor-quality, cookie-cutter American cars. Remember the Chevy Citation, Ford Tempo, and Chrysler K-cars?

The first golden age - the 1920s and early '30s - also came with innovation, elegance, choice, and affordability, says Brownell.

Hundreds of automakers developed engines, transmissions, lighting, and more. Cadillac invented the electric starter. Chrysler introduced hydraulic brakes. And Goodyear brought out the tubeless tire.

But most important, Henry Ford perfected the assembly line and made cars affordable for the masses.

And today, competition is doing the same thing. In short, the consumer is back in the driver's seat.

Send comments to evarts@csmonitor.com

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