Haute wheels on parade
Industry innovators roll out 'crossovers,' wired cars, eco-friendliness
Welcome to your driving future.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The barometer of the US auto industry is the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, especially when it comes to future products. The kickoff of the auto-show season, Detroit offers the earliest glimpse of what consumers can buy next year.
And many of the so-called concept cars that will never see the light of day nevertheless hint at features, shapes, and functions that may roll down the road in other forms in the next decade.
The big news for 2000 is that automakers are jumping on the environmental bandwagon in a big way. More manufacturers displayed electric and hybrid-electric cars this year than ever before.
But the larger undercurrent is that consumers are in the driver's seat as manufacturers scramble to keep cars from becoming just another appliance - where a Daewoo will serve as well as a Honda and Honda serve as well as a Cadillac.
In short, carmakers are frantically stoking the embers of Americans' love affair with the automobile. "We have to empower consumers by offering them choices," says Ford CEO Jacques Nasser.
So what is cooling buyers' passions for car brands?
First and foremost is the number of similar models with similar quality.
As a result, "people are no longer engaged with their cars," says GM marketing manager Don Butler. Cars "have become appliances, but they're not working to support [buyers'] lifestyles," he says.
In J.D. Power's "things gone wrong" survey, the difference between the top and bottom performers has shrunk from dozens of problems per car to fractions.
All that competition has pushed prices down 1 percent per year since the mid-1990s, even before adjusting for the growing number of standard amenities. Profit margins have shrunk on everything but versatile SUVs and pickup trucks - and compact cars often garner losses.
So Motown is now trying to find ways to get you to feel good about paying more for your next set of wheels.
In addition to building more sports cars, they've settled on building more versatile, clean, and Web-enabled vehicles.
A cluster of crossovers
The industry has finally settled on "crossover vehicles" to describe conveyances that blend one or more attributes of cars and trucks.
Almost half of the show cars in Detroit this year fits this category. The rest are an almost-even mix of traditional sedans, wagons, and SUVs; environmental hybrid-electric, battery, and fuel-cell cars; and pure sports cars.
Say goodbye to the hegemony of sedans and SUVs -and even minivans, pickups, and station wagons. Many of the new "crossovers" bust traditional segments so thoroughly they're almost undefinable. They combine pickups, sports cars, sedans, and electrics, for instance. The most representative car at the show was the Honda Spocket, a tiny gnat of a sports car that's also a pickup, a convertible, and a clean electric.
Chrysler showed a hot-rod and panel-truck versions of its segment-busting PT Cruiser.
Pontiac showed a new crossover vehicle, the Aztek, that combines the flat floor of a minivan with station-wagon seating, a pickup tailgate, compact dimensions, and all-wheel drive into a more car-like SUV.