Haute wheels on parade

Industry innovators roll out 'crossovers,' wired cars, eco-friendliness

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Welcome to your driving future.

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.

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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.

Honda and Chevrolet showed pickup/sports-car combinations. And Mazda unveiled what the offspring of a hard-core sports car and a family sedan might look like in its RX-Evolve concept.

Some concept cars even demonstrated the genesis of the modular-vehicle idea, which can have different body styles for every trip.

The Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Avalanche, Ford Equator, and the Honda Spocket all use sliding or folding body panels that allow the car to morph into a two-seater, four-seat sedan, convertible, or pickup truck.

No longer running on fumes

Automakers are building tiny battery-powered city cars in the rush to meet California's 2003 deadline requiring that 10 percent of all new cars be zero-emission electric vehicles.

Ford announced a new TH!NK brand to develop clean electric and fuel-cell cars.

Ford, Toyota, and Corbin Motors of California all displayed one- and two-seat city commuter vehicles.

General Motors and Ford demonstrated concepts that will bring clean-burning technology to family-size sedans.

By the time the GM Precept hits showrooms, "buyers will be able to choose what power source meets their needs" in the car, says product manager Ron York. They could choose a standard gasoline engine, hybrid diesel- or gasoline-electric drivetrain, or an ultraclean fuel cell. Expect the same options for heavy sport-utility vehicles.

All of Honda's show cars featured electric power - the gasoline-electric Insight production car, the electric or hybrid-electric Spocket, and the fuel-cell powered FCX sedan. Honda CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino vowed to have the first fuel-cell-powered vehicle on the road by 2003, at least a year ahead of such competitors as GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler.

Web cars

If automakers don't rekindle Americans' passion for cars themselves, they will bring cars into the electronic community.

Automakers plan to provide a variety of rolling high-tech services. If you can't beat the Internet, join it, they figure.

Just about every automaker now offers a luxury car with a global-positioning-satellite (GPS) navigation system. GM, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz offer route guidance and concierge services that work in the car.

Most of the General Motors and Ford show cars this year boasted voice-recognition systems for controls such as lights, wipers, and climate control.

Ford's partsmaking subsidiary, Visteon, demonstrated a system in several companies' cars that combines GPS navigation with e-mail, Internet connections, and even stock quotes and news headlines.

But the ultimate enabled car is Ford's 24.7 concept. Its basic cars -a coupe, wagon, and tiny pickup - are functional, economical, and unexciting. Their value is the electronics, which memorize preferences for each regular driver: for radio settings, map destinations, better performance, or a picture of their significant others on the dashboard.

"Cars have always brought us together physically, but always isolated us in the process," says Ford chief designer J Mays. The car of the future may be about more than transportation, he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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