DETROIT — Every year Cobo Hall, overlooking the Detroit River in this rather dingy city, serves as runway for the haute couture of automobiles.
The vehicles at the North American International Auto Show may or may not make it to the streets, but they set the fashion tone for the cars that will.
Here are 14 of the most-interesting and influential concepts shown in Detroit this year. Several are destined for the road. And those that aren't could be if manufacturers receive enough positive public reaction. What do you think?
CHRYSLER PT CRUISER
DaimlerChrysler's trendy PT Cruiser is a roomy, upright four-door wagon with retro looks, an economical four-cylinder, and the utility of a truck. At $16,000 with lots standard, it's almost guaranteed to be sold out for at least a year - if dealers don't gouge consumers.
The company also showed two concept Cruisers: a hot-rod turbocharged GT and a panel truck. Both could go into production if public reaction is enthusiastic.
Volkswagen Advanced Activity Concept is unlike any earlier truck. It's as big as traditional American pickups, with a bed that will hold a little bit of gear. But it's designed for the Range Rover set, with enough class to drive to the opera.
Inside, the AAC is decked out in thick leather, polished wood, and aluminum. A giant 10-cylinder, twin-turbo diesel engine powers all four wheels all the time, and pneumatic suspension hunkers down on the freeway or raises up for more than 15 inches of clearance.
MERCEDES VISION SLA
This Mercedes-Benz open two-seater concept car may fill out the bottom rung of a four-roadster lineup at Chrysler's German parent. Smaller than today's little SLK, the Vision SLA is a tiny Batmobile look-alike based on Mercedes's European subcompact A-class.
The "A" is the company's smallest car to date and won't make it to the US except maybe as a battery or fuel-cell vehicle. The SLA would be powered by a small four-cylinder and priced to compete with the Mazda Miata.
Welcome to the future of pickups. While Nissan recently abandoned plans to build a sport-utility truck, everyone else has picked up on the idea. Chevrolet's macho-looking full-size rig is for Suburban owners tired of trashing nice interiors. It seats six. A hard plastic lid secures cargo in the Avalanche's pickup bed. Just fold the back seats flat and the rear cab wall forward to make an 8-foot floor to carry lumber -still secure beneath the cover. The rear window pops out to create room for taller cargo, such as motorcycles. Two lockable bins in the sides fit backpacks or briefcases.
This so-called "sport-recreation vehicle" is the smaller counterpoint to the Chevy Avalanche crossover vehicle. It's designed more for occasional play and urban commuting than hard work. The Aztek looks like an SUV with the roof cut down like a hatchback. Aztek has stereo controls in the rear for those who picnic on the old-fashioned fold-down lower gate. A flat floor inside can fit a 4-by-8-foot piece of lumber. And a cooler lifts out of the center console. Aztek comes with a 185-horsepower V-6 in front-wheel-drive or an ingeniously simple all-wheel-drive system.
This represents the beginnings of a move from crossover vehicles to truly modular ones. One day it can be a sedan and the next a pickup. LaCrosse is a beautifully sculpted sedan, but its real coup comes when its rear hatchback slides forward into the roof, the rear seats fold forward, and the center of the back end slides into the floor to make a nearly full-size pickup bed in the rear. A third variation keeps the back seat, adds a small rear window, and has a small, square pickup bed in back. Advances, mostly in chassis stiffness, mean it could be for real, GM says.
Dubbed THE car of the show by Ford design chief J Mays, the F-type is a tiny roadster with all the class and flair expected of Jaguar. It has two seats, a flat, aluminum dashboard, and could by powered by the V-6 engine from Jaguar's popular new S-type sedan. The F-type is all about returning to Jaguar's sporty heritage. It is more than two feet shorter than any other Jaguar built in 25 years. It makes no pretense of luxury, but focuses on beauty and speed.
Definitely not meant for the techno-20s crowd, this heartthrob should appeal more to the hairy-chested baby-boom set. It's a pickup with a convertible hard top and 300 horsepower V-8, low-down stance, and clean hot-rod lines. The top stows vertically behind the front seats, and a hard plastic top covers the pickup bed. It's classic Chevrolet, as if the General Motors division has finally rediscovered its roots. Think of it as a classic Corvette with a really big trunk.
CHRYSLER 300 HEMIC
Nothing hybrid about it: Chrysler's 300 Hemi C is classic roadster, through and through. It "explores a direction [Chrysler] might take if we were to return to an all-American V-8 luxury-performance car," says Tom Gale, DaimlerChrysler's chief designer. In other words, production is likely. The show car uses a prototype 353 horsepower V-8, has an automatic transmission, and full four-passenger interior. It also has mobile-Internet and e-mail access with voice controls.
CHEVY CORSA IMPANEMA
Remember the Chevy El Camino? The creator of the original is at it again. The Corsa Impanema is a small, car-based pickup reminiscent of the 1980s Subaru Brat.
This show version sports a custom wooden bed and cool wooden surfboards. Along with an Australian Holden car-truck by GM, it's meant to gauge whether the time is right to relive the '70s. The Corsa is a Brazilian model.
Who says show cars have to be pretty? The move by American families to truck-based SUVs has helped erode the rugged image often associated with trucks. Now automakers hope to restore that image by sculpting boxy, disjointed, "Mad Max" trucks. The Terradyne is modeled on elements of pickups, military vehicles, and earth movers. It has four-wheel steering, four sliding doors, and a pickup bed that extends two feet to haul big lumber.
A different kind of crossover vehicle, the RX-Evolve leaves sport utilities in the dust. It blends a pure sports car with four-door practicality. Mazda brings back its famously simple, powerful rotary engine and RX7 sports-car chassis. But this time adds rear-hinged back doors and mesh seats to fit four passengers comfortably inside. It even includes a built-in child seat in back. Expect a modified version of this show car, and maybe some two-seat derivatives to prowl the streets before 2002.
Actually a coupe, wagon, and pickup built around one concept: the funky, flexible, digitally enabled car for the 20-something crowd. The 24.7 has a flat dashboard with no gauges or controls. A projector in the mirror flashes data such as speed or low gas onto the dash, along with e-mail and Internet connections, a GPS map, or whatever the driver selects. The electronics can be customized, so a navigationally challenged driver might always have a map, a teen may have a pounding radio, and Dad may have more horsepower. All controls - lights, wipers, heater, e-mail -respond to voice commands.
Pokmon hits the road. The tiny Spocket -for pocket sports car -is a 3-in-1 vehicle for the quintessential California lifestyle. It has an electric or hybrid drivetrain, with electric motors driving all four wheels. The rooftop slides over the cargo bed to make a convertible. And with the roof closed the little pickup seats four passengers -two on jumpseats in the back of the cab. Don't look for it in production, but elements could appear.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society