Inching toward 'one car fits all'

For car buyers who like to jump onto the running boards of the latest automotive trends, following the crowd is about to get tougher - or easier.

Confused?

It used to be that the hot wheels of the moment were clearly defined. At the preschool where my wife teaches, for example, a parade of minivans once queued up daily for dropoffs and pickups. (For vehicular variety, there were always a few Volvo wagons.)

A couple of years ago, the lineup changed. Overnight, it was stacked with big SUVs.

What will be pulling up next?

That's where it gets confusing.

We sent auto writer Eric Evarts to Detroit's North American International Auto Show to find out. Much of what's rolled out there is fun and fanciful, intended to capture the public's imagination. But it's also where cars are born.

This year, Eric says, new SUVs again leave treadmarks all over. He figures about half of the 50 or so vehicles showcased fall into this category.

An obvious trend? Well, not really.

The category now includes a range of multipurpose vehicles that open wide and ride high - but don't look like trucks (though plenty of those trucklike models endure).

A related trend: a move toward modularity. Already some cars come with snap-off parts. Drivers might ultimately buy one chassis and outfit it with different body types (minivan, SUV, sports car).

Cars that do it all, whatever their form or label, may ease the consumer urge to chase the next big thing.

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