It's the Year of the Truck At Detroit's Big Auto Show

WHEN Pontiac General Manager John Middlebrook rappelled from the 30-foot ceiling of Cobo Center during a preview of the division's new Grand Prix sedan, he kept alive an offbeat tradition.

Over the years, there have been some decidedly unorthodox entrances at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). Chrysler Corp. introduced its Jeep Grand Cherokee a few years back by driving it through a plate glass wall. A year later, the automaker's new Ram pickup literally dropped in from Cobo's ceiling.

The hi-jinks underscore the significance of this annual event. The only sanctioned "international" auto show in America, Detroit's NAIAS brings out the newest and hottest products, as well as prototypes that may yet find their way into your driveway. You'll find most of the world's top automotive executives, along with an estimated 5,000 international journalists. And, by the time the show wraps up Jan. 15, an estimated 800,000 showgoers will stream through Cobo's turnstiles.

By one estimate, they'll spend $250 million on tickets, parking, food and lodging. But more important for the folks who sponsor the Detroit auto show, they'll go home thinking about buying cars. Ultimately, that's what any auto show is about. Especially now.

The auto industry begins the new year on an uncertain note. Going into 1995, planners hoped to hit a record pace. But sales fell a million units short of the more bullish estimates, totaling an anemic 15.1 million (including heavy trucks). As 1996 begins, production plans have been slashed and, by most counts, volume should remain flat at best.

"Without further reductions in interest rates, the pace of spending will continue to slow this coming year," cautioned Richard Curtin, who conducts the widely reported survey of consumer attitudes for the University of Michigan.

With little control over the Federal Reserve, automakers hope shows like the one in Detroit will generate a little excitement.

If there's a theme for the 1996 auto show, it's "The Year of the Truck." Trucks now account for almost 45 percent of the American motor vehicle market, double a decade ago. Ford's F-150 pickup captured the eagerly sought honor of North American Truck of the Year in a vote by 50 top automotive journalists.

But the big surprise came in the passenger-car category, won by Chrysler's redesigned minivans. It's the first year minivans were included in the passenger-car category, reflecting the fact that minivans are really a replacement for the station wagons of the past.

The F-150 makes its formal debut in Detroit, along with a variety of vehicles that blur the line between car and truck.

Though the Mercedes AAV won't go on sale until late 1997, company officials have a visually striking vehicle prototype on display. It blends features from a conventional Mercedes sedan with those of a sport-utility vehicle. The German automaker hopes AAV will transform its image and bring back buyers that have been abandoning luxury sedans for light trucks.

Of course, there are plenty of traditional trucks. Toyota Motor Company has a pair of off-roaders, including a redesigned 4Runner, and a premium sport-utility vehicle based on the same platform as Toyota's pricey Land Cruiser. Dubbed the LX450, it will be sold through Toyota's upscale Lexus division.

"This is a very international show," says David Power, of J.D. Power & Associates, one of the industry's consumer research gurus.

Among the most eagerly awaited previews? The car that James Bond made famous in his latest movie escapade is on display for the first time. Built at BMW's new plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the two-seat Z3 roadster goes on sale this spring.

While Bond has switched brands, you can now plunk your money down on his old standby. After an absence of several years, Aston Martin Lagonda returns to the US with the new DB7 Volante, making its American debut in Detroit.

Don't dismiss the Big Three, though. They have plenty of their own products to preview. General Motors Corp. is taking the wraps off a quartet of new mid-size sedans, including the reskinned Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile's all-new Intrigue sedan. Ford is debuting its 1997 Escort, the most popular subcompact in America, as well as its cousin, the Mercury Tracer.

Easily the most unusual production vehicle to debut in Detroit is the Plymouth Prowler, the world's first "factory-built hot rod."

For many buyers, though, an auto show is a place to get a glimpse of the future. Concept cars traditionally draw the biggest crowds, and this year is likely to be no exception. Chrysler Corp. has two of the most visually striking. The Intrepid ESX is a hybrid, combining both an electric motor and a diesel engine on the same platform. The LHX is a sweepingly aerodynamic luxury concept that Chrysler President Robert Lutz hints is "a hint of what's to come," probably in the form of the 1998 Chrysler LHS luxury sedan.

The Prowler originally debuted as a concept car. Another prototype is making a triumphant return: GM now plans to put its battery car, originally dubbed the Impact into production.

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