Best of show

They are the shape of things to come.

The cars of Detroit's auto show every January signal what's coming to America in the next model year and in years down the road.

This year brings three themes: versatility, environmental friendliness, and a flair for sports cars of the past.

The show's "production cars" already have the manufacturer's green light, where "concept cars" are a test of new ideas.

You might see some of these concept cars on the road. Chrysler, for example, sometimes moves concept cars directly from auto show to showroom.

Or you might see elements in future production models - grilles, fender flares, seating arrangements, engines. Some concept cars never make it, making the North American International Auto Show in Detroit a filter against future Edsels.

Read on for a sense of which is which.

CONCEPT CARS: Ford Thunderbird -A beautiful two-seater that hopes to transport the excitement of the original 1955 T-Bird onto the graying Ford brand. But buyers historically shun American two-seaters that emphasize luxury over performance. Grade: A-

Chrysler Citadel - A long, low sports wagon with four bucket seats, minivan sliding rear doors, and a hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain. Graceful, elegant, and unusual, but perhaps too far ahead of its time. Grade: B

Dodge Power Wagon -A very large, old-fashioned-looking but luxurious pickup with a giant diesel engine to demonstrate futuristic clean-burning bio-diesel fuel, a refined natural-gas product. Grade: A+

Dodge Charger R/T -A four-door muscle car with new technology for running on clean-burning natural gas. Grade: A+

Jeep Commander - An electric, fuel-cell powered, boxy sport-utility vehicle (SUV) the size of a Grand Cherokee. Grade: A for functionality, C- for looks, B overall

Mercedes-Benz Vision SLR -Very expensive, very fast. A sleek, gull-wing sports car reminiscent of the famous '50s 300SL. Price and pretension set it back. Grade: B

Mitsubishi Super Sport-Utility (SSU) -A big-wheeled, big-fendered, boxy wagon. Maybe the next Montero. Grade: C

Pontiac Aztek -A far-out, small wagon, sport-utility hybrid that focuses on watersports, but looks ugly. It hints of a less radical production car to come. Grade: B-

Pontiac GTO -A modern interpretation of Pontiac's most famous muscle car. Problem is, America isn't buying two-door coupes anymore. Grade: C+

Chevrolet Nomad -A retro high-performance, sportwagon. Fashioned after stylish, two-door Chevy wagons of the '50s, it features sliding rear doors, peel-open roof, and tight handling. Grade: A+

Buick Cielo - Bulbous, four-door sedan with a retractable top, historic Buick grille, and high-tech, gaugeless interior (pods pop up to display instruments). The automotive equivalent of a gadget that collects dust in the cupboard. Grade: C-

Nissan SUT -Nissan's new Xterra SUV with a pickup bed and a rear hatch that allows long items to reach into the interior. Grade: A

Nissan Concept Z -Modern version of the two-seat sportster that put Nissan on the American road map. A powerful four- or six-cylinder engine is planned. Grade: A

(my) Mercury -Bulbous, futuristic mid-size minivan/wagon/SUV with an amber, glass-dome roof. Stylish with a blatant appeal to the "me" generation. It doesn't quite succeed at being all things to all people, but will probably draw younger buyers into Mercury showrooms. Grade: B

Cadillac Evoq -Fast, expensive, two-seater with a retractable hard top. 400 horsepower supercharged V-8 bolted to a Corvette chassis but to get its own in production. Not as fast, elegant, or posh as Mercedes's Vision SLR. Still not what Cadillac needs to revive. Grade: B-

Oldsmobile RECON -Ugly, futuristic, boxy, midsize hybrid SUV with computer and cell-phone docking ports, Internet connectivity, and mouse controls. An auto enthusiast's nightmare: It encourages the driver to do everything but drive. Grade: D

Toyota XYR - Possible replacement for Celica. Nice looking; nothing new. Grade: B-

VW New Beetle RSi -Little Bug with a big V-8 engine. It's thrilling, but impractical. Grade: B+

Mazda MPV -A sporty minivan aiming for the one empty niche in crossover vehicles. But lowered ride height, tacked-on wings and garish chrome fool no one. It will likely replace the current MPV. Grade: C+

PRODUCTION CARS: Ford Think -A two-seat, electric city car with plastic body. Noble and well-executed but lacks originality, and may not come to the US. Grade: B

Ford Ka - A tiny, four-seat subcompact with Ford's New Edge styling. Very popular in Europe, but Ford has announced no plans to bring it here. Grade: B+

Ford Puma - A shoebox-size, sporty hatchback sold in Europe. Looks fun, but probably won't come here. Grade: A

Ford Focus - Tall subcompact sedan, wagon, and hatchback models to replace the Escort next fall. Six-foot-five passengers fit in back. The best of four models is the four-door hatchback that won't come to the US. Grade: A-

Ford Explorer Sport Track -A four-door Explorer with small truck bed and new front styling. The first of a new wave of sport-utility pickups, but no rear door for long cargo. Grade: B+

Ford F150 Crew Cab -Full-size, light-duty, four-door pickup with a 5-1/2-ft. bed. For families more than work crews. Grade: A

Chrysler PT Cruiser -A retro 1930s styled four-door hatchback based on the compact Neon, but with lots more room inside. People love or hate the styling, but at least it stands out. Grade: A

Dodge Dakota Quad Cab - A pickup with full-size back seat, forward-opening rear doors, and shortened bed. Big, but not as unwieldy as the F150. Grade: A

Chevrolet Impala -A full-size, front-wheel-drive, six-passenger sedan to replace the Lumina this year. It promises better handling and performance than the Lumina and its Ford Taurus competition. What took so long? Grade: B+

BMW X5 -A much anticipated "sport activity vehicle" to compete directly with the popular Lexus RX300. Promises to be fast and nimble. Trs chic. Grade: A+

Nissan Xterra -A basic, low-priced, mid-size SUV as other SUVs move upmarket or shrink. Right idea. Grade: A

Toyota Echo -A tall, funky, two-door sub-compact to replace the Tercel next year. More room than a Corolla. Grade: B

Toyota Echo M -A tiny two-seat electric, urban commuter like the Ford Think. It too may not come to the US. Grade: B

Toyota Tundra -New full-size pickup. Built in the US, it finally packs a V-8 engine. Looks good, but its Detroit competition has already jumped ahead with full-size back seats and real rear doors. Grade: B-

Honda VV -A two-seat, egg-shaped hybrid-electric commuter vehicle. It gets 70 miles per gallon. Slated for US sales this summer. But it never runs on electric power alone, so it's practically just a very efficient small gasoline car. Grade: B-

VW New Beetle 1.8T -More power to the Bug: a 150-horsepower turbocharged engine from Audi. It's just what the Beetle needs. Grade: B+

VW Golf -The next generation VW bread-and-butter car. More refined but not much different. Grade: B

VW Jetta -No longer just a Beetle with a trunk, the Jetta now looks more like its popular older sibling, Passat. But it's no bargain. Grade: B-

Saab 95 wagon -The prettiest wagon on the market with a handy extending load floor and other typical Saab quirks and refinement. Grade: B

Saturn 3-door coupe -The same Saturn as before, only with a rear-opening door that accesses the rear seat. Grade: B-

Volvo S40/V40 -A smaller sedan and wagon from Volvo. Nice looking, nice size, nice price. But does the market want another small $30,000 luxury car? Grade: B-

Lexus IS -Entry-level sports sedan, smaller and faster than the bestselling ES300. Competes with the BMW 3-series, Audi A4, and Volvo S40. Engine undecided. Grade: B

Subaru Legacy -Sleeker, squarer sedan and wagon bodies for the 2000 Outback. Not enough to stay ahead of the competition, but next year may bring a needed 6-cylinder engine. Grade: B

Lincoln Blackwood -A Navigator with a hard-cover pickup bed and wood trim. The show car's lowered stance looks more appealing than Navigator's. Likely a big seller, but really just a big sedan. Grade: A+

Hyundai Santa Fe -Most promising mini-SUV hybrid combines fluid but rugged looks, ample interior space, advanced all-wheel-drive, and a competitive price. Grade: A+

Audi TT - Small, sleek bullet-shaped coupe with tiny, useless back seats, and soon with Audi's sophisticated Quattro system and lots of horsepower. A possible Porsche beater at half the price. Grade: A

Isuzu Vehicross - Wild-looking, two-door sport-ute billed as best-handling on the market. It aims for outdoor enthusiasts. Lines are forming for fall delivery. It's cheaper than the BMW X5. It also goes off road. Grade: A-

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