It's fun over function

Automakers showcase the cars buyers want, not the ones they need

There's a battle being waged in garages across America. It's not just the usual battle for space among, say, Fords, Chevys, or Hondas. This battle is more between the car people need - and the car they want.

Nowhere was that more apparent than at this year's North American International Auto Show here this month.

While past shows focused on cars that can do everything -driving on any terrain, carrying heavy loads, checking e-mail - this year's show featured a bevy of cars designed to just have fun.

Ford pulled the wraps off its new Thunderbird roadster in a jelly-bean array of colors - red, yellow, turquoise, and black.

Dodge shot a new version of its legendary Viper sports car out of a giant makeshift cannon.

The new Mini Cooper -an updated version of the tiny British classic that brought the world front-wheel-drive - debuted amid a stadium of candy-colored foam-box seats.

Nissan showed a revived version of its classic Z-car, expected to appear for 2002.

Volkswagen reprised one of its icons, the Microbus, much as it did the Beetle two years ago.

Chrysler brought the Super 8 Hemi concept car, a throwback to a 1950s sedan, complete with fin-shaped tail lights.

And Ford built a back-to-the-'50s hot-rod coupe called the Forty-Nine.

Automakers hope the new designs will create a passion to buy at a time when auto sales have fallen from record highs. "[They] want to build excitement into the products people need," says David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Mich.

In other words, they want products that make customers say: "I've gotta have one of those."

On the other hand, consumers often bypass such emotional purchases in lean times, focusing on needs instead of wants.

They may instead turn to the auto show's more functional, carlike SUVs, replete with the latest electronics to help get them out of the woods.

Futurist Watts Wacker describes the divide as a battle between "smart" family cars and "dumb" just-for-fun vehicles.

Yet none of the new cars are dumb. In fact, they have as much computing power as the Apollo 11 spacecraft, says Mr. Wacker. Sophisticated electronic engine controls make it relatively simple to add features like electronic braking and acceleration and GPS location devices that transmit signals to help rescuers locate lost drivers - or even ones who've crashed.

Wacker says his definition of a "dumb" car goes back to a 1965 Oldsmobile 442 muscle car.

Smart cars are increasingly defined by the vast array of electronics appearing in automobile dashboards.

In 1999, for example, Oldsmobile unveiled the Recon, a carlike SUV that let drivers read e-mail and surf the Web using nothing but a voice-activated computer.

This year, the GMC Terracross followed up the trend, sporting a laptop docking port for those functions. Automakers are switching to removable computers for interacting with the driver because they're easier to upgrade than built-in processing power.

So far, most of the these "telematics" -electronic driver aids - have wound up in boxy utilitarian vehicles, inspired more by engineers than designers.

But that won't always be the case. "You can put telematics in anything," says Jim Hall, an analyst with AutoPacific in Detroit.

In fact, the array of fun cars showcased in Detroit this year reflect a new flexibility in manufacturing, experts agree.

Spinning multiple cars off the same "platforms" -a set of manufacturing standards and similar mechanical components -allows automakers to target smaller market niches and still turn a profit.

The new Thunderbird, for example, is based on the Lincoln LS to save manufacturing and engineering costs. Otherwise, such an exclusive convertible wouldn't make financial sense for a big US automaker.

This trend has already allowed manufacturers to go after markets that barely exist, says Sam Fiorani, an analyst with Automotive in West Chester, Pa.

For example, new cars targeted for teenagers. Honda and Isuzu each showed a small crossover SUV aimed at young drivers with surfboards and athletic gear in tow. Wacker even expects to soon see "modular vehicles" that can be set up as a little SUV one day and a sports coupe the next.

Nearly overlooked amid the flashy sports cars at this year's show were the hybrid electric vehicles sure to show up on US roads in the next two years.

So far the only hybrids sold in the US, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, have been flying off dealers' lots. Experts expect demand to increase as traffic congestion, pollution levels, and fuel costs rise in the years ahead. Almost every automaker has announced plans to start building them in the face of California's zero-emission-vehicle mandate coming in 2003.

Yet only General Motors dedicated an hour to presenting five hybrid electric vehicles, including a full-size pickup it promised will hit US streets in 2003. (Earlier this month, two hybrid-powered midsize SUVs, the Dodge PowerBox concept and the Ford Escape hybrid, were on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show.)

Still, the hybrids fit more into the "need" rather than "want" category. So they took a back seat to jazzier cars.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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