Psst.... it's still an SUV

Behind the rise of the all-purpose auto - think Swiss Army knife on wheels - is a push by carmakers to morph the much loved, much criticized sport-utility vehicle.

Automakers don't want to call them sport-utility vehicles anymore. They're crossovers, hybrids, wagons, or even luxury sedans.

Many come with indecipherable names such as GST, FX45, RDX, CCX, and GX470. And they were all on display at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Worse, they look alike - especially since most were painted in 2002 Detroit silver. It was as if all the debutantes showed up at the industry ball wearing the same dress! (Clearly, someone should have coordinated this more carefully.)

Despite all the glamor and industry spin, these vehicles largely look and function like, well, SUVs. You can identify them by their living-room-plush interiors with six- or seven-passenger leather seating, fold-away seats, comprehensive safety regalia, and space-capsule electronics.

Outside, they feature expansive glass roofs with adjustable tints, sporty wheels, tall wagonlike rooflines, and carlike chassis. They also handle like cars, come with all-wheel-drive, and have big, powerful engines - some are gasoline/electric hybrids.

In short, they're new SUVs, softened to become safer, more roadworthy, and comfortable.

That suggestion may rankle manufacturer reps at the show, who act as if they were building anything but SUVs.

Automakers went to great lengths to insist the new vehicles came from other origins: compacts that grew up; sports cars that got smoother; luxury sedans on steroids; and minivans and wagons that suddenly got hip.

While the 11 new SUVs at the show came in a couple of sizes - medium and large, with prices to match - all look pretty much the same. For the record, they come from Acura (2), Audi, Buick, Chrysler, Honda, Infiniti, Lexus, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Pontiac, Saturn, Toyota (2), and Volkswagen. Some are already in production; others are concepts or on their way to being produced.

Buick also returned with its impressive modular LaCrosse concept, a large, swoopy sedan that changes to an open-air convertible or a genteel pickup.

Isuzu brought a two-door, four-wheel-drive XSR SUV - with one difference: The top opens wide to make this a snazzy two-seat roadster with a small pickup bed. (Vive le difference!)

Likewise, the small Saab 9X and Toyota CCX coupes use movable panels to convert into tiny pickups.

In the end, these vehicles hope to please Americans who want one car that can do it all: A wagon-van-pickup-SUV-convertible-sports car that can carry the kids, climb snow-covered mountains, roam sandy beaches, haul hardware, move furniture - and still look spiffy enough for a night on the town.

Oh, and it has to do all that quickly, quietly, and in a way that's relatively easy on the environment.

Today, you would need to buy a small fleet to accomplish these tasks. And Americans are apparently trying to do just that. The average number of cars per household has climbed to almost three cars in every garage in the past two years, according to government statistics.

The United States has more cars than licensed drivers. So perhaps it's not surprising that consumers are now demanding a one-size-fits-all car to shrink the household fleet.

Automakers are simply responding to that demand. The universal-car concept comes at a time of turbulence in the auto industry. In 2001, an economic slump pushed down sales. After the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, Detroit increased price incentives to keep the metal moving out the door. Sales spiked but, overall, losses mounted. Now, automakers are clearly in retrenchment mode. Many visiting journalists (self-described "party guests") at the auto show griped about the paucity of the customary gourmet food, gifts of model cars, chairs, T-shirts, and the other usual graft. A few speakers even dared mention sales of "only" 15 million to 15.5 million cars in 2002 - equal to the record year set in 1998, but obliterated in 1999 and again in 2000.

Regardless, the retrenchment seems to have renewed the automakers' focus, judging by the wealth of wheeled jewels on this year's show floor.

Besides the new SUVs, automakers also rolled out a cornucopia of cocky convertibles, trendy trucks, and savvy sports cars - many of which seemed poised for production.

General Motors showed six new sporty cars - four convertibles and two coupes. All are production-ready, and two (both ragtops) have been approved.

Ford showed an all-out sports car modeled on its most famous and successful race car from the 1960s - the GT40 - as well as a giant Tonka pickup that includes some future fuel-saving technology. Lincoln showed a sharp, full-size sedan that looks like a floaty barge from the '60s (but that supposedly has better cornering manners). Nissan and Mazda both announced new sports cars going into production. And Chrysler displayed a couple of sports coupes. All were fun, in contrasting jelly-bean colors.

These cars inspire passion. And mercifully, they're becoming more plentiful. But they remain on the relative fringes of automobiledom, satisfying desires that the ubiquitous SUVs can't - yet.

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