High-tech hot wheels: 2003's concept cars

From hybrid power and sliding roofs to DVD players for every passenger, the lineup is trucking along.

If the sour economy and the specter of war have America in a grim mood, you can't tell that in historically musty Detroit, even in a snowless January.

Here next year's automotive trends converge in a kaleidoscope of "impact" colors and often retro designs. Call it an attempt to create the Golden Age of cars, Part 2.

A version of the Ford Mustang, for instance, will be coming back. Again. Chevy is bringing back a swoop-fendered rendition of its SS, another muscle car from the 1960s and '70s. This one will have enough horsepower to run a small country, but with a decidedly new millennium twist: Four of its eight cylinders stop running when they're not needed, turning the roaring beast into a politically correct commuter vehicle, though you still probably won't see Ralph Nader in one.

In fact, new technology has eased some of the tension between power and fuel efficiency that has conflicted Detroit ever since the days when cars had real tail fins. It hasn't ended the clash. Many environmentalists, among others, remain upset at the move toward bigger, faster vehicles, even though the automakers are also producing ultra-efficient hybrid cars.

Yet the emphasis on what auto stylists call "heritage design" - shapes that intentionally mimic classic cars of the past - does reflect the convergence of several trends. In the 1950s, Americans built cars with "authority, presence, and style," says Ford's chief designer J Mays.

In the 1960s, so-called muscle cars brought a horsepower race. Since the 1970s the industry has been working - at least intermittently - on fuel efficiency. Hence a new generation of powerful street cars, but not necessarily ones that require you to own your own tanker truck.

DVDs in every seat

New technology, of course, is changing vehicles in other ways as well. Electronic wizardry is becoming more ubiquitous - televisions and DVDs are available for virtually everyone connected with a car, short of the gas station attendant.

More cars are using modular construction to meet many needs at once, becoming virtual legos on wheels. The upcoming production Ford Freestyle, a car-based station wagon, uses a rear roof that slides forward on its pillars to convert the vehicle into a pickup truck.

And the redesigned 2004 Ford F150 pickup offers a modular interior, with front and back seats, consoles, and dashboard that can easily be disconnected and replaced. These follow on several "convertible" trucks produced by General Motors in the past two years, but they're new to the more maneuverable car arena.

Notably absent from this year's crop of new vehicles are big SUVs, the emblem of the prosperous '90s. There are, however, plenty of smaller, more civilized SUVs that sit on car frames.

Perhaps the most anticipated debut here, though, was the new Mustang, even though it won't hit the road until 2005. The Chevy SS, for its part, remains strictly a concept vehicle that may not see production in its current form. In the move toward sheer brawn, Ford is also building a car called the 427, a husky looking family sedan with a 590-horsepower V-10 engine. When not being used to spirit kids to soccer practice, it may be able to tow barges on the Hudson.

"It's a car that you won't want to put in your garage," says Mr. Mays, "so you neighbors can drool over it."

Bob Lutz, General Motor's product czar, sums up the new class of muscle vehicles this way: "Most customers love a car with a feel of power, of acceleration, and with a powerful look to it."

When Mr. Lutz speaks, many here listen. Known for turning around Chrysler products in the early 1990s, he is considered Detroit's quintessential "car guy" - a master at fusing engineering, design, and manufacturing. This year Lutz tried to transform GM's past auto lineup - what he called the company's "angry kitchen appliances" - into rolling sculptures.

For the past year, all eyes have been on Lutz to see if he could reinvent the look of a company not recently known for design innovation. Some early reviews are favorable.

"I need one," says Betty Lou McClanahan, head of the Car Research Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of Lutz's new designs.

Speed versus miles per gallon

Still, Lutz's mythology only extends so far. Environmentalists accuse him of launching the SUV phenomenon, and thus degrading the planet and indirectly precipitating - or at least raising the stakes of - war in the Middle East.

While touting the benefits of GM's cylinder cutout technology, which improves fuel economy by about 10 percent, he denies environmentalists' claims that 30 percent gains are feasible. Technically they are, but economically, such cars would cost $100,000, he says. Leading environmentalists dispute that claim.

But buyers looking for cleaner, greener cars aren't left out here either. Carmakers are scrambling to earn credits toward California's zero-emission vehicle mandate by introducing hybrid electric vehicles.

GM announced a plan to introduce at least five new hybrid electric cars - from big pickup trucks to economy cars - in the next five years. Toyota announced a second hybrid electric vehicle going into production this year - this time in the small Highlander sport utility vehicle.

Other automakers are going farther. Honda and Mercedes-Benz each showed fuel cell vehicles. The Honda will be sold to fleets next year. And while it won't please clean-air mavens, Jeep announced it will sell a diesel-powered Liberty SUV here starting next year, that gets 10 percent better fuel mileage. For some, that's a little too retro.

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