Playing with cars

Between the time I write this and you read it, I will have attended my second import-tuner auto show.

Such shows are meccas for modifiers, whose cars - often Japanese compacts with high-gloss tires and sloping spoilers - look like toys just out of the box.

The prevailing vibe at these shows is a hip, Asian-Latino fusion. The soundtrack: pulsating hip-hop.

I don't plan to add 20-inch Sprewell rims, neon "underglow," and an HKS air intake to the family Honda. But I know some teen-age boys with big automotive dreams.

I am their wheel man for these events. And, at the tail end of my 30s, I figure to be one of the more senior individuals on the lot.

Go figure. Harry Potter is heavily marketed to grownups, while the automobile becomes kids' stuff.

Making aftermarket alterations to cars ("tuning" them) became a West Coast youth phenomenon in the mid-1990s and hit the East Coast around the time of the 2001 film "The Fast and the Furious."

The street racing depicted in that PG-13 movie and its current sequel has a well-documented dark side. The illegal practice can kill. Youths who try it - some of whom may have done most of their previous "driving" on Sony PlayStations - can have a skewed view of what a vehicle rollover can mean.

But in its more benign forms, the tuner phenomenon seems little more than the birth of another specialty club, an updated version of the oft-celebrated muscle car.

Carmakers, smelling a rich emerging market, are racing to deliver what they think the next wave of buyers wants: individuality (that custom, "body kit" look) and flash.

Today's lead story zeros in on Toyota's bid, with its new Scion, to give itself an aura of youthful cool.

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