HOLIDAY IN HOLLYWOOD — There was a time when the holidays meant downtime for the auto industry. Most manufacturers close their plants over the long Christmas and New Year's break. But for automotive aficionados in two of the nation's largest new-car markets, the holiday season is proving more bountiful than Santa's sleigh. In Los Angeles more than a million people are expected to walk through the turnstiles for the city's 94th annual auto show before things wrap up at the Los Angeles Convention Center. But even before that show wraps up, Detroit will be shifting into gear for the 10th North American International Auto Show. With more than 60 production vehicles and concept cars slated for introduction, the Detroit exposition has become one of the world's most important automotive events. But the Los Angeles Auto Show is capturing its share of attention this year, with a score of rollouts on its schedule. The West Coast event was bolstered by the move to California last year by Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury division. And indeed, Ford Motor Co. dominated the mid-holiday press days with an array of new and unusual products. But the imports, which normally dominate L.A., weren't conceding the spotlight, rolling out an impressive lineup of their own. Here's a wrap-up:
THE WOODY'S BACK — It's hard to find a simple way to describe the Lincoln Blackwood. From the nose to just behind the driver's head, it's a full-size Navigator sport-utility vehicle. From there to the tailgate of its shortened pickup bed, it borrows bits and pieces from the F-Series. But Blackwood is 4 inches lower than the Navigator. Its bed is half the size of the normal F-150's, and it's crowned with a hydraulically operated cover. Under the "trunk lid," the cargo bed is an elegantly finished aluminum, lighted brightly by fluorescent tubes. But the most notable touch to the Blackwood is the black African Wingewood that wraps around the 48-inch cargo bed. No, this isn't your grandfather's woody. Each strip of wood is separated by a 4-millimeter strip of aluminum. "Over the top," is a phrase one hears frequently while standing near this hybrid, but one also gets the sense that Lincoln will sell every Blackwood it builds — if it does put the prototype into production, and numerous Ford sources say that's likely to happen. "We want to evolve the Lincoln brand in the U.S.," says Ford's design chief, J Mays. More notable is the goal of giving Lincoln and Mercury more than just reskinned versions of vehicles sold by the high-volume Ford division. "That day at Ford is over. Badge engineering is out," insists James Schroer, who heads marketing and brand management. Look for an array of new products distinct to Lincoln and Mercury, along the lines of the Blackwood — and the popular Cougar coupe.
HONDA’S SPORTS CAR FOR THE MILLENNIUM — Honda's long-awaited S2000, is the Japanese automaker's first front-engine, rear-drive roadster since the legendary S-Series two-seater of the 1960s. The striking roadster is designed to dominate. It's 2-liter four-cylinder VTEC engine will churn out a sizzling 240 horsepower, winning it the record for power for displacement among normally aspirated engines. (In case you're slow with math, that's a mind-boggling 120 hp/liter.) With an impressive 9000 rpm redline, look for a zero-to-60 time of "under" six seconds, even though the S2000 will meet California's tough Low-Emission Vehicle mandate. The vehicle shares many basic design concepts with the Acura NSX — including its chief engineer. There's an unusual In-Wheel Double-Wishbone suspension system — developed out of Honda's racing program — designed to enhance handling. Start putting away your pennies. The 150-mph roadster debuts next fall, and will carry a sticker price of "around $30,000."
NO BORING SEDANS — At least not from BMW, which
used the L.A. show as a backdrop to introduce the new M5.
BMW claims the V-8 "supercar" will be the world's fastest
sedan, and will be priced at around $55,000.
HEY THERE, SPORT — Sports cars dominated the two-day press portion of the Los Angeles auto show. Porsche Cars North America President Fred Schwab beamed broadly as he hefted the Robb Report's "Luxury Car of the Year" award, presented to the redesigned 911 Carrera Cabriolet. A moment later, Schwab unveiled the latest entry into the 911 lineup, the four-wheel-drive Carrera 4. Fielding questions, the executive dropped a few hints about Porsche's upcoming joint venture with Volkswagen. The two automakers are developing a high-performance, off-road vehicle that will reach market in 2002. They will share a common platform, but that's all. "The two (versions) will be totally unique" from each other, Schwab promised.
'S' STANDS FOR SLEEK AND SWIFT — The Ford team had several sporty prototypes on tap, as well. Mercury's Cougar S concept sports coupe "takes the basic Cougar and turns up the performance switch," according to Ford's design director, J Mays. The Cougar has won raves for its taut "edge design," and the "S" ratchets things up on the styling side as well, thanks to touches such as the aluminum air intake and brightwork exhaust. Will they build the Cougar S? Stay tuned, Ford insiders hint. The same goes for the Cosworth Focus, a high-performance version of the next-generation Ford division subcompact. (The base Focus already is on sale in Europe, and will replace the long-lived Escort here in the U.S. next fall.) The Cosworth concept car boasts a turbocharged ZTEC-E engine turning out "more than 200 horsepower," hints Mays, who adds, "We see this vehicle as having huge potential for the Southern California market. As an alternative, says Focus brand boss Al Kamerer, Ford may go with a slightly less powerful SVT Focus for the U.S. market. It would feature a normally aspirated engine putting out a still respectable 160 to 180 horsepower.
IF BIGGER IS BETTER — Well, then the Jeep Commander would certainly make moves for king-of-the-hill honors. Like the Lincoln Blackwood, this full-size sport-utility vehicle is, for the moment, at least, said to be nothing but a concept car. Perhaps, but rumors continue to surface that DaimlerChrysler wants to put a version of the Commander into production, hoping to tap the booming demand for up-market SUVs.
Less certain is the fate of the fuel cell system this prototype was wrapped around. (Indeed, the hardware wouldn't fit under the hood of the largest current Jeep model, the Grand Cherokee.) Fuel cells transform hydrogen gas and oxygen into water vapor and electric current. It's as clean a power source as one can get, but you won't find hydrogen pumps at your local filling station. DaimlerChrysler has been developing a converter system that transforms regular gasoline into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, admits Jeep engineering chief Bernie Robertson, the technology doesn't work — at least not yet — "though we think it has promise."
Fuel cells remain a favorite of other manufacturers seeking alternate power systems, including General Motors. The automaker hints it may be having a bit more luck with its own system, such as the one displayed inside an Opel Sintra, the European version of the Pontiac Trans Sport minivan. But it seems likely that there'll either need to be a source of pure hydrogen gas or that carmakers will use a simpler on-board conversion system that could run on methanol, a relatively simple form of alcohol.
'WE HAVE TO BE READY' —
That’s the word from DaimlerChrysler
President Tom Stallkamp, in case
there's a market shift away from
trucks and back to cars, "and
someday, we think there will be."
With that explanation, Stallkamp
is investing big dollars to launch its second-generation Neon subcompact.
THE NEW NEON is far less radical in design than the first-generation subcompact. The emphasis has been on evolutionary refinement, rather than revolutionary styling. Initial test drives reveal a vehicle that is quieter, smoother and better handling. DaimlerChrysler promises the updated Neon has overcome the quality problems that plagued the original, as well. The automaker hopes to score a big increase in sales with the new model, possibly selling out its Belvedere (Illinois) plant, which can produce up to 260,000 Neons annually.
LIGHT TRUCKS RULE THE ROAD — These days, it's an established fact, now that trucks have topped passenger car sales in recent months. Nissan hopes to gain ground in the soaring SUV segment with its redesigned Pathfinder, a midyear introduction that made its public debut in Los Angeles. It's an evolutionary update, with larger tires, improved ride and handling, and restyled bumpers and fascia. The interior sports a new, high-tech titanium look. For those who focus on safety, the new Pathfinder offers standard seat-mounted side-impact airbags that protect both head and chest in the event of a crash. Nissan also unveiled the 2000 Frontier Crew Cab, the first compact pickup to boast four full-size forward-swinging doors. Scheduled to go on sale in May, it delivers more than enough room for five adults, without giving up its expansive cargo bed. The standard 3.3-liter V-6 has more than enough power to give the Frontier Crew Cab a 5,000-pound towing capacity.
IS IT A CAR OR A TRUCK? — There's a new generation of hybrid vehicles capturing the public's imagination. Subaru's Legacy Outback wagon helped the troubled carmaker reverse a seven-year sales skid. Now, Mazda is testing the waters for what may soon be its own car/truck crossover vehicle. For now, the Protégé AllSport is just in the concept stage, but company insiders don't deny they'll be looking to see how the public reacts to the vehicle, a muscular "tall wagon" developed off the subcompact Protégé platform.