I'VE SAID BEFORE THAT IT'S IMPORTANT FOR AUTO journalists based in the Motor City to leave the "Detroit Beltway" every now and then to see what's going on elsewhere in the automotive world.

That point hit home when I spotted several dressed-up flashy Japanese cars on the streets of San Francisco.

Driven by young Asians, these cool compacts sported eye-catching aftermarket extras such as wild spoilers, neon-bright wheel covers and showy racing fascia treatments.

"What the heck are those?" I asked a fellow journalist, a California native, with whom I was traveling.

They're sports compact cars, he said.

That's "sports compact cars" not "compact sports cars," which is probably what they'd be without all the trimmings.

He added, "They're real popular on the West Coast with young Asian Americans. A lot of the cars are bored-and-stroked and have special suspension systems."

I'd never seen the likes of that in Detroit.

A West Coast friend, Ron Raposa of Stewart Holt Advertising Agency in Ontario, CA, tells me the phenomenon began a few years back in Southern California.

Adds Greg Brown, editor of European Car magazine based in Placentia, CA, "They started as an Asian phenomenon, but they've grown to other car segments, such as European makes. And they've spread to other ethnic cultures, such as a big Latino contingent that's now involved."

As two-liter touring car racing series became more popular around the world, many people, starting with the young Asian Americans, began decorating their Mitsubishi Eclipses, Honda Civics, Acura Integras and such to look like speedsters. It's been an accessory bonanza out West for aftermarket retailers, including dealers.

Sport Compact Car, among several publications devoted to the phenomenon, is one of the 10 fastest- growing magazines in the country.

Mr. Brown says the phenomenon is spreading across the country. "They just had a big show in Atlanta for that crowd," he says.

Ironically, the trend has yet to hit Detroit in a big way.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE MOTOR CITY: General Motors is planning an awesome exhibit at the North American International Auto Show this January, says dealer Russ Shelton, co-chairman of the event, which the Detroit Auto Dealers Association sponsors.

Seems that GM felt upstaged by Ford at the Detroit auto extravaganza last year. Ford pitched up a multi- million dollar two-level display complete with a sweeping stairway, escalators, a theater and show-stopping new vehicles such as the reincarnated Ford Thunderbird and the Lincoln Blackwood short-bed pickup truck.

"The upcoming GM exhibit will be fantastic," says Mr. Shelton, president of Shelton Pontiac-Buick, Rochester Hills, MI. "Some of the displays are shows in themselves. It's like four or five auto shows going on within the actual show itself."

He offered that observation as a guest on "Autoline Detroit," a weekly PBS TV show covering the auto industry. I was the substitute host, filling in for John McElroy.

I won't comment on how good or bad the host did, but Mr. Shelton spoke as knowledgeably and articulately about the auto industry as anyone who's been on that show - which includes some of Detroit's heavy-hitters.

His TV performance confirms another belief of mine, that dealers know as much - and maybe a bit more - about this industry than anyone else in it.

THE ENGINE THAT COULD: I got a call from Richard McNamee of Witikers, NC, asking if I knew someone at General Motors Corp. to whom he could write to say how happy he is with his 1985 Chevrolet Caprice - particularly it's engine.

The 305 small-block V-8 is almost at 300,000 miles and still going strong. Mr. McNamee says he's changed the oil every 4,000 miles and replaced a valve cover, gasket seal and spark plugs. Otherwise, it runs like a Swiss clock.

A technology editor here at Ward's Communications tells me that engine is considered one of the best GM ever made.

Mr. McNamee, who works for Consolidated Diesel, notes it's not unusual for a diesel engine to last that long - and longer.

He says one of his company's engines in a 1994 Dodge Ram pickup truck has reportedly turned 947,000 miles. My question is who in five years would travel nearly a million miles.

"Must be someone living in North Dakota to do that much driving," says Mr. McNamee.

Living in North Dakota and probably commuting to North Carolina, judging from that mileage.

Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business. His e-mail address is: steve_finlay@intertec.com