Last year it was the Volkswagen AG New Beetle that captured the hearts of show-goers at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. This year Ford Motor Co. has the chance to do the same when its Thunderbird concept breaks cover.

It's been more than 44 years since the first T-Bird rolled out of Ford's Dearborn Assembly plant on Sept. 9, 1954, and on to the road to becoming an American icon.

Ford is being careful not to call its concept Thunderbird "retro." Rather, it's being called a modern interpretation of the original. Certainly the shapes and proportions of the original have changed, but there's no mistaking the heritage of this concept Thunderbird.

Classic design elements, such as the afterburner tail lamps, fender vents, hood scoop and, of course, the opera window, scream 1955-'57 Thunderbird. Some inspiration for the concept also was gleaned from the 1961-'62 T-Bird. Ford has nothing to be ashamed about. Like the car of past, this concept has style and appears to have a good amount of substance.

Built on the same DEW 98 platform that the Lincoln LS will ride on, the T-Bird also will share a version of the LS 3.9L V-8, albeit a 240-hp version and not the Lincoln's 252 hp.

The car is a true two-seater and will come with a removable fiberglass hardtop; a cloth convertible sits underneath that engineers say is better than the Jaguar XK8. Ford studied doing a retractable hardtop, similar to the Mercedes SLK, but decided against it for cost and space reasons. Engineers wanted a trunk that could still hold golf bags or luggage with the top down.

Sticking to the original, there are no outer markings on the car that say Ford. The only emblem on the outside of the car is the handwritten Thunderbird plate on the quarterpanels.

Ford does use some chrome on the Thunder-bird, applied more tastefully than on some of its current products. The grille and wheels get a low-gloss brushed aluminum look, which helps give the car a more technical look. The concept sits on 18-in. (46-cm) wheels, a size that likely won't make production.

Volumes for the new car aren't locked in yet, but Ford President and Chief Executive Jac Nasser says they'll likely be in the 20,000 to 25,000 unit range. Look for the vehicle to be priced between $30,000 and $35,000 with minimal options.

Will the next-generation Mustang share a version of the DEW platform? No one at Ford will officially say, but it's a safe bet that T-Bird won't be the last on this platform.

The five concept vehicles General Motors Corp. unveils in Detroit were plucked from a pool of some 200 concepts that the automaker has in the works at its Warren, MI, design center. "They're what we feel are the most promising," says Wayne Cherry, vice president of the design center.

The GM theme appears to be niche markets, with a heavy emphasis on versatility and accessibility. Headliners include Pontiac Aztek, Buick Cielo, Oldsmobile Recon, Chevrolet Nomad and Cadillac Evoq.

Pontiac Aztek is a front-drive crossover concept that was designed around a lifestyle, not demographics. It combines features of a midsize sedan, a van and sport/utility vehicle. It includes the Pontiac trademark cat's eye headlamps, hood effects and rib sides.

Like Pontiac Aztek, Buick Cielo borrows heavily from a production car - the Riviera. There's already talk of reviving the Riviera nameplate, now out of production, and Cielo would be a welcome replacement.

The concept is powered by Riviera's supercharged 3.8L V-6 engine and features a retractable hardtop roof that disappears under the rear deck area.

The hood features portholes, a lost Buick hallmark that designers say will make a return. Buick calls the Cielo's interior "Quiet Servant," which activates unseen controls and gauges by voice command. Also, a head-up display for both front occupants allows the passenger "to really become the co-pilot," says a Cielo designer.

The Oldsmobile Recon compact sport/utility vehicle (SUV) continues to push a techno cool design for the rebounding division. Recon is an abbreviation for reconfigure, the SUV's primary attribute. Rear-seat passengers can alter the interior by folding an armrest into the center console and flipping up a wafer-thin video screen. And the driver can reposition readouts in the IP display pod.

Chevrolet's Nomad concept takes a step into the future by looking at the bowtie division's past. It's the most retro offering of the concept bunch, borrowing cues from the first Chevy Nomad introduced in 1955. The automaker says the Nomad combines the performance and handling of a sports car with a spirited functionality of a sport/utility vehicle. "It's like putting the Blazer and a Corvette in a blender," simplifies one Nomad designer. The rear gate slips under a false floor for easier loading or unloading. The LS1 V-8 is mated with shift-by-wire transmission.

Production status for the Cadillac Evoq roadster is hardly a question of if, but rather when, 2002 or 2003? By then, Cadillac may have to worry about doing battle with more than Jaguar or Mercedes' 500SL. The first rear-drive application of GM's Northstar engine powers the sleek machine.

DaimlerChrysler takes a strong alternative powerplant position with its 1999 concepts. Leading the effort is the Citadel, a cross between a 300M and an SUV. The front end is reminiscent of the Chronos concept first shown last year.

A performance hybrid, Cit-adel's rear wheels are powered by a 253-hp 3.5L V-6. Up front, Siemens Automotive electric motors can add another 70 hp.

The Dodge Charger R/T concept offers plenty of power and significantly cleaner emissions. The CNG-powered 4.7L supercharged V-8 offers 25% lower carbon dioxide emissions and meets California's Ultra Low Emission Vehicle standard while it pumps out 325 hp. The CNG fuel tank is worth noting: Its space-saving design is flat and made of high-density polyurethane with a carbon-fiber based liner. That allows a tank large and strong enough to offer an acceptable driving range - 300 miles or so - and still leave full use of the trunk.

The Dodge Power Wagon borrows some retro styling cues from the fullsize pickup first introduced in 1946 - with some significant enhancements. Like its namesake, it does include a front bumper-mounted power winch, but from there the similarities end. Unlike its workhorse namesake, this concept offers a truck bed and rear cab floor lined with European ash and an interior with a healthy dose of cognac-colored leather.

Under the hood sits a 7.2L direct-injection I-6 diesel crafted by Caterpillar (a departure from the Chrysler/Cummins diesel connection) that burns a sulphur-free "designer fuel" that DaimlerChrysler is jointly developing with Syntroleum.

Non-existent at last year's Detroit show, Nissan executives say their "coming out" will be in Detroit with their new compact SUV, which will be built at Nissan's Smyrna, TN, plant on the same line as the Frontier pickup. The '00 Xterra will go on sale in June. It's larger than a Toyota RAV4 but smaller than a Pathfinder. The vehicle will be available with a V-6, and will be priced just under $20,000.

The Audi TT will make its North American debut in Detroit. Audi hopes the 2-seater will generate the kind of traffic for its stand that the Beetle did for VW last year.

VW will show a Beetle with a 1.8L turbo 4-cyl. and a concept that at press time still hadn't been decided. Contrary to earlier rumors, VW officials in Auburn Hills say it is not a concept VW microbus.

Mercedes will show a concept called the SLR. The car reportedly was built by Stola in Turin. Mercedes isn't saying much about the car, but others familiar with it say it is intended to give viewers a design glimpse of the next SL, due out March 2001. - with Mike Arnholt