Automakers try `rational exuberance' to stare down a likely U.S. dropoff

DETROIT - What the organizers of last month's North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit really needed, amongst all the usual glittery and expensive vehicle-touting displays, was a mock graveyard.

That way all the automakers could've whistled as they passed by.

That was the overwhelming feeling at NAIAS: that although the '01 calendar year could be one of the stronger sales years in history, the thunderclouds are on the horizon. And somebody stands to get wet.

The watchword of the show, of course, is "downturn." Every automaker says it's coming. Yet in the same breath, just about every automaker says its U.S. sales will increase this year.

Whistle, whistle.

Meanwhile, vehicles at the '01 version of NAIAS reflected an outlook - if you believe the graveyard premise too dour - of, well, perhaps "rational exuberance." There are plenty of cars, but gone this year is glowing talk of fuel cells and an Internet connection in every vehicle.

Everyone here certainly puts on a good face. After all, it is gonna be a good sales year. Right? Right?

But the clouds loom. No-fooling production cutbacks from the domestic automakers. Nearly unbearable incentives. Tangible declines in the cherished truck and sport/utility vehicle (SUV) segments. The death of Oldsmobile as a perplexed General Motors Corp. flails at ever-eroding market share. Mounting tension regarding the ultimate "role" of DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. operations, exacerbated by doubletalk from its aloof chairman.

Chrysler, so often in the past the bellwether of the "mood" of NAIAS, almost palpably resonated the feel of the market and its own internal strife. Its concept cars - typically a highlight of the show - with one exception fell flat and appeared disconcertingly off-base. Like several other automakers, DCC's concept cars seemed to admit that the company's energies were being spent elsewhere - and so fell back on the increasingly tedious theme of "retro."

Such was the case for DC's odd and gaudy Dodge Super 8 Hemi. Replete with a wraparound winshield and a vintage V-8 driving the rear wheels, the car's desire to recall simpler times was overwhelmed by mammoth proportions and out-of-sync performance potential.

The company hit a homer with the beautifully curved Crossfire, though. This diminutive rear-drive 2-seater, part Audi TT and part BMW coupe, is powered by a supercharged version of the corporate 2.7L DOHC V-6, good for 275 hp. It's mutually agreed the shape was stunning. It also shames some recent concept efforts from "big brother" Mercedes, by the way. DCC's troubles mean Crossfire likely won't ever see the light of day, though, admits one insider.

Meanwhile, DCC's all-new Jeep Liberty (see WAW - Jan. '01, p.50) struck a solid chord. Crowds surrounded the pesky new Jeep all week, and most believe that despite a tough U.S. market and ever-threatening competition in the compact SUV segment, the baby Jeep will clean house when it goes on sale in a couple of months.

Ford Motor Co., which hasn't had a winning concept car since George Dubya's first panty raid, divided showgoers with the quirky Forty-Nine.

Some thought this revisitation of "chopped and channeled" custom cars of the early '50s was spot-on awesome. Others say it reflects an ongoing impotency at Ford Design under veep J. Mays, and that the Forty-Nine is an eminently forgettable effort to squeeze more out of both the Thunderbird revival and the slow-selling DEW98 platform. Considering that non-retro designs like last year's goofy 24/7 haven't scored, it's time to wonder if 'ol J. has any arrows, save ones marked "retro," in the quiver (for a decidedly different view, see cover story, p. 34.)

Ford also devoted lavish upstairs space to a string of Thunderbirds, which, thank goodness, finally goes into production this spring. We hear a pair of tassled driving shoes comes with every new 'Bird.

Not surprisingly, "retro" did work for Volkswagen AG. The outlandish yet stylish Microbus concept, painted in that glaring '60s-vintage green that's currently oh-so-hip, wasn't about to be ignored. The middle of the three rows of seats can be rotated 180 degrees to lend a party atmosphere to any behind-the-driver activities, and there were video screens galore. VW says "maybe." We say the world could use a hip minivan.

Ah, GM. After a few years when it didn't even make concept cars, the ovens seem to be working overtime to bake up some sorely needed "image pie."

Unfortunately, we're on a diet - and judging by some of the comments overheard during public showing, so is Joe Average.

Cadillac, in particular, might be rocked to discover that its all-encompassing, Evoq-inspired edges don't appear to be readjusting anyone's impression of Caddy. The Vizon crossover, in particular, appears to miss the mark as the Evoq-look comes off as too clinical and calculating. Although the Vizon might actually see production in time to at least make an impact in the burgeoning crossover market, it's likely the look will have to be softened to appeal to a buyer generally believed to be less hostile than the Escalade-intender.

That said, Vizon displays some good ideas, including "adjustable" gages and seats hitched to the car-length central tunnel as well as the door sills, making for unrestricted foot room (and an easier way to find the change that fell out of your pocket). We'll soon see the all-wheel drive, Sigma-platformed Vizon, claims GM. With a curve or three, we pray.

The brutish GMC Terracross seems cut from the same cloth, as does the Chevrolet Borrego roadster-ute and the ready-for-production Avalanche. The Borrego is a look at what might evolve from the GM/Subaru partnership: Borrego could share a platform with a future Subaru, and already uses a heavily blown Subie 4-cyl. boxer engine.

GM practically hid its most effective effort, the snazzy Pontiac Vibe 5-door hatchback. Along with a PT Cruiser-like multi-configurable load bay, the Vibe features a potentially hot driveline: a 1.8L, 180-hp scorcher 4-cyl., coupled to a 6-speed manual transmission and all-wheel drive. In essence, the sort of driveline PT should've been designed to offer.

Intriguingly, Vibe will be produced in little more than a year from now by GM and Toyota Motor Corp. at the NUMMI joint-venture plant in California that currently produces the Chevy Prizm/Toyota Corolla. Toyota also titillated some showgoers with its harder-looking version of the Vibe, the Matrix. If we're properly interpreting the jungle drums, Vibe will close the door on the largely unloved Pontiac Sunfire, leaving only the Chevrolet Cavalier to carry the J-car torch. More importantly, the Vibe may bring some genuine "excitement" to Pontiac's lame entry level.

GM also devoted considerable floorspace to its all-new midsize SUVs: Chevrolet Trailblazer, GMC Envoy and Buick, er, Oldsmobile Bravada. Read about 'em on page 72.

Hey, an emboldened Nissan showed up with a pretty tempting look at the 2003 "Z" sports car, after fettling for two years about its looks and specification. The latest version - Nissan says it's practically the production-car sheetmetal - looks much more muscular than the first lame showing. President Carlos Ghosn promises class-whupping performance from its 3.5L V-6 (260 hp) and a scaldingly affordable price when it goes on sale next year. Alas, a good source tells us inline 6-cyl. engines are dead at Nissan.

Not so, trucks, as the freaky Alpha T concept proves. It's an early look at Nissan's thinking for the company's first-ever full-size pickup it plans to build in 2003 at its new plant in Canton, MS.

In the same vein as the "Z," Mazda teased a little more with the RX-8, another "near-production" look at a beloved Japanese sports coupe, the former RX-7. This thing has four seats, four doors (the rearward two of the "suicide" variety) and a juicy, all-new, normally aspirated iteration of Mazda's hallmark rotary engine. This looks like a great idea, but we'll have to wait until next year's launch for a real verdict.

Mazda also showed an interesting little station wagon, the Sport Wagon, based on one of the more decent subcompacts in the market, the Protege. With the right price, this could help.

After its Acura upmarket division missed a golden opportunity by mainstreaming its long-awaited Integra replacement into another ho-hum-mobile (oh well, it already hit the lottery with the MDX sport-ute), Honda Motor Co. Ltd. showed a flash of weirdness with the boxy Model X concept, an SUV geared toward Gen X slackers.

This so-called dorm room on wheels wasn't much for style (it's a box, apparently the rage in Japan), but it promoted some interesting ideas, not the least of which is its cantilevered seat attachment design that offers virtually unrestricted access to the rubberized, hose-it-out floor - perhaps a statement about the hygienic preferences of its intended buyer?