Thinking about the cars of the "new millennium" used to seem like an academic exercise - but now it's an immediate concern.

In a few weeks the North American International Auto Show will open in Detroit and we'll be hip deep in . . . exactly what model year vehicles? How to "designate" 2000 models is the first question to be settled.

When car-company personnel are pressed to guess what the cars of the first year of the third Millennium will be called, the consensus seems to be "Um, I dunno, the 2000s, I guess. We haven't really talked about it."

Some folks inside General Motors have been referring to products further down the line simply as "oh-ones" and "oh-twos."

"Millennial" models was suggested to various car company types, but not well received. "We won't be using any George Jetson names," sniffs one Ford Motor Co. PR operative.

Neither are they taken with the notion of using a word for zero that's largely gone out of fashion - aught - probably because it has a strong whiff of barbershop geezerdom about it: "I remember the winter of '99, when I bought the new 'aught-aught' Buick LeSabre," doesn't seem too hip.

And then there is the other "Year 2000" debate: which vehicle actually will claim the title of being the new century's "first?"

What "counts" as the first 2000 vehicle? Some car company mavens are suggesting the first 2000 production model shown at the NAIAS in January is the de facto winner. A more moderate viewpoint marks the century's inaugural vehicle as the first 2000 model on sale to the general public - which can't happen until at least Jan. 1, 1999 - and not the first shown or the first ready for production.

A bunch of vehicles will be ready for sale early in the New Year. At this writing, all Buick folks will say about the 2000 LeSabre's (a front-runner) on-sale date is sometime near "the first of the year."

The 2000 model year will definitely see a bunch of new or revised models, including the Cadillac Deville, the Dodge/Plymouth Neon and a flotilla of stuff from notoriously tight-lipped Japanese automakers. But in the jostle to be the first on-sale model, the horserace appears to be between the LeSabre and the Neon.

Or Subaru's Legacy. Or Saab's 9-5 Wagon. Or . . . - Alex Law