Cars that want to be trucks. Trucks that want to be cars. New cars that want to be old cars. New trucks that want to be old trucks.

If you can follow that, then you've got the gist of the 1999 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It likely will be known as the auto show holding a world-record for most new incarnations for the automotive terms "hybrid," "crossover" and "retro."

At this year's Detroit gathering, it just wasn't simple: practically every new and concept vehicle on display was charged with being everything but single-purpose.

The Retro Thing

Of the new cars and concepts espousing retro, Ford Motor Co. enjoyed darlin'-of-the-show status with the Thunderbird concept, a heavily retro-oriented redesign of a car that of late had become hopelessly adrift of its forebears' intent. The new-old styling is backed up by completely new mechanicals comprised of Ford's DEW98 platform (Jaguar S-type/Lincoln LS) and a modern, 3.9L DOHC V-8. The styling polarizes opinion, some agreeing the design simply is trying too hard.

DaimlerChrysler AG's PT Cruiser also seems to be working up a sweat, in this case to summon memories of bygone panel vans. Problem is, those early panel wagons were big, and the Cruiser - it hits production for the 2001 model year - is small, what with being based on the Neon. DC thinks it's got the next New Beetle on its hands, but imagine DC's target of 100,000 a year of these things on the road and the retro-cute might quickly wear thin. It sure did with the Neon.

In fact, DC was working retro for all it's worth at the '99 NAIAS. There was the hulking, next-millennium Dodge Power Wagon (circa 1946) concept, the startlingly cool Citadel station-wagon/sports car -with a 300M 3.5L V-6 driving the rear wheels and a 70-hp electric motor to supplementally drive the front wheels - and the tasty, well-executed Charger concept.

The all-wheel drive Power Wagon is propelled by a next-generation 7.2L direct-injection diesel using "clean," natural-gas based diesel fuel. This gargantuan, alarmingly, probably is a functional look at the next-generation Ram full-size pickup.

General Motors Corp. snaps the sheet from a convincingly modern conceptual remake of the Chevrolet Nomad, complete with a 5.7L OHV

V-8 from the Corvette. The General kept the retro theme going - primarily in name only - for the 2000 Impala, a front-drive, 6-passenger sedan that shares family-schlepping duty with the underachieving Lumina. Most agree the Impala's proportions are pleasing, but the car doesn't really live up to the exhumed nameplate's promise - particularly with the lame choice of aging 3.4L and 3.8L OHV

6-cyl. engines.

Rounding out the most notable of the retros is Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Z sports car concept. Yes, Nissan's going to make the car. Yes, it will be rear drive and reasonably affordable at around $25,000. But most journalists aver the styling isn't quite right (hopefully, Nissan's U.S. design guru Jerry Hirshberg knows that, too). Nobody called 'em on it, but Nissan misguidedly trotted out the Z concept with the corporate 2.4L 4-cyl. engine - when everyone but Nissan, it seems, knows nothing but a 6-cyl. will do. Preferably an inline 6-cyl., at that.

Cars as Trucks/Trucks as Cars

Of the cars trying to be trucks/SUVs or trucks trying to be cars, there was a bountiful supply at the Detroit show.

Ford's 2000 F-150 Crew Cab pickup has four full-size doors and serious rear-passenger room, but gets hazy about the notion that trucks are supposed to have beds: The Crew Cab's bed is truncated to 5.5 ft. (1.7 m) to make room for all that cabin space. Translation: a car on a pickup frame. Power comes from the 4.6L and 5.4L Triton SOHC V-8s found in the current F-series light trucks.

The oddly proportioned Explorer Sport Trac is a chopped Explorer SUV with an even smaller 4.5-foot (1.4-m) bed. It and the F-150 Crew Cab go on sale early next year, says Ford big-boss Jacques Nasser. Impression: The F-150 Crew Cab appears tidy and useful, the Explorer Sport Trac just plain silly.

Nissan's Sport Utility Truck concept plays on the same theme; the SUT basically is an SUV with a smallish bed, but the bed can be extended into the cabin space by virtue of the SUT's flip-up rear window. Utilizing this feature provides a full-size bed, but the cargo must extend into the cabin via the open rear window, and Nissan has yet to explain how the passengers will embrace this situation when hauling in rain or freezing cold. The SUT appears to be yet another fractionalization of the truck/SUV market.

BMW AG finally outed its car/truck/SUV wannabe, the X5. The all-wheel-drive X5 actually is more a puffed-out Subaru Outback, appropriately leather-and-wooded and slinging what BMW execs and engineers claim will be class-leading (the question is, with most vehicles at the Detroit show, what "class?") dynamics. Power comes from the 4.4L DOHC V-8, an enlarged version of the 2.8L I-6 (likely 3.2L) and the company's new 2.9L direct-injection diesel I-6.

It seems Pontiac's shown us the Aztek concept - in some form - so many times we wish the Excitement folks would just put us out of our collective misery and make this wagon/minivan/SUV "lifestyle support vehicle." Maybe this front-drive, 3.4L V-6 powered oddball will see the light of day for 2001.

I Yam What I Yam

Thankfully, some concepts and production models at Detroit had no cross-dressing aspirations. Briefly:

n The Cadillac Evoq concept: 405-hp supercharged 4.6L Northstar V-8, for the first time hooked to the car's rear wheels. Some thought it awesome, some believe it looked "cheap." This is the flagship roadster Cadillac must make, but now the corporate question is on which platform to make it.

n Mercedes-Benz Vision SLR concept: Gorgeous gullwing body, dodgy interior. Mercedes apparently feels compelled to turn this into a hyper-expensive "supercar" to battle other deluded European carmakers that believe supercars are still audacious and heroic and relevant. Mercedes, you're above all that - aren't you?

n Nissan Xterra SUV: Coming this spring. The younger crowd loves it - despite the me-too styling. If priced properly, this son-of-Pathfinder could be a large success.

n Mitsubishi SSU SUV/car concept: Hideous.

n Buick Cielo concept: The answer to a question NOBODY is asking.

n Lexus IS200: So-so looks, but a superb interior. The inline 6-cyl./rear drive layout combined with Lexus' infamous build quality could give BMW a scare. Lexus says it comes to the U.S. in about 18 months; it's already on sale in Japan and Europe, so why can't Lexus pull the trigger for the near-luxury hungry U.S.? And forget it if it's 35 grand, Lexus planners - prospects will still go with the 3-series. It's gotta be $28,000, tops.

n Toyota Echo: This compact, to replace the trusty Tercel, is supposed to say "hip" to younger buyers? It screams "weenie!"

Finally, the 1999 Courage Award goes to Honda Motor Co. Ltd. It could have touted the curvy S2000 rear-drive roadster's imminent arrival here and left it at that. Instead, equal billing was given the VV concept, a toady, 70-mpg (3.3L/100 km) 2-seat hybrid-electric that offers decent performance; Honda says it will be sold in the U.S. this fall at a rational price.

Journalists scurrying to the next press conference extolling the next estate-sized SUV barely gave the VV a notice.