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.

Of the new cars and concepts espousing retro, Ford Motor Co. enjoys darling-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 most onlookers; some think the coming-next-year T-bird looks like it's trying a bit too hard.

DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser also seems to be working up a sweat 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, 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. Power is something north of what's available in the Neon, however — a 2.4L 4-cyl. linked to a 4-speed automatic transmission.

In fact, DC was working retro for all it's worth. There was the hulking, next-millennium Dodge Power Wagon (circa 1946) concept, the startling 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 (see story beginning on p.1). This gargantuan, alarmingly, is probably a broad 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 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). And Nissan misguidedly trotted out the Z concept with a breathed-on version of 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.

Of the cars trying to be trucks/SUVs or trucks trying to be cars, there was an endless 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 idea that trucks are supposed to have beds: the Crew Cab's bed is truncated to 5.5 ft. (168 cm) to make room for all that cabin space. Translation: a car on a pickup frame. Its Triton 4.6L and 5.4L SOHC V-8s are borrowed from the current light-duty F-series lineup.

The oddly proportioned Explorer Sport Trac is a chopped Explorer SUV with an even smaller 4.5-ft. (137 cm) bed. The driveline is the current Explorer's 4L SOHC V-6 and 5-speed automatic transmission, giving credence to speculation that the ancient 5L OHV V-8 now used in the Explorer and Mountaineer finally faces retirement.

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 gives 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 ousted 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 (see WEVTU — Sept. 1, '98, p.5).

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 “life-style support vehicle.” Maybe this front-drive, 3.4L V-6-powered oddball will see the light of day for 2001.

Thankfully, some concepts and production models at Detroit had no crossover aspirations. Briefly:

  • The Cadillac Evoq concept: 405-hp supercharged 4.6L Northstar V-8 in its first rear-drive application. Some thought it awesome, some believe it looked “cheap.” The flagship roadster Cadillac must make, but now the question is on which platform to make it.

    Early reports said the Evoq would be derived from the well-regarded Corvette platform; the plan would allow GM to more efficiently employ the underutilized Bowling Green, KY, Corvette assembly plant. But other sources say the Evoq stands at least an equal chance of riding on GM's new Sigma rear-drive platform from Australia. And some GM insiders say Cadillac is anxious to distance its high-visibility roadster from any relationship with Corvette underpinnings, lest Cadillac be once again accused of merely polishing already existing GM parts.

  • Mercedes-Benz Vision SLR concept: Gorgeous gullwing body, dodgy interior. Disappointingly, sources say Mercedes believes it must turn this into a hyper-expensive “supercar” to battle other misguided European carmakers that believe supercars are still relevant. Power comes from a supercharged 5.5L-version of the company's SOHC modular V-8 that produces “more than 550 horsepower and 530 ft.-lbs. (719 Nm) of peak torque.” Some styling cues from this car also may be expected to appear on the upcoming remake of the pricy SL roadster.

  • 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.

  • Mitsubishi SSU SUV/car concept: a garish sports car/SUV based on the Galant platform.

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

  • 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. But the U.S. has to wait 18 months; it's already available in Japan and Europe, so why can't Lexus pull the trigger for the near-luxury hungry U.S.? A Toyota source says the delay “is not due to anything technical of which I'm aware.”

  • Toyota Echo: This replacement for the Tercel seems to miss the mark with its intended younger audience.

Finally, the 1999 Courage Award goes to Honda Motor Co. Ltd. It could have touted the curvy S2000 rear-drive roadster's imminent arrival in the U.S. Instead, equal billing was given the VV concept, a toady 70-mpg 2-seat hybrid-electric that offers decent performance; a 1L 3-cyl. gasoline engine is supplemented by a small electric motor to provide what Honda claims is performance equivalent to a 1.5L 4-cyl. engine. Honda says it will be sold in the U.S. this fall at a rational price, meaning the VV will be the first production-model hybrid on sale in the U.S.