TURIN, ITALY--Mercedes-Benz AG corners the market on excitement at the 66th Turin International Motor Show with the unveiling of the production-garb SLK roadster. But the Italian design houses ring in with their expected assortment of intriguing concept vehicles and commissioned "study" designs. Per normal procedure, it really was the Italian design houses' show.

Hometown Fiat SpA generated considerable excitement with the first public showing of its Palio, the long-awaited modular "world" car with which Fiat plans to compete in numerous developing markets. The company plans to produce the car in several "point of entry" assembly plants scattered throughout four continents.

Modern 16-valve engines highlight Palio's powertrain range, and the company says a three-box sedan, station wagon, pickup truck and tiny van all are easily produced permutations of Palio.

Meanwhile, if there is a common thread connecting the efforts of the various designers at the Turin show, it is a melding of the concept of the small "city car" with the muscled-up image of a sport/utility vehicle (SUV).

It is generally agreed that Europeans likely will never accept the full-size SUVs that have achieved unprecedented popularity in North America--but several designers chose Turin to unveil small urban runabouts injected with a heavy dose of SUV design cues.

One example, Bertone's Enduro, is a small coupe based on Fiat's new Bravo/ Brava and fitted with all-wheel drive. The increased ride height and aggressively styled driving lights are pure SUV, while the 2L DOHC inline 5-cyl. engine borrowed from the Bravo/Brava delivers 147 hp.

Ford Motor Co.'s Ghia SpA subsidiary produces a handsome SUV wannabe based on the compact Escort, called Alpe. The vehicle's standout styling cues include a front bumper designed to give the appearance of an incorporated aftermarket brushguard and individual fenders that move with the front wheels. Alpe, along with the rakish Saetta speedster (based on the subcompact Fiesta), are meant to be produced from the "global" vehicle platforms realized under the Ford 2000 platform-integration philosophy at Ford.

The off-roader look carries over to several of the 10 individual design concepts --all based on the Bravo/Brava--commissioned by Fiat The Coggiola-designed Sentiero, though meant to be an urban load-hauler, relies on an exterior appearance resembling that of armored binoculars. The Sentiero is longer than the Brava in both wheelbase and overall length, while the divider between the outside cargo area and the interior can be removed to increase cargo-handling space.

Europeans may not ever embrace North-American-sized SUVs, but the rash of small, passenger-car-based SUV design studies at the Turin show proves there must be some merit to adopting SUV-suggesting styling as a new approach to customers' wallets.