Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

High-Tech Hot Wheels: 2003's Concept Cars ; from Hybrid Power and Sliding Roofs to DVD Players for Every Passenger, the Lineup Is Trucking Along

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

High-Tech Hot Wheels: 2003's Concept Cars ; from Hybrid Power and Sliding Roofs to DVD Players for Every Passenger, the Lineup Is Trucking Along

Article excerpt

If the sour economy and the specter of war have America in a grim mood, you can't tell that in historically musty Detroit, even in a snowless January.

Here next year's automotive trends converge in a kaleidoscope of "impact" colors and often retro designs. Call it an attempt to create the Golden Age of cars, Part 2.

A version of the Ford Mustang, for instance, will be coming back. Again. Chevy is bringing back a swoop-fendered rendition of its SS, another muscle car from the 1960s and '70s. This one will have enough horsepower to run a small country, but with a decidedly new millennium twist: Four of its eight cylinders stop running when they're not needed, turning the roaring beast into a politically correct commuter vehicle, though you still probably won't see Ralph Nader in one.

In fact, new technology has eased some of the tension between power and fuel efficiency that has conflicted Detroit ever since the days when cars had real tail fins. It hasn't ended the clash. Many environmentalists, among others, remain upset at the move toward bigger, faster vehicles, even though the automakers are also producing ultra-efficient hybrid cars.

Yet the emphasis on what auto stylists call "heritage design" - shapes that intentionally mimic classic cars of the past - does reflect the convergence of several trends. In the 1950s, Americans built cars with "authority, presence, and style," says Ford's chief designer J Mays.

In the 1960s, so-called muscle cars brought a horsepower race. Since the 1970s the industry has been working - at least intermittently - on fuel efficiency. Hence a new generation of powerful street cars, but not necessarily ones that require you to own your own tanker truck.

DVDs in every seat

New technology, of course, is changing vehicles in other ways as well. Electronic wizardry is becoming more ubiquitous - televisions and DVDs are available for virtually everyone connected with a car, short of the gas station attendant.

More cars are using modular construction to meet many needs at once, becoming virtual legos on wheels. The upcoming production Ford Freestyle, a car-based station wagon, uses a rear roof that slides forward on its pillars to convert the vehicle into a pickup truck.

And the redesigned 2004 Ford F150 pickup offers a modular interior, with front and back seats, consoles, and dashboard that can easily be disconnected and replaced. These follow on several "convertible" trucks produced by General Motors in the past two years, but they're new to the more maneuverable car arena.

Notably absent from this year's crop of new vehicles are big SUVs, the emblem of the prosperous '90s. There are, however, plenty of smaller, more civilized SUVs that sit on car frames.

Perhaps the most anticipated debut here, though, was the new Mustang, even though it won't hit the road until 2005. …

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