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DETROIT New SUVs trying to be one-size-fits-all



Published: Mon, January 28, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



In the United States, there is an average of nearly three cars per household.

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR

DETROIT -- Automakers don't want to call them sport-utility vehicles anymore. They're crossovers, hybrids, wagons or even luxury sedans.

Many come with indecipherable names such as GST, FX45, RDX, CCX and GX470. And they were all on display at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Despite all the glamour and industry spin, these vehicles largely look and function like, well, SUVs.

You can identify them by their living-room-plush interiors with six- or seven-passenger leather seating, fold-away seats, comprehensive safety regalia and space-capsule electronics.

Outside, they feature expansive glass roofs with adjustable tints, sporty wheels, tall wagonlike rooflines and carlike chassis. They also handle like cars, come with all-wheel-drive and have big, powerful engines -- some are gasoline-electric hybrids.

In short, they're new SUVs, softened to become safer, more roadworthy and comfortable.

That suggestion may rankle manufacturer reps at the show, who act as if they were building anything but SUVs.

Automakers went to great lengths to insist the new vehicles came from other origins: compacts that grew up; sports cars that got smoother; luxury sedans on steroids; and minivans and wagons that suddenly got hip.

Similarities: While the 11 new SUVs at the show came in a couple of sizes -- medium and large, with prices to match -- all look pretty much the same.

Buick also returned with its impressive modular LaCrosse concept, a large, swoopy sedan that changes to an open-air convertible or a genteel pickup.

Isuzu brought a two-door, four-wheel-drive XSR SUV -- with one difference: The top opens wide to make this a snazzy two-seat roadster with a small pickup bed.

Likewise, the small Saab 9X and Toyota CCX coupes use movable panels to convert into tiny pickups.

In the end, these vehicles hope to please Americans who want one car that can do it all: A wagon-van-pickup-SUV-convertible-sports car that can carry the kids, climb snow-covered mountains, roam sandy beaches, haul hardware, move furniture -- and still look spiffy enough for a night on the town.

Oh, and it has to do all that quickly, quietly, and in a way that's relatively easy on the environment.

Buying trend: Today, you would need to buy a small fleet to accomplish these tasks. And Americans are apparently trying to do just that. The average number of cars per household has climbed to almost three cars in every garage in the past two years, according to government statistics.

The United States has more cars than licensed drivers. So perhaps it's not surprising that consumers are now demanding a one-size-fits-all car to shrink the household fleet.

Besides the new SUVs, automakers also rolled out a cornucopia of cocky convertibles, trendy trucks and savvy sports cars -- many of which seemed poised for production.

General Motors showed six new sporty cars -- four convertibles and two coupes. All are production-ready, and two (both ragtops) have been approved.

Ford showed an all-out sports car modeled on its most famous and successful race car from the 1960s -- the GT40 -- as well as a giant Tonka pickup that includes some future fuel-saving technology.

Lincoln showed a sharp, full-size sedan that looks like a floaty barge from the '60s (but that supposedly has better cornering manners).

Nissan and Mazda both announced new sports cars going into production. And Chrysler displayed a couple of sports coupes. All were fun, in contrasting jelly-bean colors.

These cars inspire passion. And mercifully, they're becoming more plentiful. But they remain on the relative fringes of automobiledom, satisfying desires that the ubiquitous SUVs can't -- yet.




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