DETROIT -- It is the year of the crossover, a new style of vehicle that industry mavens say will combine the best of the sedan and the sport utility vehicle in an eye-catching package.
Most of the vehicles in this category, which started with the Subaru Legacy Outback and Lexus RX 300, are still generally in the "things to come" column, designers' ideas of what should be.
Much time and money have been invested in developing and designing these vehicles, which aim to give consumers the utility and up-above-it-all seating that have made pickups, minivans and SUVs so popular, along with the softer ride and creature comforts that keep half of the auto-buying public devoted to traditional passenger cars.
"We're going to be seeing lots of them," says Jeffrey W. Schuster, chief auto industry forecaster for J. D. Power & Associates, a market research firm. "The individualistic approach is coming on strong."
It will take a few years, but soon the crossover will be a third major segment of the auto market, predicts William Chergosky, a designer at DaimlerChrysler Pacifica, the German-American automaker's advanced styling studio in Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego.
Chergosky was lead designer on the Jeep Varsity, one of nearly a dozen crossover concepts unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month.
Like many other crossovers, the three-door hatchback, a car with lines that are unmistakably Jeep, is aimed at the upwardly mobile family "that doesn't want an SUV or a minivan but still doesn't want to give up a no-strings-attached lifestyle," Chergosky says.
J. David Power said in an interview that he is warning automakers to slow the rush to produce more SUVs. About 40 models are on the market today, and more than 20 new ones are due out by 2005.
"By the time all those new models are up and running, the market will turn," Power says.
Buyers, especially of the top-end luxury SUVs, will be turning their interest to the new crossovers "and to entry-level luxury cars," Power says.
There were plenty of sedans and coupes -- sport, luxury and economy -- at the Detroit show, just as there were at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show, which opened Jan. 8.
Models from the light-truck triumvirate of pickups, minivans and SUVs also were well-represented at both shows.
Common themes -- features that could arrive in showrooms soon -- include lots of covered and concealed storage space; power points in front and rear for plugging in accessories, entertainment and communication devices; bed extenders and molded-in picnic tabletops on anything with a tailgate; and the elimination of the central pillar separating front and rear doors.
The pillar-less concept vehicles, ranging from Buick's LaCrosse sports sedan/pickup (in the same vein as the car-styled Chevy El Caminos and Ford Rancheros of the 1960s and 1970s) to a sporty pickup concept by Volkswagen called the AAC (for advanced activity concept), use double doors that pop out of their frames and slide apart or are hinged to open from the center, like double doors in a home.
The Asian and European car companies aren't ignoring the U.S. market either.
Toyota is showing its Sequoia full-size SUV in Detroit, and Ford-controlled Mazda used Los Angeles to unveil a production model of its forthcoming Tribute SUV, which is based on the Mazda 626 sedan platform to be shared with the Ford Escape SUV displayed in Detroit.
Two of the luxury importers, Volkswagen's Audi unit and Honda's Acura, showed crossover SUV-type vehicles. Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz all showed concepts in Los Angeles or Detroit.
Honda, often criticized for stylistic stodginess, showed that it knows what design is all about with the unveiling in Los Angeles of a crossover sport convertible/pickup called the Spocket.
Honda also displayed its FCX fuel-cell car, a small sedan that a company insider said also serves as a styling cue for future Honda sedans. It takes Chrysler's cab-forward design to the limit, nearly eliminating the hood and putting the driver almost directly behind the front wheels.
Subaru scored a hit with its ST/X concept, a sporty all-wheel-drive, extended-cab, short-bed pickup with a patented disappearing rear bulkhead that allows the bed to extend into the rear-seat area.
Insiders say it is likely to be a production model for the United States in a year or two, and GM, which owns a 20 percent share of Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries, says it wants to produce a version of the ST/X for the South American market.
GM's Chevrolet division announced the arrival in 2001 of the Avalanche, a full-size blend of pickup and SUV with a rear bulkhead that folds away -- a system similar to but not as nifty as Subaru's -- to eliminate the back seat area and create an 8-foot cargo bed.
In Detroit, Ford Motor Co., after a showing in Los Angeles notable principally for several variations of its best-selling SUVs, offered three boxes on wheels whose primary purpose is to provide an envelope for an interactive, interconnected, automotive Internet environment.
Henry Ford put the world on wheels nearly a century ago, and the aim of today's Ford, says Chief Executive Jac Nasser, is to "put the Internet on wheels."
Within three years, all of the company's vehicles worldwide will come equipped -- at no extra cost to the consumer -- with a "telematics" package that will make it easy to connect such high-tech products and services as voice-controlled entertainment systems and cellular phones; satellite-linked navigation systems; and safety packages that automatically pinpoint a vehicle's location and relay it to an emergency service center in the event of a breakdown or accident.
The entire package was shown in three concept vehicles that Ford calls the 24.7 line. Exterior styling appears to have been borrowed from the children's building-block school of design, but Ford says the purpose of the concepts is to show what can be done with electronics in the car, not to promote eye appeal.
The "wired" vehicles, whether packaged as conventional cars and trucks or as Ford's futuristic and Cubist 24.7 models, "represent the future of personal transportation," says Ford design chief J Mays.
"It is no longer true that the auto is the icon for the age. The icon now probably is the computer," he says.
"The technology that sets [the 24.7 concept] apart has nothing to do with transportation" and everything to do with making the personal vehicle an interactive part of life instead of an isolation chamber.