Car show all about becoming king of road


IF YOU'RE THE sort of person who thinks of a car as simply something to get you from point A to point B, this year's Motor Trend International Auto Show is definitely not your scene.

No, this is a five-day extravaganza that celebrates everything about cars: their speed and power, their styling and sex appeal, their luxury interiors and Global Positioning Systems and all the other bells and whistles we put in them.

And it celebrates guys who love cars, too.

Oh, sure, lots of women love cars. But on the carpeted floors at the Convention Center yesterday, the smell of new leather bucket seats and car polish and pristine radial tires mingled with the scent of Old Spice and testosterone and just-sneaked Marlboros.

Maybe because it was Media Day, I didn't see any of the requisite bosomy models straight off a Miss Valvoline calendar lolling about on the fenders of high-performance sports cars.

But everything else screamed Alpha Male Woodstock: the Pontiac dealers whooping and hollering to a Led Zeppelin song after a presentation on the 2003 Pontiac Vibe; the man who examined the deep bed of a Lincoln Blackwood pickup and gushed: "Man, I could haul some drywall in that!"; even the posters touting the appearance this weekend of several Ravens who would pose for pictures, sign autographs and, presumably, stick you with a forearm shiver if that's what you wanted.

Look, I'm not even a car guy, really. But the minute I walked through the doors and took in the endless expanse of 500-plus gleaming cars and trucks, I wanted to pop a chaw of Red Man, kick a few tires and talk engines with some good ol' boy with grease under his fingernails.

If there's a trend that marks this year's show, according to Peter Kitzmiller, the president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, it's the continued popularity of the "crossover" vehicles that are part SUV, part car.

Kitzmiller mentioned the Toyota Matrix, Lexus Sport Cross and Pontiac Vibe as examples. The Vibe has the high roof of an SUV but seems as small as a compact car and is not particularly attractive. It looks like a shrunken Subaru wagon to me.

I couldn't figure out what those Pontiac dealers were getting all fired up about. Maybe someone had just announced an early happy hour.

Another new trend is that hatchbacks are making a comeback. "But they don't want to call them hatchbacks anymore," said DeeDee Taft, a show spokeswoman.

Apparently, the term "hatchback" is too closely associated with those hideous hunks of tin manufactured in Detroit in the '70s, like the Chevy Vega and AMC Gremlin and Ford Pinto.

So now they're called "3-door" or "5-door" vehicles. And they're selling like they did back in the '70s, which is to say, like hotcakes.

Same old idea, new name. Is this a great country or what?

I spent most of my time checking out the "concept" cars that offer a peek at futuristic designs and technology.

By far the most impressive-looking was a champagne-colored Chrysler Phaeton, designed in the shape of an elegant touring car from the '40s or '50s, only updated.

The Chrysler PT Cruiser, the Plymouth Prowler and the "new" Volkswagen Beetle all started as "concept" cars and quickly made the leap into production, and maybe the Phaeton can, too.

It's a sleek convertible with a stainless-steel interior that has a retractable windshield between the front and rear seats. The rear seats also have their own speedometer and tachometer gauges so that, according to a press release, "rear passengers are able to monitor the vehicle's performance."

Why anyone would want to do this is not explained. Talk about being a back-seat driver. That's all I need: my mother in the seat behind me screaming, "Kevin, my speedometer says you're doing 65! You're going to get us all killed!"

The Jeep Dakar is another cool concept car. It's essentially a Wrangler on steroids (the wheelbase is 15 inches longer) with a full-length tubular roof rack and an "adventure module" inside the rear door that has a night vision scope, binoculars, flashlight and compass.

Curiously, the Dakar also has a folding shovel built into each front fender, presumably in case one needs to dig out of sand or mud.

"Isn't the whole idea of driving a Jeep that you don't get stuck?" said the photographer who was with me.

But that sounded like a Zen koan, and it seemed too trying to unravel all its implications.

On the other hand, the idea of shovels built into each fender sounded manly, in keeping with the aura of the show.

On the way out, we received another manly bulletin: Donnie Neuenberger, driver of the No. 81 IHOP Chevrolet in the Craftsman Truck Series, would be appearing Saturday to greet fans and sign autographs.

The Craftsman Truck Series. Does it get any manlier than that?

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