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Carmakers seek hot models
January 8, 2001: 4:15 p.m. ET

Jeep's compact S/UV, Thunderbird revival, and VW Microbus debut at auto show
By Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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DETROIT (CNNfn) - They are the vehicles that inspire excitement for their drivers, waiting lists for buyers and profits for their builders. They are what the auto industry loves best: hot cars and trucks.

Unfortunately, the cars and trucks that debut at shows like the North American International Auto Show here this week can't all be like last year's Chrysler's PT Cruiser, which won such loyalty from customers that some will wait almost a year from purchase to delivery.

And often the vehicles introduced with hype and hoopla, such as Chrysler Group's new minivans which debuted a year ago, are greeted by disappointing responses by buyers -- and almost immediate incentives by the automakers.

This year's show seems to have a little more buzz than last year for vehicles headed either for a showroom soon or back to the design studio for further development.

graphicThe Jeep Liberty was given an extra push Sunday when DaimlerChrysler introduced it during the portion of the show during which the automakers normally showcase their "concept" cars, vehicles that often are more design experiments than actual models that will ever make it to a showroom.

The compact sport/utility vehicle is designed to compete with the so-called "cute-utes" or "soft-roaders" such as Toyota's RAV4 or the new Ford Escape, vehicles that were designed with parallel parking in the city or suburbs as much a concern as ground clearance or other off-road demands.


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Jeep officials insist the Liberty is as tough as any of its traditional S/UVs, having been tested on its Rubicon off-road test track.

"The ruts of the Rubicon and other trails are littered with the carcasses of lesser four-wheel drive vehicles," said Tom Sidlik, general manager of Jeep. "Liberty is built to drive over the bones of all of them."

While Sidlik admits that about four out of five Jeep owners will never take it off-road, he said that it is important to convey a concept of ruggedness to help attract buyers who would otherwise go to a competitor.

"This Jeep will broaden the appeal of the whole Jeep lineup by attracting a whole new kind of Jeep buyer while staying true to our core enthusiast," he said.

Looking forward to the past

Many of the models set for debuts this week are reintroductions of hot models of the past.

Ford Motor Co. Monday unveiled its new Thunderbird, which it has not built since 1997. The new model was first introduced as a concept car itself at the show two years ago.

graphicThe new version is the 2002 model that will be available in showrooms later this year. Ford will detail its marketing and production plans for the car, and the automaker plans to charge between $35,500 and $40,000 for the vehicle.

The new T-bird has many of the styling elements of the 1950s and early 60s models, such as round headlamps and tail lamps. Ford also unveiled a concept T-bird roadster convertible during the show to help generate interest for its production car, having singer Ray Charles ride in it during a dinner at which he performed.

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graphicJacques Nasser, CEO of Ford Motor Co., chats with CNNfn about new Thunderbird model.
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One other element that may help the Thunderbird becoming a "hot" vehicle is that Ford plans to produce fewer than 25,000 of them a year, hoping that a short supply keeps both interest and prices for the vehicle high among enthusiasts.

"You want a little tension between supply and demand," said Jim O'Connor, president of Ford Division. "I think you want a reasonable wait list."


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Ford also will show a limited-production version of the Mustang Bullitt GT, a performance car inspired by the 1968 Mustang Fastback driven by actor Steve McQueen in the movie "Bullitt." It unveiled that car at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week.

graphicOne concept car generating a lot of buzz at the show Sunday was the Bengal Roadster. Named for Buick's celebrity spokesman, golfer Tiger Woods, it has a V-6 engine, can accommodate two or four passengers, and has a retractable cover over the rear seats that can nestle into a rear compartment. But unlike the man for whom it's named, production is by no means certain.

One of the other GM concepts unveiled Sunday was the Oldsmobile O4, even though GM announced last month that it would discontinue the Oldsmobile brand before the car will ever be built.

Overseas competitors unveil retro concepts

Another old sports car finding new life this year comes from Nissan, which debuted a new version of its Z-sports car -- bringing it back to an era when the company went under the name Datsun in the U.S. market.

graphicWhile the version that debuted at the show Monday is considered a concept car, Nissan, the troubled No. 3 Japanese automaker, said it does plan to start production of the car next year. It is expected to hit U.S. showrooms in the middle of next year for less than $30,000 each.

The "Z" sports cars debuted in 1970 with the Datsun 240-Z selling for $3,526, and continued for 26 years until the 300Z was discontinued in 1996. More than 1 million Z models were sold in the United States during that period.

The new model is a hatchback design, like the original, although a convertible model is also planned.

One of the hotter concepts at this year's show is a new version of the Volkswagen Microbus, the rear-engine snubnose icon of the '60s that was last built in 1978.

graphicVolkwagen, which unveiled the hottest car of 1998, the retro-designed Beetle, as a concept at the 1994 show here, isn't making any commitments about building the new Micro, which keeps the snubnose design, but moves the engine to the front of the current concept version. But it is using a van platform that VW is committed to using for its next generation of the Eurovan, the boxy van that has never caught on in the U.S. market. The use of an production platform makes future production somewhat more likely.

Tony Fouladpour, a VW spokesman, said one of the greatest design challenges was keeping the snubnose design while conforming to modern crash standards the original could never have passed. He said the company is confident it would be able to receive a five-star crash rating if it is built.

The old Micro was a low-cost vehicle which was first built on the platform of the original Beetle. The new Micro is likely to be one of the premium-priced minivans, with luxury options never considered by its original owners, such as built-in video screens.

And the introduction of the Micro could give the Big Three more problems in the minivan market, in which they have been severely pressed by Japanese models such as the Honda Odyssey, as well as the expansion of seating capacity in S/UVs during the last year.

Blurring the lines

The PT Cruiser was notable not only for its retro design, but for blurring the line between established segments such as car, minivan or S/UV, which is how it is classified. graphicSome of the notable models this year continue to blur those lines, especially between S/UV and minivan.

The Buick Rendezvous is one of those types of vehicles. Built to give the Buick brand an S/UV, it contains a third row of seats, making it more like a minivan.

GM is also trying to blur the lines with the Chevy Avalanche, which has a cab like a six-passenger pickup with a short pickup truck bed behind it. But with a "mid-gate" its bed can be extended to a full eight feet, making it closer to a traditional pick-up. It is also due in dealers' showrooms later this year. graphic

  RELATED STORIES

What a concept - a car on sale soon - Jan. 8, 2001

Big Three at crossroads at auto show - Jan. 7, 2001

Big Three post big sales drop - Jan. 3, 2001

Analyst says hard landing hitting autos - Dec. 15, 2000

GM cuts jobs, Oldsmobile division - Dec. 12, 2000

Auto sale fall hits profits, production - Dec. 1, 2000

PT Cruiser hot, Chrysler earnings cool - Nov. 15, 2000

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.