The 2000 Auto Show Season Crashes Over Us

An auto show. In many ways it's like looking at a fun-house mirror. Sure, it reflects your image and likeness, but at the same time it alters the reality. It's amusing, enjoyable and sometimes a little creepy, revealing at once too much and too little. That's exactly what auto show season is like for the car-buying public. Each year at the major auto shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and New York, the world's car industry holds up a giant mirror of the culture that pretends to show us what we want and even what we are. (If indeed we are what we drive.) The whole process is full of glitz and glitter barely covering the cutthroat competition that lies beneath the surface. The shows are designed to intrigue us, to titillate us and get us in a buying mood, and the 40 or so brands that show their wares are hoping against hope that their set of designers and engineers have captured the popular taste and the realities of our lifestyles better than every other set of designers and engineers.

If the goal of the auto shows is to reflect the culture and spit it back in buyable form, then one thing is certain. Vehicle designers are absolutely convinced we're getting older. In fact, not just older, but fatter, stiffer, crankier and a lot less agile, too.

How do we come to this rather unflattering conclusion? Simply because the trend of longer, lower, wider has been replaced by taller, squatter and easier to get into. Fact is, the new designs, for the most part, reflect what the demographers are telling us. The population as a whole is aging, the Baby Boom snake going through the python is well into middle age and even sports machines as exotic as Ferrari are bowing to the reality that many of us can't bend like we used to.

One huge trend that continued in this year's Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows was the boom in sport utility vehicles. They came in great numbers from domestic and import manufacturers alike. Among the most notable, Acura debuted its MD-X, a sport-utility designed to do battle with Lexus's incredibly successful RX-300, while Ford and Mazda introduced twin small SUVs called the Escape and Tribute, respectively. Pontiac launched its foray into the SUV wars with the Aztek, an original (ungainly) looking concoction that seems part GI Joe toy and part Pontiac LeMans.

Be they gorgeous or goofy, an attribute all these vehicles share is the fact that they are built on car platforms. So while they might look like a truck (and quack like a truck?) they are really more accurately "tall cars" than rugged off-road haulers. They offer the proverbial chair-like seating position; they are easy to get in and out of; pretty darn comfortable; and they carry a lot of stuff. Just the thing, it seems, for a population that is getting older, has "made it," and possesses a bunch of things to take along.

Another trend goes hand-in-hand with the first -- the civilized pickup truck. Flash back to a year or two ago when the pickup truck was the last bastion of the lonesome cowboy. Back before the turn of the century, a guy's truck was his castle. Most likely if he owned one he was single, because there was no way a family of more than two-and-a-half could find any satisfaction in owning a pickup truck. But in just a blink of an eye, the pickup truck has been tamed, domesticated and turned into a family car.

The first insidious move in that direction was the "extended cab," but that was just the tip of the cowboy boot in the door of a new breed of pickup trucks. Then came the four-door "crew cabs" with seats for six (SIX!) And this auto show season saw the tide moving still further in the taming of the pickup truck. For example, the Chevrolet Avalanche has a full-size sports-utility-style cabin with a short pickup truck bed that will allow it to haul the occasional bale of hay. Ingeniously, it also has a fold-down rear panel that allows the bed to handle longer cargo, but let's face it, how often will it be used to transport barbed wire versus the time it will be used to transport Cub Scouts on their way den meeting? Another macho bastion has fallen.

A final bow to the aging of the populace, as demonstrated at the auto shows, is the resurgence of the two-seat sports car. But, surely, you say, the re-birth of the sports car must be an anti-aging harbinger, a bow to youth. And how wrong you would be.

Today's sports cars aren't designed for twenty-something versions of Martin Milner and George Maharis ready to chuck it all and take off down Route 66. Instead, they are designed for us fogeys who are old enough to remember Martin Milner, George Maharis and Route 66. Today's twenty-somethings don't have a clue about any of the three.

There was a time when two-seaters were designed for the young with forward-looking styling that was on the cutting edge. But the common ground of the most important two-seaters that were introduced at this year's major auto shows was nostalgia.

The BMW Z8, which will be built in limited quantities, did nothing but put a beautiful new spin on some poodle-skirt and penny-loafer era themes. From its shark nose to its simple wall-to-wall dashboard this car screamed "Fifties" - both the decade and the age of its potential drivers. It even has neon taillights, for heavens sake! And you'd have to be into an advanced decade to want to pony up a hundred-grand-plus for its retro look.

The other very notable two-seater shown this year was the Jaguar F-Type. Now how big a leap is that from the classic E-Type of the Sixties? More like a well-calculated baby step, actually. Again, as with the Z8, nostalgia is the order of the day, though with a projected price tag far lower than the BMW, a forty year old might have some hope of purchasing the successor to the car that helped make Austin Powers the International Man of Mystery.

Of course, the auto show season isn't over. Chicago's show will bow in a week, and New York won't present its wares until Easter time. But one thing seems sure. The aging of America hasn't escaped the world's auto makers, and I, for one, am a little bit depressed about it. I think I'll settle back in my easy chair, stick my feet in a bucket of epsom salts, have a warm glass of milk and try to remember my youth. Pass the ginko biloba, okay?

-- Jack R. Nerad

Among his many jobs Nerad served as editor of the car dealer publication Automotive Age and director of publications for J.D. Power and Associates. He frequently comments on the auto industry for CNN.
by Jack Nerad