Los Angeles Auto Show 2002

As a world-class automotive exhibition, the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show has been eclipsed by Detroit's North American International Auto Show, but that doesn't mean that LA doesn't get its share of important debuts. Southern California is too big an automotive market to go without some important introductions, and this year's LA show, which featured new General Motors North American chairman Robert Lutz as its keynote speaker, drew greater-than-expected press attendance, though in honesty many of the so-called press in attendance never wielded a word processor or microphone in any professional capacity.

While the Big Three manufacturers have chosen to favor Detroit with many of their top offerings, the Los Angeles Shows was still laced with some tasty new product and some interesting concepts from the domestic car makers. Here, reported right on the spot, are a smattering of the top vehicles from this year's LA extravaganza:

Chrysler Crossfire

As is fitting from a German-American company, the new Chrysler Crossfire is being billed as appropriate for both "America's classic Route 66 and Germany's legendary Autobahn." Maybe this makes the new sports coupe the first real DaimlerChrysler, because it seems to be an amalgam of the big-engined Chryslers of the past and the latest thinking from Mercedes-Benz. Dieter Zetsche, president and CEO of the Chrysler Group, says, "It's an American dream machine come true," and who would know better? The low-slung, two-seat coupe has a carved, sculptured appearance that seems much more refined and Germanic than the concept car that spawned it. Under the hood is a 3.2-liter 90-degree V-6, 18-valve SOHC engine offering 215 horsepower available with a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission. Oddly, Chrysler will build the American dream machine in Germany in conjunction with Karmann, a long-time DaimlerChrysler partner with more than 100 years of manufacturing experience.

Pontiac Vibe

GM is putting a lot of stock in its new Pontiac Vibe, hoping that this tall crossover vehicle will bring home the bacon in a way that the Pontiac Aztek was designed to but failed to achieve. The vehicle "resounds with relevance to a new, younger audience," says GM. What the world's largest auto maker hopes the Vibe will do is put some vigor into its lackluster line of small cars, which make the Ford Focus actually look good. The key selling point of the Vibe is its versatility, offering a spacious, functional interior in the guise of a compact car, and the features of a sports car, sport wagon, and SUV all at the same time. Like Gary Cooper, it rides tall, but unlike the late film star it also has available all-wheel drive, offers innovative storage systems and cargo-hauling capacity, and delivers decent performance with a 180-hp engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission on GT models.

Hummer H2

General Motors has been fairly low-key about acquiring marketing rights to the Hummer brand up until now, but those days are over. This summer, the General will spring the H2 upon a largely unsuspecting public, and we predict it will have a hit on its hands. Inspired by the Hummer H2 concept vehicle that appeared at the 2000 North American International Auto Show, the production H2 adopts the rugged characteristics of the original H1 military vehicle, especially in terms of exterior design, and gives them a user-friendly civilian spin. While the H1 is perfectly suited to carry combat troops in Afghanistan, the H2 is much better suited to taking the family to a foray on the local shopping mall. Still, GM claims that off-road, it is almost as fiercely utilitarian as its famous progenitors -- capable of traveling through streams 20 inches deep, climbing 16-inch steps and rocks, paddling through deep sand, and outdistancing competitors in high-speed desert pre-runs. None of which you will likely encounter on your way to Target or Sam's Club, but so what?

Lincoln Continental Concept 2002

Lincoln is trying to collect and clone its styling DNA, and the first result of this new effort led by chief designer Gerry McGovern is the slab-sided Continental 2002 Concept. The concept vehicle does echo the look of the Continental Mark II and the early '60s Town Car with its high beltline, short windows, and "suicide" rear doors, but we wish we could agree with McGovern that it is a thoroughly modern execution. It seems to us the concept is half-retro, half-reach-out, and neither era is well-served by that fence-sitting stance. (Another, even more appalling example of this is the new Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible that features a targa bar. A targa bar on a Forties throwback? Come on!) While the exterior failed to leave us breathless, we did warm up to the interior, which, like the Mark II before it, seats but four people in a immense amount of space. Now that's luxury, American-style! Truer than the red, white and blue.

Dressing Up Is Big Business

Looking good is the best revenge. At least that's what millions of Americans seem to think when it comes to their personal chariots. From car jewelry (gold kits) to facelifts (custom body panels) to makeup (custom paint), U.S. vehicle owners like to keep their rides looking fresh, fancy and fun-loving. You see customized vehicles everywhere these days from little import coupes with giant wings tacked on the rear to giant SUVs with running boards applied under the rocker panels. Altering passenger vehicles has become big business, but how big? The answer may surprise you.

Americans paid $24.86 billion for products to accessorize their cars and trucks last year, according to the latest research reported by SEMA, the Special Equipment Market Association. This amount is more than Americans spent on golf and golf equipment in 2000, and a lot more than they paid to see the movie version of "Pearl Harbor." It reflects a seven percent increase from the $23.24 billion consumers spent to customize their vehicles in 1999.

The specialty equipment market has grown every year since 1988, except for 1991 when the aftermath of the Gulf War included a 3.7 percent dip in custom auto parts and equipment sales. Except for 1991, the growth in the accessories market has been higher than the growth in both disposable income and the gross domestic product (GDP) for the past decade. Clearly, something is afoot here. But just what are Americans spending their hard-earned auto aftermarket dollars on these days?

Glad you asked. Exterior and interior appearance accessories such as sun roofs and wood dash kits take the largest share of the market, at 55.6 percent ($13.8 billion). Wheels, tires, and suspension products account for 24.5 percent of the market, at $6.0 billion, while racing and performance parts had retail sales of $5.0 billion (21.2 percent of the market).

"Appearance accessories sales continue to grow healthily," said Jim Spoonhower, SEMA vice president of market research. "Products for trucks dominate the accessory market, with domestic truck products taking 65 percent of the segment and import trucks taking 10 percent. That means that three out of four dollars spent on accessories are spent for truck, van, and SUV accessories."

Some of the most popular truck accessories are trailer hitches, bedliners, hood and side window deflectors, rear sliding windows, and toolboxes, according to the latest SEMA consumer survey. Other popular truck accessories include several items to give sport utility vehicles even more utility, things like roof racks, bicycle carriers and running boards.

But, wait, there's more. This year's SEMA Show, which concluded its run in November, offered these new products to add to your automotive wish list:

Indiglo Sport Pedals are "racing-look" pedal covers that actually feature neon inside. The pedals, which can be turned on for special effect at night, are available for both automatic and stickshift vehicles in nine exotic colors and in satin, chrome or black pedal finishes. Retail: from $64.99 to $79.99.

The Liberator plugs into a vehicle's power point (cigarette lighter socket) and automatically records tax-deductible miles, so you don't have to keep a notebook in your car to write things down each time you drive for work. Once logged, you can download the data and use the PC software to print IRS-approved forms for tax deductions. The Liberator also automatically tracks traffic conditions through an RBDS radio connection and provides traffic information specific to your route. When there's a problem ahead, it provides an alert and suggests alternate routes and their current conditions.

If clutter covers your passenger seat, think about StufStop. It's like a seat belt for your stuff. The neoprene-style fabric restraint fits any bucket seat and secures around the back with Velcro. And unlike many organizer options, it doesn't have to be removed when a passenger climbs aboard; someone can sit comfortably in a seat with the StufStop in place, without the stuff in it, of course. Retail price is $22.95.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini buys a bunch of automotive stuff for Christmas. It drives his wife crazy, but many people think she was crazy just for marrying him.

Big Boys' Toys

Maybe you always wanted a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL or a 1955 Ford Thunderbird or. my personal favorite, a 1962 Corvette. But when you salivated over these cars and hundreds of others as a child, the money in your piggybank made owning one of these beauties a far-off dream.

Now you're 20 (okay 30) years older, and you're still mooning over your dream car. But when you check your piggybank these days, owning one of these beauties is still a far-off dream. After all, the baby needs a new pair of shoes, your daughters need ballet lessons, and the family needs a big sport utility vehicle to schlep from one costly activity to the next. However, there is hope for those of us bucks-challenged car aficionados who long to have a collection but can't swing the cash to emulate Jay Leno or David Letterman. The answer? Die-cast model cars.

"Aren't model cars just for kids?" you may reply. Not these days, fella. Sure, die-cast cars from Hot Wheels, Johnny Lightning and Matchbox are still great low-cost toys for children, but the real heat in the die-cast business today is driven by adults. After all, there are millions of us out there who owned some of these die-cast cars as kids, but it always seemed like some rich kid down the block had a lot more of them than we did. Now, for a relatively modest investment, we can own a set of model cars that would make that snotty rich kid (who is probably in rehab these days) green with envy.

In fact, the same mentality that is driving the resurgence in hot rods and muscle cars is behind the big surge in die-cast cars. The market has responded to the desires of aging Baby Boomers with a wide variety of models that offer something for just about every car collecting taste. In addition, die-cast models seem to get more elaborate and more expensive every year, but there are still plenty of great low-priced die-casts to choose from.

Do you like exotic cars? A Ferrari 550 Maranello will set you back $213,990, but a die-cast Hot Wheels version of the car will dent your wallet just $24.99. Are you a NASCAR fan? A real-life Winston Cup race car could cost up to $100,000, but highly detailed 1/24th-scale versions will cost you just $49.99 a pop. Do you have a hankering for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? Instead of getting on a wait list for the privilege of shelling out $10,000 or so, you can get a pretty slick 1/10th scale softail for $24.99.

While single die-cast models are extremely popular, special sets are also gaining incredible steam as great gifts. How about a "Drive-In Collection" that includes a '49 Mercury, '50 Buick, and '32 Ford Deuce Coupe? Who could say no to the "50th Anniversary of Porsche" set complete with 550 Roadster, 930 Turbo, 917 GT racecar, and Boxster? If you want hot rods, street rods, stock domestic classics, upscale foreign makes, or even magazine-themed sets, they are all waiting for your order.

My personal favorite is the Johnny Lightning "Rock & Rollers" collection that includes 1/64th-scale models of Pontiac GTO, Ford Mustang, Ford Thunderbird, "Woody" wagon, Ford '32 Coupe hot rod, and a Shelby Cobra plus individual CD singles of the songs that made those cars famous. (Classic tunes like "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surf City," and "Hey Little Cobra.") Quite a parlay for just $39.99. (Okay, I admit it. I bought one online this morning.)

Richard Adkins has become the guru of grown-up model collecting, and a wide variety of die-cast cars are available in his catalog and on his Web site adkinsstore. Other sources for die-cast models include Hemmings Motor News, the Franklin Mint, and The Sharper Image.

Face it, guys, most wives would rather put up with a couple dozen die-cast models in the den than a multi-thousand-dollar project car in the garage.

Jack R. Nerad has been collecting die-cast cars since he built a Duesenberg SJ model as a 10-year old. His life hasn't been the same since.

Getting Value for your Automotive Dollar

Whether you pay a lot or a little, you can still have a satisfying vehicle ownership experience. That is a key lesson to be learned from a recent study conducted by San Diego-based Strategic Vision. According to the research firm, value is not just a series of economic analyses but is also in the eye of the beholder, and value is something Strategic Vision tries to isolate in its Total Value Index (TVI). Long-term economic benefits plus strong quality in the overall ownership experience equate to overall value. The good news is, whether you are ready to pay luxury car prices or must be content with an economy-car budget, you can find vehicle satisfaction.

In examining the findings, one key result seems obvious, while another is a surprise. Few would be shocked to learn that Toyota's Lexus luxury brand copped the top spot as the Top Value brand overall (with a score of 752.) Many, however, would express some surprise that the number two brand wasn't Infiniti or Saturn or Acura, but instead was Korean carmaker Hyundai (at 747.)

"Hyundai can now legitimately tout its value," said Daniel Gorrell, Strategic Vision automotive vice president, "with a strong ownership experience offered at a great price and with a great warranty."

Fellow Korean automaker Kia, which added a similar 10-year warranty of its own in mid-2000, was the most improved brand in the survey. Among manufacturers, Toyota was the big winner with six of its vehicles (one in a tie), leading their segments. Toyota dominated the truck categories, especially the large SUV and compact and full-size pick-up categories, long the domain of the domestic manufacturers. For the Toyota Sequoia, Tacoma and Tundra, durability, perceived future trade-in value and reliability were well above the segment average. In addition the Toyota 4Runner tied for top honors in the mid-size SUV category, and the Lexus RX 300 won top honors in the luxury SUV segment. Also of note was the strong showing of the Prius, Toyota's electric/gasoline hybrid. Buyers gave it high scores for warranty, technological innovations, fuel economy and economical ownership.

"The rest of the story is the satisfaction owners feel in driving an ecologically friendly vehicle that gets good gas mileage without compromising convenience or performance," Gorrell said.

Strategic Vision calculates TVI by assessing both short-term economic issues (value for the money, affordability, price/deal offered, technological innovations and standard equipment level) and long-term issues (durability, future trade-in, warranty, mileage, economical to own and reliability). These factor scores are then added to numbers measuring the total perceived ownership experience. More than 81,000 buyers rated the vehicles after 90 days of ownership.

"You have to look at the quality of the overall ownership experience when you measure value," said Gorrell. "Price alone tells you little. Instead, you have to look at what people get for the money. Luxury vehicles, for example, score well in Total Value because of high resale values."

The following are Strategic Vision's picks as the best values in their individual segments, with their scores:

Small CarToyota Prius778
Compact CarSaturn LS Sedan/Volkswagen Jetta (tie)751
Mid-Size CarInfiniti G20780
Larger CarChrysler LHS693
Small SpecialtyVolkswagen New Beetle782
Mid-Specialty CarHonda Accord Coupe748
Near-Luxury CarVolvo S60757
Luxury CarMercedes Benz E-Class767
ConvertibleToyota MR2 Spyder761
MinivanHonda Odyssey651
Small SUVHyundai Santa Fe753
Mid-Size SUVLand Rover Discovery II /Toyota 4Runner (tie)665
Large SUVToyota Sequoia698
Luxury SUVLexus RX 300757
Compact PickupToyota Tacoma677
Full-Size PickupToyota Tundra689

A world traveler, Tom Ripley keeps close tabs on the global automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.

What's Your Honesty Quotient?

Being honest is like being pregnant; either you are or you aren't. But a new study has discovered that a high percentage of Americans believe in situational ethics. In other words, they view some crimes more negatively than others, and seem willing to commit crimes if they have the assurance they won't get caught. While we wouldn't equate murder with jaywalking, it is troubling that many citizens find that committing some crimes is okay, especially crimes that cost all of us tons of money.

These crimes are wide ranging -- from stealing cable television to running tollbooths to committing insurance fraud. To better understand how insurance fraud compares to other indiscretions, Progressive Insurance conducted a telephone survey of more than 31,000 Americans in May and June. The survey asked respondents not only how likely they would be to commit a variety of crimes if they knew they would not be caught, but also whether they would report someone they knew who had committed fraud.

The results indicate that while most respondents say they are honest, a large percentage are willing to cheat and commit crimes that cost the rest of us far more money than we probably realize. According to the survey, nine percent of all respondents -- that's nearly one in every 10 of us -- said they would commit insurance fraud if they knew they would not be caught. With that as part of the American mindset, it is no wonder the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) estimates that all Americans pay $200 to $300 in increased insurance premiums each year just to cover the cost of insurance fraud.

And it's not only insurance fraud that respondents admitted being willing to commit. The survey also found that 13 percent of respondents admit they would steal cable television. Another 13 percent would inflate accomplishments on a resume. Some 12 percent would park in a space designated for a handicapped driver, and nine percent would drive through a tollbooth without paying. Finally, seven percent would take tax deductions they weren't entitled to.

While a few of the felonies and misdemeanors some Americans say they are willing to commit are penny-ante in terms of dollar cost, insurance fraud, which includes a wide variety of auto-related scams, has a huge financial cost. Tom Kaschalk, head of Progressive's national special investigations unit, said insurance fraud costs the American public more than $20 billion each year. It is the second most costly white-collar crime in America, behind only tax evasion. Worst of all, it's the honest consumer who's paying for the crimes others commit against insurance companies.

"People need to be aware of fraud, be willing to report it when they suspect it, and be willing to get involved to stop it," Kaschalk said.

Getting people to report fraud might be a tougher issue than you might imagine. The survey found that when it comes to reporting fraud, 29 percent of respondents said they would never report insurance fraud committed by someone they knew. In this area, however, it seems that money talks. Respondents throughout the US are four times more likely to say they would report someone if there was a monetary reward of up to $500 than if there was a reward of only $250.

Additionally, six percent of respondents would report fraud only if they didn't like the person who committed it. Key takeaway here: if you're going to commit fraud, make sure you're well-liked. More to the point: if you are concerned about the cost of auto insurance, consider the fact that fraud costs each of us honest consumers a couple C-notes a year. It is important to remember that car insurance fraud isn't a victimless crime, just because it seems a big insurance company takes the financial hit. The truth is, we all do. And please don't park in that handicapped space, either.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini, who writes on automotive issues, claims to be an honest man. He frequently contributes to Driving Today and other publications.