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2002 North American Int'l Auto Show Review

by John D. Stoll

In year's past, I have spent endless hours trolling the floor of Detroit's North American International Auto Show sniffing for news. Interviews, sound bites, photo ops, new technologies, and innovative concepts. If Jacques Nasser, former Ford CEO, sneezed, I wrote about it.

This year, Jacques Nasser's gone and I have a newfound respect for the auto show experience thanks to an influx of cash and my need to spend it on a new car. With that in mind, I took one Sunday morning to walk the show floor and simply be a consumer, after living four full days immersed in the extravaganza of media preview days.

The result? I now have a list of vehicles I'd absolutely love to have, most of which I can't afford, but still would love to have. Unlike your average twenty-something male in the market these days, I'm not going for the two-seat, drop-top or the import compact fresh for tuning, dropping the suspension and a fresh set of sport wheels.

Rather, I'm looking for room to breathe and throw stuff. I'm looking for functionality and I'm looking for safety. And not safety of the standard dual-airbag sort. No, I'm looking for visibility, a drivetrain designed with snowy roads and bumpy back roads in mind, and brakes that get the hint immediately.

Of course, my new sled needs to come standard with style.
In the end, I found the experience to be a bit like a fishing outing. I netted a lot of ideas, but few were keepers. Still, make no mistake, there were keepers and here are some of the best:

2004 Nissan Quest
This is definitely a new, but welcome look for Nissan. In fact, this vehicle may initiate the comeback for which the minivan segment has been looking.

After teaming with Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury division for the better part of the 1990s to build its first generation Quest, Nissan adopted a totally new and independent strategy for the next version of its minivan. This version is very California in its approach, yet extremely minivan practical. The glasswork on this vehicle gives the driver and passengers the impression that we might be camping out in a greenhouse. It's larger than the current Quest and it's 20-inch wheels and forward sloping belt line make for an aggressive, almost bulldog demeanor.

When taken in as a whole, this minivan is actually elegant, if not outright sexy. From the front end, its uniquely clean grille combines smoothly with a keystone placed Nissan badge in its center. From the rear, the Quest resembles a sportiest of sport-utilities, save that annoying spare tire that you find in that class. As Nissan designer Alfonso Albaisa insists, this baby screams the very opposite of "soccer mom."

The Chevrolet Bel Air concept
General Motors' insiders are tipping the company's hand, saying that this sporty little retro six-seater is close to actually being produced. While GM, once again, seems to be late to the party when it comes to retro vehicles, the Bel Air would offer a lower-priced alternative for those in the market for Ford's 2002 Thunderbird, while maintaining a fiesta of 50's styling cues.

Ford's Thunderbird can demand more than $40,000 when fully loaded, partly because the rear-wheel drive vehicle sports the same V8 engine that is in the Lincoln LS luxury sedan. Chevy engineers slapped the Bel Air's body on the same platform as a pickup truck and put a five-cylinder engine in it. The bad news is that this vehicle won't drive as nice as the T-Bird. The good news is it that it can't possibly cost as much as the T-Bird.

2003 Ford Expedition
Ford has once again proven itself the king of the SUV market with its second generation Expedition. Unlike any sport-utility before it, the 2003 Expedition has a third row of seats that folds into the floor at the push of a button. In addition, Expedition is the first of the full-sized SUVs to be engineered with independent rear suspension. Ford engineers also lowered the floor of the vehicle nine inches so as to give more comfort to rear passengers. Styling-wise, this is a bit too much like its smaller brother, the Explorer, but I guess that's the point of having a family of SUVs such as Ford does. In fact, although Ford has signaled the death of its largest sport utility, the Excursion, in days to come, it will soon introduce a mini-SUV dubbed Fusion to the U.S. market to help boost sales.

Saab 9-3X concept car
Saab enthusiasts should just start praying now that Saab actually makes this car.
This coupe is an absolutely stunning alternative to everything else out there in its class and it is built with the grit and guts of your favorite sport-utility. Outfitted with all-wheel drive, a powerful V6 engine and a bit more ground clearance than a typical sports coupe, the 9-3X is capable of keeping even the most picky drivers occupied.
What's more, Saab has mastered a concept that automakers have been floating for a few years, orchestrating the look, feel and handling of a sports car with the capabilities of a sport-utility as only the Swedish maker could do. Thank you Saab.

Chrysler Pacifica and Mercedes-Benz Vision GST
Half a decade ago, a Chrysler and a Mercedes-Benz wouldn't have been uttered in the same breath, now the brands are sharing the same stage.

DaimlerChrysler used this year's show as a launch pad for a pair of vehicles it has dubbed "sports touring" cars. Both vehicles exhibit characteristics of no other car currently available in the United States. With two rows of captains chairs and a third row of bench seating, the Pacifica and Vision GST accommodate with the comfort of a minivan. But these vehicles are not minivans -- they are roomy all-wheel drive sedans.

Chrysler anticipates its Pacifica, to be priced near $25,000, to go on sale early next year at production volumes in excess of 100,000 units. Mercedes-Benz' version of the sport touring car, complete with suicide doors opening from the middle-on-out rather than the standard anterior hinge, will cost more and be aimed at luxury shoppers.

Land Rover Range Rover
In the 31 years that Land Rover has been selling its Range Rover to markets around the world, it has only redesigned the luxury sport-utility twice…that is, until this year.
Nevertheless, if you want to get your hands on - or your butt in - one of these mighty machines, you're going to have to pay around $70,000. That's because Land Rover believes it makes the world's highest quality sport-utilities for an elite clientele.

Yet, this isn't the same old Range Rover you've come to know and respect. This new generation of Range Rover is going after the luxury sedan market instead of just being a high-priced alternative to other large sport-utilities.
The strategy seems a bit odd for one of the most storied SUVs in the history of automobiles, but true. In fact, Land Rover has completely revamped this vehicle's interior as to make it into a roomy, airy, almost wilderness-like touring vehicle.

From a ride standpoint, Land Rover has worked to ensure the best possible handling it can offer. Air suspension is controlled electronically and the vehicle can be raised or lowered by switches within reach of the cupholders. Also, Land Rover is rolling out its first ever four-wheel independent suspension on the Range Rover so as to lighten any truck-like tendencies drivers might expect.

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