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Published: Friday, 1/10/2003

Wagons are (auto) show stopper

The Dodge Durango RT on display at the North American International Auto Show. The Dodge Durango RT on display at the North American International Auto Show.

DETROIT - At this year's North American International Auto Show, wagons are like noses: everybody has one. Even Italian performance-car specialist Maserati, sort of.

The wagons are part of a main theme from automakers exhibiting at the 2003 show in Detroit: adaptable transportation with the comforts of a sedan and the capacities of a truck.

The presence of the Maserati concept, called the Kubang, speaks to wagons' depth of appeal. Production models from the entry-level Focus (which is called a five-door) from Ford Motor Co. to the mid-priced Saturn from General Motors Corp. to the upscale versions from Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and the Mercedes division of DaimlerChrysler are on view starting Saturday at Cobo Center.

Indeed, the vehicles picked by automotive journalists as the North American Car and Truck of the Year - the Mini Cooper and Volvo XC90 - could be classified as wagons: Each has a rear hatch door and rear seat that folds down for cargo-hauling.

Some of the wagons are called sport-utility vehicles, a segment that remains among the darlings of the world's automakers. Jeeps - the Toledo-made Liberty and Wrangler and their Detroit-produced cousin the Grand Cherokee - have prominent spots above floor level in the Chrysler exhibit, evidence of their maker's pride in the famous name.

SUVs in multiple sizes and in both new and established models are front and center at the GM and Ford exhibits as well.

Cadillac has added a second SUV offering, the SRX, with a sculpted front end derived from its strong-selling CTS sedan. Lincoln is showing its Aviator, a luxury version of the Ford Expedition and Mercury Mountaineer. Dodge has tweaked its Durango into a larger version powered by a Hemi engine.

Practicality is such a watchword that Lincoln is exhibiting a concept vehicle it calls the Navicross. Neither a sport coupe, sport sedan, nor SUV, it possesses capabilities of all three, with a rear hatch door and pillarless interior access via rear-hinged rear doors. It also has a cushy leather interior.

Minivans, once the height of do-everything transportation, mostly have been relegated to fringes of exhibits, except at Nissan, which is introducing its redesigned Quest, to go on sale this year as a 2004 model. Innovations include second-row seats that fold into the floor at the same level as the folded-flat third-row seats (for hauling a 4-by-8-sheet of wallboard or paneling) and an unusual center-mounted oval control cluster that houses the gearshift.

As does any Detroit auto show, this one has some stop-dead-and-gape sights. A sampling of the people-magnets:

wThe pre-production Ford Mustang, a swaggering rear-drive sports car that is both up to the minute and deferential to its iconic roots.

wThe Cadillac Sixteen, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz's 16-cylinder super-luxury baby that, if produced, would cost about $250,000.

wHonda's Studio E, its Element all-activity vehicle turned into an entertainment center, with a flat plasma video screen on its windowless side panel.

wGM's Cheyenne pickup-truck concept with side gates in the bed near the back of the cab.

wDaimlerChrysler's Maybach 62 limousine, nearly 20 feet long and with rear doors more than four feet wide and housing pleasant touches such as little burled-wood cabinets built into the back seat, a champagne-bottle holder on the rear floor, and a privacy curtain on the rear window. The car, however, will be roped off and locked.

wThe Dodge Tomahawk motorcycle,two pairs of wheels, one at each end of a 10-cylinder Dodge Viper engine.

This 1,500-pound screamer can reach 60 miles an hour in about 2.5 seconds and has a theoretical top speed of more than 400 mph.

A final note: Visitors should pay attention to the floor as they walk. Exhibits are at various elevations, usually navigated via subtle ramps.

But some aren't so subtle, and some are abrupt drop-offs. They can easily send the unwary crumpling to the floor.

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