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AP Centerpiece: Auto show peeks into short, long-term future of transportation

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Posted: January 9, 2007 5:30 p.m.
Updated: January 24, 2007 5:00 a.m.
DETROIT — Higher door lines and more glass in the roof. Sleek, low hood lines with big chrome grilles. Functional interiors, including house-like lighting and a van with seats on two sides of a table.
    That’s what the cars and trucks you’ll be driving soon will look like, as seen at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
    But it’s the future that may be the most intriguing, with General Motors Corp.’s plug-in, rechargeable electric-powered Chevrolet Volt hogging a lot of attention during the show’s media preview days this week.
    Mike Jackson, chief executive of AutoNation, the country’s largest auto dealership group, was amazed at the Volt, saying that current hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles are merely a fuel-efficiency bridge between now and a practical electric car embraced by everyone.
    The Volt overcomes range, noise and power issues that plagued previous electric cars, Jackson said. It has a 40-mile range on batteries and a small gasoline engine that generates electricity to power the car and recharge the batteries when they’re depleted.
    If GM or another auto maker is successful in overcoming battery technology hurdles, something like the low-slung four or five-passenger Volt could show up in driveways across the globe. GM didn’t put any time frame on the Volt other than to say a new battery could be ready by 2010 or 2012.
    ‘‘I do think that it’s a very solid interim solution until we get a (hydrogen powered) fuel cell,’’ said Michael Robinet, vice president of global forecast services for Northville, Mich.-based CSM Worldwide, an auto industry consulting company.
    Between now and then, buyers will be treated to many more models that look, feel and perform better than their predecessors. In the popular mid-sized segment, Honda Motor Co. rolled out the 2008 Accord Coupe, which will look like its sister sedan, both due in showrooms this fall.
    They’ll fight it out against Chevrolet’s new Malibu, a car that many analysts say will finally give GM a model to take on Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry, the best-selling car in the U.S.
    In both the Accord and Malibu, designers have raised the top of the doors, or the ‘‘beltline,’’ in automotive jargon, reducing the window size. They did the same thing on the redesigned Ford Focus small car.
    ‘‘It gives the vehicle, I think, a very substantial look,’’ said Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of global design. ‘‘It allows you to do a long, uninterrupted line’’ along the side, he said.
    It’s clearly a trend that will be more pronounced in the future. You can see it in concept vehicles such as Volvo’s XC60 crossover, Chrysler’s Nassau sedan that may be the next generation 300, the Lincoln MKR and even the sculpted but retro Holden Efijy from GM.
    In many cases, the high doors are coupled with a roof made mostly of glass, which Welburn said makes a car feel more open even with smaller side windows.
    Glass technology has evolved so it’s as strong as steel roofs, Welburn said.
    Designers also are lowering the slope of the windshield to give cars a lower feel. Even Jeep, which normally has a more boxy look, had the angular windshield and high door line in its Trailhawk concept.
    Robinet said the higher doors give people a feeling of safety, too, but conversely, the smaller windows and lower windshield angle can cut into a driver’s vision.
    Chrysler’s new minivans are among the few new models that don’t look more modern. But Robinet sees the minivans as a big seller mainly for their interiors, which have more head and shoulder room than previous models because they are boxier on the outside.
    ‘‘I think the exterior’s not going to win them any design awards,’’ Robinet said.
    Key to the interior of DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan minivans is the ‘‘Swivel n’ Go’’ seating in which the second-row seats swivel backward to face the third row. A table can be snapped between the rows so families can play games, do homework or whatever.
    The vans also have two rows of soft, white light tubes on the ceiling to make the passenger area feel like a home. Other vehicles, such as Ford Motor Co.’s Focus and several of Toyota’s Scion models also have more homelike lighting with colored LEDs in the floor and cupholders.
    Robinet sees the lighting as a trend that will stick around until the concepts become reality.
    ‘‘The days of just having a dome lamp are probably finished,’’ he said.
    ———
    On the Net:
    Chrysler Group: http://www.chrysler.com
    General Motors Corp. http://www.gm.com
    Ford Motor Co.: http://www.ford.com
    Toyota Motor Corp.: http://www.toyota.com
    Honda Motor Co.: http://www.honda.com
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