Auto show opens with nearly 500 models

A chance to sit in seat of latest car or the most retro

January 18, 2001|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Amidst the crowd busy opening doors, peeking under hoods and sliding behind steering wheels, Marvin Dunham stood alone, eyeing the 2002 Jeep Liberty.

He's looking for a car. His was stolen last month, just before Christmas. Its fire-ravaged body was found days later.

So Dunham came to the Motor Trend International Auto Show yesterday afternoon at the Baltimore Convention Center to see the latest offerings from 38 manufacturers.

"What do I think about the Liberty?" said Dunham, 53, a post office worker in Baltimore. "I'd like to drive it out of here, except it doesn't have any license plates," he said, laughing.

Dunham was among the hundreds of show-goers who flocked into the convention center yesterday for the Motor Trend International Auto Show. The show features nearly 500 automobiles, both foreign and domestic, spread across nearly 290,000 square feet on two levels.

For car shoppers and auto enthusiasts, the show is a chance to learn about the latest models, and offers an opportunity to sit behind the wheel of hundreds of automobiles without feeling the sales pressure in a typical dealership environment.

None of the cars, trucks, minivans and sports utility vehicles can be bought at the show.

At the Chevrolet display, a trio of performers danced and crooned popular Motown songs on a stage in front of Chevy's newest truck, the 2002 Avalanche - a combination pickup truck-SUV that comes with four full-size doors.

Perhaps the most anticipated vehicle at the show, which lasts until Sunday, is the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, a two-seater that harkens back to its sporty ancestor of the 1950s. Its display won Motor Trend magazine's "best of show" at the convention center.

Its price? About $35,000. Ford plans to make about 25,000 a year, and the first ones will be delivered this May, said Mike Moran, a Ford spokesman.

"I think it's gorgeous," said Ben Nathanson, 32, a credit analyst who was at the show with his father. "I think they probably had it designed five years ago but they had to wait to retire the other Thunderbird."

His father, Carl, liked the Thunderbird, but added: "That's nothing special anymore after seeing the new Jaguar."

Sport utility vehicles were also among the bigger draws yesterday. Several automakers, including Saturn and Acura, introduced their first SUVs, a still-growing automobile segment, despite public concerns over rollover accidents and fuel economy.

"SUVs are really no more than traditional American station wagons," said Rex Parker, vice president of AutoPacific Inc., a California automotive market consultant group.

He added, however, that SUVs are evolving rapidly and automakers are stretching the definition with hybrid vehicles.

The Jeep Liberty will replace the long-running Cherokee next year, and will be priced in the mid-$20,000 range, according to Lloyd Haak, general manager of Adams Jeep, Inc. of Aberdeen.

Another SUV already on the market that pulled in onlookers was the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, a hybrid SUV loaded with gadgets and options, with a base price of about $23,000.

The cargo area has stereo controls for tailgate parties; a tent that can be attached to the back for outdoor expeditions, and a built-in air compressor.

"Look at all their attention to detail," said Stan Keasel, a 62-year-old retiree, as he pulled at some of the Aztek's storage compartments and thumbed the stereo controls in the rear cargo area. He came to the show with his wife, Jill.

"Within a year or two we'll probably trade in our minivan for something else," she said. "We don't know what yet."

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