Motor Trend Auto Show purrs into downtown again

Temptation: It's on wheels and beckoning to prospective buyers at the auto show.

February 06, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

You've never seen a Lincoln Continental quite like this -- with lounge-chair inspired seats, built-in laptop tables, a drink dispenser and cigar humidors in rear door compartments. And you won't find this model in any dealer's showroom.

But auto enthusiasts will find this "dream" Continental and other "concept" cars -- such as the retro convertible Chevrolet Bel Air and the SUV and truck hybrid Dodge Powerbox -- at the 2003 Motor Trend International Auto Show, opening today in Baltimore.

Besides showcasing manufacturers' ideas for the future, the auto show at the Baltimore Convention Center will give anyone in the market for a car a chance to check out new models from nearly every manufacturer without having to drive around town to see them, the show's organizers say.

Typically, more than half the people who come to the four-day show are actively shopping for a new car, said Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association.

"You can't buy a car there, but you can see 10 manufacturers inside of an hour and talk to the salesmen or product people," as well as sit behind the wheel or check out engines and trunk space, Kitzmiller said. "You can do the same thing driving around town, but this compresses it."

The show, back for its third year in downtown Baltimore after a stint at the Timonium Fairgrounds, features more than 400 new cars, trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles from 34 domestic and import manufacturers.

"It's a nonpressure environment," said Lauren Holzman, a show spokeswoman. "You can really gather great information without feeling pressured."

One of the biggest trends for the 2003 model year has been the blurring of lines between vehicle categories, Kitzmiller said.

"What the trend seems to be is a hybrid or crossover between a car and SUV, not as big as an SUV but not the same as a traditional car," he said.

Show-goers will find Volvo's first SUV, the Volvo XC90, chosen Motor Trend's "2003 Sport/Utility of the Year"; the Nissan 350Z, a new version of the well-known '80s car; and the Honda Element, an SUV with water-resistant seats that can carry two mountain bikes and a surfboard.

Other 2003 models include the BMW Z4, the Hummer H2 and Volkswagen's New Beetle Convertible.

The show will also offer a peek at some 2004 models not yet in dealers' showrooms, such as the Ford F-150, a redesign of the country's best-selling truck going into production this summer, the two-seat convertible Cadillac XLR and the crossover vehicle Mitsubishi Endeavor.

The concept cars, which serve as test beds for new design and technology, are also expected to draw big crowds.

One of those is the Chevrolet Bel Air, which takes elements of retro design from its 1955 namesake.

Concept cars are produced to show the direction of technology and styling, Kitzmiller said.

"But sometimes a concept vehicle will be so popular when they introduce it at a show and get so much demand that [manufacturers] end up building a vehicle similar to that," he said.

For the really big spenders -- or big dreamers -- both Ferrari and Maserati will display exotic cars, including the $226,000 Ferrari 575M Maranello. (Just don't expect to sit behind the wheel.)

The show will run from noon to 10 p.m. today, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for senior citizens on Thursday and Friday only, $4 for children and free for children 6 and younger.

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