His mind says pay bills, but his heart says red sports car

February 12, 2005|By ROB KASPER

A SPORTS CAR filled with champagne is what I want for Valentine's Day.

It is not gonna happen, for a variety of reasons. First of all, this is not a big holiday for guys. Primarily we are the givers of gifts on Valentine's Day, not the receivers. Then there is the issue of my station in life, a situation that can best be explained with the following example.

Thursday afternoon I am sitting in a gorgeous red convertible, a two-seater Audi TT Roadster, one of the many shimmering beauties stretched out on the floor of the Baltimore Convention Center this weekend for the 2005 Motor Trend International Auto Show. The leather seats are supple, the hood glistens. It is a pocket of unmitigated personal pleasure, an island of testosterone.

I envision myself tooling around town in this pricey indulgence, gliding along Falls Road on a gorgeous spring day. Then disturbing thoughts begin to flash in my head. What about the kid's college tuition? What about the bills from the planned kitchen renovation? I try to convince myself that I could outrun my creditors in the Roadster. But I know better. Reluctantly, I haul myself out of the sports car and shuffle toward the station wagons.

Auto shows intrigue me. Cars are made to move, yet they remain stiff as statues at auto shows. At best they rotate on a platform. What I spend a lot of time doing at auto shows is just sitting in cars, eyeballing them, gathering data and dreaming.

I only last a few hours. Auto shows can be stifling. You are trapped indoors, it is loud, and on the weekends there are big crowds. You end up standing in line to get the chance to sit in the back seat of a new Lexus and fiddle with the privacy screen.

This is a fabric you attach to the back window to keep the adoring masses from peering in at you. New luxury cars have them. Not being accustomed to fending off adoring masses, I thought this mesh screen was something you used to keep bugs out when the window was open.

Some of the fancier rides, a stately 2006 model Infiniti M for example, are treated like royalty at the auto show, visions to be viewed only at a distance or through locked doors. Other cars had their "collectibles " -- gearshift knobs and distinctive dials -- already removed so auto show visitors would not be tempted to pocket them.

The appeal of an auto show is that it is an easy way to scan the American auto scene. You can walk from the Fords to the Chevrolets to the Volvos, genuflect in front of the Jaguars, and not be pestered by car salesmen.

The two salesmen that I bumped into Thursday, Mike Cramer of Frankel Acura in Cockeysville and Calvin Mullineaux of Tate Dodge in Glen Burnie, were low-key. Cramer told me auto shows generate more leads than on-the-spot sales, but suggested I at least sit in the nearby black, leather-clad Acura TSX. Mullineaux lifted up the tailgate of a new Dodge Magnum wagon to show me where the engineers had tucked the battery, which he said helped evenly distribute weight. This could give a tow-truck operator pause, I thought, if you ever needed a jump.

I sat in several Chrysler 300s. The lines of these sedans either strike you as stunning -- the opinion voiced by a fellow who sat in one with me -- or you think they look like tanks, which was the opinion of the fellow's wife, who refused to get in and give the car a try. I noticed that the Chrysler 300 had a prominent grille, as did the Ford Five Hundred. Maybe, I thought, this is the year of the "big smile" for sedans.

I also looked at numbers associated with the cars. When I was younger, and free of family responsibilities, the numbers that interested me dealt with horsepower and the size of the engine. Now I look at the size of the back seat (the Toyota Avalon has a good one), the estimated miles per gallon (60 mph for Toyota's Prius) and the sticker price. For my red Audi Roadster, it was $37,805. That kind of money could easily fix the crumbling basement wall, or the cracks in the skylights, or put new linings in the old chimneys.

But I told myself I can't think like that, at least not on a weekend when an auto show is in town and Valentine's Day is fast approaching. Fantasy lives.

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