The future of cars


The Holden Efijy concept is displayed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007. On many concepts and production cars, designers have raised the top of the doors, or the "beltline," in automotive jargon, reducing the window size. It's clearly a trend that will be more pronounced in the future, and you can see it in concept vehicles such as Volvo's XC-60 crossover, Chrysler's Nassau sedan and the sleek but retro Efijy.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 11:32 p.m.

Higher door lines and more glass in the roof. Sleek, low hood lines with big chrome grilles. Functional interiors, including houselike lighting and a van with seats on two sides of a table.

Facts

Hot trends

  • Coming this year: Chrysler's new minivans and replacements for the Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu midsized cars.
  • In the future: Higher doors and less side glass were the main theme.
  • Far out, but possible: The Chevrolet Volt electric car, which plugs into a home outlet to recharge its battery.
Hot trends spotted at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which held its media preview days this week: COMING THIS YEAR: Chrysler's new minivans, with second-row seats that swivel and face the third row, with a table in-between. Replacements for the Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu mid-sized cars. More cars with homelike interior lighting. IN THE FUTURE: Higher doors and less side glass were the main theme of nearly all concept cars such as the Volvo XC60 crossover and Lincoln MKR. More glass roofs that open to the sky. FAR OUT, BUT POSSIBLE: The Chevrolet Volt electric car, which plugs into a home outlet to recharge its battery. Has a small gasoline engine that recharges batteries and powers the electric motor when the batteries run low. Car has a range of 40 miles on the battery and more than 600 miles with the gas engine.

That's what the cars and trucks you'll be driving soon will look like, as seen at the North American International Auto Show.

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.

If GM or another automaker is successful in overcoming battery technology hurdles, something like the 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 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. 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 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.

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