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Car Makers Wax Youthful

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In new cars and concept vehicles ranging from entry-level subcompacts to luxury sport-utilities, auto makers appear to be reaching for younger buyers who have been forced out of the new-car market by escalating prices.

DaimlerChrysler is unveiling its new design for the 2000 model of the inexpensive Neon at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show and providing a glimpse for journalists of the world’s first prototype of an electric-powered sport-utility vehicle, the Jeep Commander.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co.'s Mercury unit, headquartered in Irvine, showed the media on Wednesday a high-performance concept car based on its popular 1999 Cougar. The Mercury Cougar S concept would introduce four-wheel drive to the once-staid car maker’s U.S. lineup, though not in a traditional sport-utility vehicle.

Built on Ford’s European Mondeo all-wheel-drive platform, the Cougar S features a beefy, supercharged 3-liter V-6, 18-inch wheels and tires, sport seats, bulging fender flares and racier front and rear treatments than the production Cougar.

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More important, it is the first of the Mercury products to be tweaked by Ford’s hot new design chief, J. Mays, whose stylings for Audi and Volkswagen gave birth to VW’s popular New Beetle.

The already sporty Cougar coupe has “revitalized” the once-staid Mercury lineup, Mays said, with 60% of customers test-driving the compact coupe saying they had never previously considered a Mercury.

The Cougar S, if put into production, would be aimed squarely at the under-35 performance car enthusiast, Ford executives say.

Ford earlier unveiled its own candidate for a youth market car--a high-performance version of the European-market Focus that will hit U.S. shores next year. The subcompact, which features the curves and sharp creases of Ford’s “new edge” design, was tuned by the company’s newest acquisition, Britain’s Cosworth Racing.

Ford officials made no effort to staunch speculation that the performance Focus is a likely candidate for full-scale production. Mays even called the car an effort by Ford to “take aim at Honda,” whose cars are the predominant choice of youthful enthusiasts who add custom and performance touches to create today’s version of the hot rod.

Mays said that none of the concepts being shown by Ford and its divisions at the L.A. and Detroit car shows this year are the pure concepts that once dominated the show circuit--hand-built cars that spotlighted futuristic ideas but rarely were intended to be seen on dealers’ showroom floors.

“There’s nothing so far out,” said Mays, “that it cannot be in production within the next two years.”

It was in another of the concept unveilings before the L.A. show, which opens to the public on Saturday, that Chrysler took the wraps off its experimental electric-powered sport-utility, the Jeep Commander.

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The vehicle won’t be shown to the public in Los Angeles--Chrysler is reserving it for the big Detroit show that starts next week--but the media preview revealed it as a massive version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee--taller, longer and a full eight inches wider.

The Commander grabbed attention Wednesday, partly for features such as a molded plastic body and adjustable ride height, and also because of Chrysler’s inability to get its revolutionary gasoline-powered fuel cell to work in time for the Los Angeles preview.

Chrysler officials say that the fuel cell, which produces electricity from hydrogen, will be working in a few months. In the interim, it installed a rack of lead-acid batteries in the Commander to supply power to the twin electric motors that turn the front and rear wheels.

“The system works on simple hydrocarbons, but we haven’t yet made it work on gasoline,” said Bernard Robertson, Chrysler’s vice president for engineering technologies.

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The unveiling of the Commander came as part of an extravagant media preview at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios, more reminiscent of the hype and bombast that accompanies new-car introductions at the Detroit auto show than of the usually staid presentations that precede the L.A. event.

Chrysler also debuted two small players in its production lineup--the redesigned 2000 models of the Dodge and Plymouth Neon twins.

The tamer Neons, whose new styling borrows from the mid-size Dodge Stratus-Chrysler Cirrus twins, are aimed at young, entry-level buyers and are considered critical by Chrysler because they compete in a market segment that will account for almost a third of all cars sold in the U.S. by 2000.

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Times staff writer Elaine Zinngrabe contributed to this report.

* SHOW TIME: The L.A. auto show opens Saturday. Highway 1 section, W1


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