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Cars Take Center Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Greater Los Angeles Auto Show begins its 94th running Saturday with one of its broadest programs ever, a tribute to organizers’ efforts to reinvent the huge show after being eclipsed for several years by the glitz and glitter of the domestic car industry’s hometown blowout, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Bolstered by the move to Irvine this year of Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Mercury division, the Los Angeles show will offer world premieres of several noteworthy concept and production vehicles, as well as the North American debuts of a number of cars and trucks previously shown only in Europe or Asia.

Among the stars coming to the Los Angeles Convention Center: the international unveilings of the long-rumored Lincoln Blackwood, a wood-sided, four-door luxury pickup-type truck concept; Honda Motor Co.'s much-anticipated S2000 roadster, a 240-horsepower bomb expected to bridge the price gap between the $20,000 Mazda Miata and Porsche’s $40,000 Boxster; and the redesigned Dodge and Plymouth Neons that will arrive in dealer showrooms next year as 2000 models.

Nissan Motor Co., searching for a hit after a string of so-so designs has driven customers from its dealers’ doors, will take the wraps off its 1999 four-door Frontier pickup and its redesigned 1999 1/2 Pathfinder sport-utility vehicle. Nissan also will display for show goers’ amusement and, it hopes, amazement, the Hypermini--a concept for the two-seat commuter car of tomorrow.

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Ford unveils the Cosworth Focus concept car, a high-performance version of the new Focus world car, scheduled to arrive here next year. It also provides an example of its newfound design and manufacturing flexibility with North American premieres of fraternal twin sedans from its American and European luxury nameplates, Lincoln and Jaguar. The cars, both 2000 models, are the Lincoln LS and the Jaguar S-Type. And though they share the same platform (the basic frame and mechanical underpinnings), the cars are as dissimilar in appearance and purpose as Tony Bennett and Sean Connery.

The Los Angeles show isn’t just a showcase for new production models and designers’ dreams.

It has become a critical player in the drive to promote alternatives to the internal-combustion engine. The show will display models of every electric and hybrid-powered vehicle being marketed by the major car companies, from General Motors Corp.'s pace-setting EV1 to Toyota Motor Corp.'s new Prius--a compact sedan that combines a small gasoline engine and an electric power plant to combine real-world acceleration and travel range with minimal exhaust emissions and fuel economy of about 70 miles a gallon.

Consumers who visit the show’s automotive aftermarket display during the nine-day run also will see why Los Angeles, the single largest car market in the world, is the hub of the hot-rod, performance and custom-car industries.

“Sometimes manufacturers pick other shows, in places like Detroit or Tokyo, to debut their products for political or logistics reasons, but this is the show in the town where public enthusiasm for cars is greater than anywhere else, and our attendance bears that out,” said Fred Miller, chairman of Miller Automotive Group in Van Nuys and president of the show-sponsoring Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Assn.

“We’re anticipating attendance of almost 1 million people this year,” he said, “and that means we cannot be ignored.”

Indeed, many manufacturers are splitting their important product and concept debuts between Los Angeles and the Detroit show, which opens to the public Jan. 9.

Ford, GM and Toyota will, as usual, unveil all their new North American market products there. But Audi says it will start showing its radical new TT coupe in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the same day it makes its North American debut before the automotive press in Detroit. The TT is a racy, high-tech version of the same half-circle design concept that gave birth to Volkswagen’s New Beetle.

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Insiders say the Detroit show has become a showoff fest for the automotive industry rather than the consumer. But though it draws far more media attention than the Los Angeles show, it doesn’t equal L.A. in the critical crowd count.

Last year, the Detroit show attracted about 790,000 visitors, versus more than 900,000 at the L.A. show. Add the 300,000 or so who attend the California International Auto Show in Anaheim each November--a sort of preview to the L.A. event--and the numbers for Southern California equal or top those of all but the Tokyo Motor Show, which draws about 1.5 million.

“That’s very important to us,” says Richard Beattie, president of Mazda’s Irvine-based North American import and distribution arm.

“We have several ways of getting feedback on our new ideas, and we certainly have a well-organized customer research and focus group process,” he said. “But all of that is supplemented very much by these shows,” he said. “They give us the ability to test our ideas in public.”

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Because the Los Angeles show has “substantially more” public attendance than Detroit, Beattie said, Mazda values it for the amount of consumer feedback that can be collected.

More important, he said, “is that there is just something about the Southern California lifestyle that makes the show very useful to us.”

This year, for instance, Mazda will use the show for the North American premiere of a concept all-wheel-drive sport wagon based on a station wagon the company sells in Asia and Europe. The wagon is an attempt to cross the gap between the family sedan and the lumbering, gas-hungry SUV, Mazda officials say, and could be in production in about 18 months.

Mazda also is using the L.A. show to display for the first time a dressed-up version of its B-Series mini-pickup, designed by and named after motorsports designer Troy Lee, and a customized version of the Protege.

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The Protege “street car” concept was inspired by the new generation of hot rodders whose vehicles of choice are small Asian imports rather than the Model A Fords and 1940s-era Mercurys favored by previous generations of enthusiasts.

The car rides on a lowered suspension system and 17-inch custom wheels and features custom seats, a powerful four-wheel disc braking system, a custom rear spoiler, a stainless-steel exhaust, high-power driving lights and a customized interior and stereo system.

A similar Honda Prelude street rod has been prepared by the L.A. show itself to showcase the big aftermarket products display that occupies 70,000 square feet of the Convention Center’s Kentia Hall.

That display, sponsored by the aftermarket industry’s trade group, is billed as the world’s largest public display of automotive aftermarket products. (The Specialty Equipment Market Assn.'s annual trade show in Las Vegas, which occupies more than 1 million square feet of space, is not open to the public.)

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For Lincoln Mercury, the Los Angeles show is a first chance to strut before its new hometown crowd.

And the company wants to do it right. With the Blackwood and concepts like the Mercury Marauder power sedan and the Cougar S high-performance street coupe, the division’s stylists and product planners will be using the show to plumb the psyches of an audience that prompted them to move their operation 2,000 miles.

“We’re an L.A. company now, so it is appropriate that we introduce the Lincoln Mercury-type vehicles here in California,” said Jim Gwaltney, vice president for sales. “We came here because Southern California is where the trends are set, and this show is where we will get an idea of how a trend-setting public sees our products.”

Los Angeles, said Lincoln Mercury design chief Dick Hutting, “should be to us what Detroit is to Ford.”

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Times staff writer John O’Dell can be reached via e-mail at john.odell@latimes.com.

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Show at a Glance

Location: Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St., downtown.

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Dates: Jan. 2-10.

Hours: Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sundays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; weekdays, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Admission: Adults $7; senior citizens $5 on weekdays, $7 on weekends; children 12 and under free when accompanied by an adult.

Size: 760,000 square feet of floor space, 1,000-plus vehicles on display, 70,000 square feet of aftermarket parts and equipment displays.

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Parking: $6 at Convention Center; $5 at marked nearby structure on weekends, with free shuttle; $15 for valet service at the center (enter on Figueroa Street between Pico and Venice boulevards).

Child care: Free care is available for children ages 3 to 12 for a maximum of two hours.

On the Web: The show’s official Web site is at https://www.laautoshow.com. You can preview the show, and print out a coupon good for $1 off full-price admission, on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/autoshow.

Telephone: Convention Center, (213) 741-1151, Ext. 1.

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