Prius gets a boost; Porsche can pull

Times Staff Writer

Car show time at the beginning of a new year is time for automakers to leak tidbits, unwrap new vehicles and test the waters of public opinion.

Among the goodies collected by Highway 1 at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows during the last two weeks:

* Toyota Motor Corp. is planning to replace its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid this year with a 2004 model that is bigger and more powerful than the current compact sedan.

The styling won't be as unusual, but the Prius will remain a car that won't get lost in a parking lot, said Don Esmond, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales USA in Carson.

The company believes it can sell more than the 20,000 hybrids a year it has been moving in the U.S., he said in an interview at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

* Automakers aren't hearing all the noise SUV haters are making. Almost every major manufacturer has a new sport utility vehicle or SUV-like crossover or sport wagon out this year or coming soon.

* Toyota is planning to get retro and bring back a boxy, two-door SUV modeled after the Land Cruisers of the 1960s (which themselves were modeled after the Land Rovers of the day). A concept shown at Detroit was called the FJ after the first Toyota SUV, the FJ40.

* If that's not enough, the full-size pickup field continues to grow. Nissan Motor Co. showed its entry, with the macho moniker Titan, in Detroit last week. Among those looking really hard at it were a few folks from the Torrance-based U.S. unit of Honda Motor Co., which in the past has insisted that it isn't a truck company (the MDX sport utility and truck-like Element notwithstanding).

* On the design front, interiors are getting plusher, and designers are realizing that they can do as much with the inside of the package to differentiate their vehicles as they can with the outside.

One big trend: Instrument clusters are migrating from in front of the driver to the center of the dash. The new Nissan Quest minivan is the latest example; others already there include Saturn's Ion, BMW's Z-8 and Mini Cooper and Toyota's Echo and Prius. And soon: center instruments on the forthcoming Chevrolet SSR sport truck and the Scion xA sport wagon from Toyota's new youth brand.

* Mazda Motor Corp.'s Irvine-based North American unit finally has put a price tag on the rotary-engine RX-8. The four-door sports car (the rear doors are small, and there's no B-pillar to spoil the sporty design) will start at $25,180 and top out at just over $30,000.

* Porsche's new Cayenne SUV has so much torque and such a beefy chassis that pulling capacity with the optional tow package is rated at 7,700 pounds, which is up in Chevy Suburban territory. Imagine being behind a Porsche towing a big trailer along the twisty coast route outside Carmel. Ugh.

* Ford Motor Co. is planning to begin producing a V-10 engine capable of 600 horsepower or so.

* Not to be outdone, General Motors Corp. has a 1,000-horsepower V-16 engine in its arsenal and is considering using it in a new Cadillac, the brand that last used a GM V-16 in the 1930s.

* Europeans took the spotlight as BMW's Mini Cooper was voted the 2002 North American car of the year and the Volvo XC90 the North American truck of the year by a panel of 49 independent automotive journalists.

* GM stylists consider the coupe passe. When four concepts rolled onto a stage at the GM pavilion at the Detroit show -- among them a muscular Chevrolet SS with front fenders flared and creased like a Dodge Viper's -- there wasn't a two-door body style in the pack.

* Need more? Maserati, maker of sleek Italian sports coupes, showed a five-door sport wagon, the Kubang concept, at Detroit and said it has "great potential" to become a production vehicle.

* All this zero-percent financing is starting to get profit-hunting auto executives down.

Chrysler Group Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche, in opening remarks at a media preview of the L.A. auto show, suggested that the next big news would be an announcement from an unnamed competitor that it was hoping to boost market share by introducing "negative rate financing," in which the car company pays customers to buy its vehicles.

GM, of course, launched the interest rate wars after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to lure customers back into its showrooms.

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