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Bold innovations.

It's the driving force in a business where every product must offer something new, yet be practical and reliable.

Planning, engineering and designing automobiles is one of the most exciting, yet precarious, activities in the industrial world. Even a minor reskinning of a current vehicle costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, while an entirely new product can boost costs into the billions and place even a major corporation at risk.

Yet despite the high stakes, one route to failure is to play the game too conservatively. Companies that take no chances get branded as boring firms with antiquated products. Innovation and style are the driving forces in an industry where every product must offer something fresh, yet be practical and reliable.

With such intense marketing forces at work, it's no surprise that auto companies look for any help to judge public acceptance of future products. Since it takes three to five years to go from drawing board to showroom, car designers often introduce concept vehicles to hedge their bets and test the public waters. Sometimes these vehicles are wild and futuristic just to titillate the audience. Other times, they are prototypes of a model destined to arrive in nearly identical form.

Just before the Dodge LRT concept pickup made its debut at the 1990 Detroit Auto Show, a Chrysler executive ordered it disguised by adding extra accessories such as bumper guards, because it looked too much like the recently unveiled 1994 Ram pickup. The Pontiac TransSport minivan, however, looks much like its prototype. Sometimes only a portion of a concept vehicle, such as an innovative instrument panel or unusual door handle design, is destined for production.

Recently, the building of concept cars has increased, especially in the wake of several years of relative recession. One reason for the surge is that the cost of new car and truck development is rising. Manufacturers are less willing to take chances, even though the marketplace forces them to be innovative.

Another reason is that the United States and world automotive markets are on the threshold of major changes. For the first time since the earliest days of the horseless carriage, the industry is about to embark on substantial changes, such as redesigning the engines that will power generations of automobiles.

Government regulations and market conditions are prompting intense efforts toward cleaner emissions, safer and more economical vehicles and the recycling of automotive materials. Eventually, vehicles meeting these needs may not look or even drive much like current cars and trucks. Accordingly, manufacturers are approaching momentous change with due caution.

In the near term, the internal combustion gasoline engine will remain the overwhelming choice of consumers. Concept cars most likely to arrive in showrooms soon include exotic-looking vehicles such as the Plymouth Prowler. It has the appearance of a 1940's hot rod, complete with outboard wheels and fenders, two-passenger cockpit, long hood and roadster, and coupe styling. Yet, it meets all the requirements for safety and emissions for the next several years with such production components as a 3.5-liter V-6 engine and automatic transmission. Just as the Dodge Viper first appeared in concept form a few years before it went on sale, the Prowler could hit the streets in the mid-'90s, with a price tag in the mid-$20,000 range.

Experts forecast a slew of concept vehicles operating on everything from hydrogen to electricity. For example, Mazda is betting on hydrogen as a clean-burning fuel for its rotary engine. Meanwhile, Volvo is showing off an electric-powered car, which also has a diesel-powered turbine to generate electricity for extending its range. Early owners of these vehicles may have to sacrifice power, range and even a degree of safety - all while paying higher prices - to be at the forefront of environmentally friendly transportation.

Automakers continue to experiment and examine public reaction to each new concept. Which concepts will gain the most acceptance? Attend one of the major auto shows in Los Angeles, Detroit, New York or Chicago and let the automakers know which car you'd most likely buy.


When the purveyors of Rolls Royce and Bentley motor cars refer to a particular vehicle as a "flagship," the object of such elevated distinction must be very special indeed. In the Continental R, Bentley creates an automotive presence beyond the normal allusions to luxurious personal transport.

The Continental R, even at the challenging cost of $269,600, is more exclusive than its mere price. With a 1993 total production set at 265 cars, of which only 50 will come to the United States, the ownership list is virtually by invitation only.

Those able to own and appreciate this unique coupe will find all the basics of high performance co-existing with sumptuous luxury. A powerful 6.75-liter, turbocharged V-8 engine provides momentous thrust, while a computer-adjusted suspension ensures adroit road grip and a silken ride. Connolly leathers provide soft and elegant surfaces throughout, along with handcrafted woods and exquisitely chromed surfaces.


Although the Vaision is available in ESi form with a 3.3 liter V-6 engine, the TSi is the real performance car. Its 3.5-liter 24-valve SOHC V-6 supplies 214 horsepower to the front wheels governed by a four-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission.

At a bargain price of $21,204, the Vision offers other standard features including driver and passenger side air bags, four-wheel-disc anti-lock brakes, automatic temperature control, power door locks, cruise control and a sporty four-wheel independent suspension. Go to the option list for a traction control system (for better starting in slippery conditions), and you have a very complete sports sedan.

Return once more to the option list for such features as power windows and seats, keyless remote entry system, leather upholstery package and a high-quality infinity stereo, and you end up with a serious luxury cruiser for less than $25,000.


With a widening price gap between sedans, Lexus is filling the hole with the GS 300, a afour-door sedan equipped with a healthy 220-horsepower, 24-valve DaOHC inline six-cylinder engine. A silken four-speed automatic transmission transfers the power to the rear wheels.

From the exterior curves and impeccable finish to its interior elegance, the GS 300 is every bit a Lexus. A driver can immediately decipher each luxury feature without resorting to reading the owner's manual. Standard equipment is plentiful, requiring trips to the option list only for leather seats, compact disc changer, traction control, moonroof and cellular phone.

Flaws are minute: An outside temperature gauge annoyingly reverts to the preset interior climate setting and capable handling is modestly besmirched by a bit of understeer. At a base price of $37,500, perhaps the goal is to take no buyers from the more athletic SC 300 coupe.


Virtually everything noted about the Camaro also applies to the Firebird. The two are more alike beneath the skin than ever, with identical drivetrains and suspension settings. The only differences apply to styling, pricing and trim level strategies.

The Firebird is available three ways, starting out in the base model with the V-6 at $13,995. The next step up is the Formula model which includes the potent V-8 engine for $17,995. Jump up to $21,395 and the Trans Am version gains some brazen styling extras, along with all the luxury equipment as standard features.

Driver and passenger air bags and anti-lock brakes show up in all models. And while its 10-speaker stereo would seem to out-gun the Camaro's three-speaker Bose system, the Chevy wins the audio wars by truly mammoth proportions.


Despite the peculiar moniker, the all-new Impreza is an impressive bit of value engineering. With a starting price under $11,000, this conventionally styled sedan is equipped like its more expensive competitors, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. The Impreza accommodates four adults easily for pleasant, economical transportation.

Standard equipment includes a 16-valve opposed four-cylinder engine with 110 horsepower driving the front wheels. You can add the usual options, such as power windows, locks and upgraded stereos. There is also a choice of base, L and LS models, each gaining in equipment levels. All versions include a driver's side air bag and manual seatbelts with shoulder height adjustment, while the LS version adds anti-lock four-wheel-disc brakes. Those who want something less conservative can opt for the sport wagon, a fastback five-door model (not available in the base version) with station wagon usefulness.


Since making a fast break out of the gate with the 1990 model, Ford's Explorer quickly became the hottest selling sport-utility on the market. This achievement results from modern styling and an overall interior volume that is more generous than anything else in its class. Add interior design that is among the best found in any truck and a solid drivetrain supplying 160 horsepower and there's plenty for everybody. There are also plenty of choices, with either two or four doors and rear -or four-wheel drive. The 1993 will boast standard anti-lock brakes to improve the safety quotient.

Hitting the market this spring as a 1994 model, the Limited is the flagship of the line. All will be four-door models in a choice of two- or four-wheel drive. Inside, leather seats with driver-side memory, thicker carpeting and power windows as standard luxury features keep the amenity level high. Expect the tariff to climb to the mid- to high-$20,000 range.


Taking their place at the zenith of the lineup, these new coupes are filled with the styling, performance and singularity required to justify a price (including gas guzzler taxes) of $101,900 for the 500SEC and $135,700 for the 600SEC. Not a purchase for the shy, styling shows strength and drama, with a nose sloping down to a blacked-out trapezoidal grille set between slanted, wraparound headlamps.

Its look of power and presence is well supported by mechanical ability. At the lowest level, the 500SEC offers a 5-liter V-8 engine with 315 horsepower. Even for a heft nearing 2 1/2 tons, thrust is ample. Yet for those who demand the ultimate, the 600SEC serves up a seductive 6-liter V-12 to the tune of 389 horsepower. Complex multi-link suspension components plant massive 16-inch tires to the ground for swift cornering. The driver receives accurate input, while passengers feel only the fluid progress of a graceful carriage.


After more than a decade of anticipation, the new Camaro still shares the same basic dimensions and styling as its predecessors. It also retains its heritage with a more modern interpretation: a real performance car for those on a tight budget. There are two choices: regular and premium. The latter is the Z28, with a potent V-8 engine. In the base model, power comes from a 3.4-liter V-6 engine with 160 horsepower. Choose either a five-speed manual transmission or the four-speed automatic.

At $13,399, this is far more robust than equivalently priced four-cylinder competitors. Up the ante to $16,779, and you can have the Z28, powered by the LT1 5.7-liter V-8 Corvette engine. In the Camaro, it sends 275 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque to the rear wheels for serious acceleration. This is coupled to a six-speed manual transmission that's far slicker than the one found in the Corvette.


After watching its rivals bring seethingly fast sports cars to this class of mid-$30,000 road rockets, Toyota delayed introducing the new Supra until the engineers were certain they had it right. Some features remain, including a miniature rear seat, an inline six-cylinder engine - with or without turbocharging - and rear-wheel drive. But that's where similarity ends.

More sheet metal sits on the same platform that makes the Lexus SC 300 coupe, but the Supra is geared toward the sport end, with 220 horsepower in base form. The Turbo model has a rousing 320 horsepower and slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic with manual shift mode for the best of both worlds. Ultra-wide 17-inch tires pin the Turbo to the road. Inside, there's plenty of room, dual air bags and an ergonomic control lay-out that's made Toyota the envy of the industry.


By counting the generations, Volkswagen adds III to this descendent of the 1974 Rabbit. Like the name, styling also remains similar to its predecessors, albeit a bit sleeker, roomier and more refined. A wider stance further abets its agility, and the 2-liter four-cylinder engine is new with an improved 115 horsepower. Although the German - built version has been on sale in Europe for a year, those coming to the United States will arrive from Mexico with an anticipated price starting just above $10,000.

The first Golf IIIs will lack air bags, carrying motorized seatbelts instead. There will also be a Jetta III - a Golf with a trunk. The Jetta will also be available in the V-6 GLX form with driver and passenger air bags and manual seatbelt for increased safety and comfort. Power in that model comes from the same 178 horsepower 2.8-liter V-6 that makes the Corrado SLC.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:automobiles
Author:Koblenz, Jay
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Evaluation
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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