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Youth Market, Faux Leather and a 3rd Door

INDUSTRY NEWS | The Highway 1 List / AN OFF-CENTER
LOOK AT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND THE CAR

December 31, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not Your Uncle Louie's Lexus: Upset at Honda's dominant role in the youth market in this country--the Accord, according to local hot-rod builder Pete Chapouris, is the Model A of the 1990s--Toyota is launching a youth strategy of its own. The RAV4 mini-sport-utility and the Camry Solara coupe are two early entries, and Toyota isn't forgetting the young or young at heart of Beverly Hills, Rancho Palos Verdes and Newport Beach either.

The Lexus luxury division has a nifty performance sedan that will get some notice should it show up on our shores. It's called the Lexus IS200 in Europe (and the Toyota Altezza in Japan), and it has muscular lines that set it apart from the crowd. A North American model could be in showrooms in a year or so--the European version was shown to U.S. Lexus dealers in New York in October.

In Europe, the sports sedan comes with a 2.0-liter engine linked to either a six-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. Buzz is that Lexus would use the 3.0-liter, 220-horsepower inline-6 from the GS300 sedan. It would likely be priced in the mid-$30,000 range to compete with BMW's 3-Series cars.

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Not Just a Pretty Face: Chrysler is known for hot concept cars and delicious designs. But it's not all just skin-deep in Auburn Hills. The Michigan-based auto maker, an operating unit of the new DaimlerChrysler, will debut four new concepts at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit next month. They will, of course, feature Chrysler's trademark styling.

But equally prominent in each of the vehicles will be new powertrain technologies that should be good indicators of the industry's direction as the next millennium draws near. Chrysler gave journalists in Los Angeles a sneak peak this week at one of the concepts--the Jeep Commander. Using it as a cue, be prepared for unconventional power plants and unusual fuels sharing top billing with sensuous curves.

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Why Pay for the Cow? The sought-after Connolly Leather Interior Award at this fall's Louis Vuitton Classic car show in New York went to a 1956 Maserati entered by Beverly Hills collector David Sydorick. But the car's soft blue basket-weave interior isn't leather, it's--gasp!--vinyl.

The Connolly folk knew that and didn't care, Sydorick said, noting: "It shows how open-minded they are." Although the award is named after the famed maker of leather upholstery, it honors best authentic interior, and the Maserati happened to come from the factory with vinyl.

Ah, well, back in the days before truth in advertising, salespeople at Mercedes-Benz dealerships used to refer to their, ahem, petrochemical-based seat-covering material as "Mercedes Leather" to disguise its humble origins.

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Over Hill, Over Dale? Yeah, sure. Mercedes-Benz has an SUV, so why not Porsche? Teaming with stablemate Volkswagen, Porsche reportedly has budgeted nearly $2 billion for development of a decidedly sporty sport-utility vehicle due out in three years. Autoweek magazine reports that the Porsche and VW versions will have different sheet metal but share mechanicals. And what mechanicals: The Porsche-developed engine is a V-8 with 350 horses (400 with an optional supercharger). But we wonder: Would anyone actually use it off-road?

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Fun Fact: Saturn is hailing its three-door coupe as a revolutionary idea that should have been thought of long ago. Actually it was. A 1989 concept model for Lexus had a third door. Unfortunately, no one at parent Toyota was willing to put it into production. Now, of course, every pickup truck on the planet is being offered with rear-access doors, and Saturn adapted the idea for its coupe.

A gracious David Hackett, head of Toyota's Calty design studio in Newport Beach--the place where the three-door Lexus was designed--declines to claim bragging rights. "You know how it is in the design world," he says. "There are a lot of people thinking about a lot of things all the time, and it's hard to say you thought of it first."

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Fearless Predictions: Mercury had planned the Cougar sports coupe as a short-run model to give the sagging marque a boost. But it has won critical acclaim for its "New Edge" styling and is starting to show some muscle in the sales stats. So the Cougar backers inside Mercury are lobbying to prolong the cycle beyond 2005. If they win, look for a Cougar convertible around 2003.

That's about a year after Volkswagen will come out with its own convertible version of the New Beetle--a car that well-heeled aficionados now can have converted from coupe to ragtop by two Orange County companies at prices that add $10,000 to $12,000 to the purchase price. VW will issue its production convertible to reignite the fire when dealers stop pre-selling every Beetle coupe they can get.

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Sign of the Times: Seems like every other body is driving an SUV these days, and some pundits wonder how many of 'em ever leave the highway--and how many of the drivers who do go off-road have any business doing so. A license plate frame spotted on an Isuzu Rodeo in Orange County recently sums it up nicely:

If you can read this, roll me over.

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