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Bumper Crop for 1999

Makers hold the line on prices despite continuing technological advances. It boils down to more car for the buck.

October 01, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The coupe is making a comeback, and computerized controls, convertible tops, curves and quasi-sport-utility station wagons are big as 1998 draws to a close and auto dealers' showrooms across the country fill with all that is new for 1999.

The new model year is a transitional one for many car companies--about half the '99s were already introduced as early releases in the spring and summer--but there is still plenty of news.

Not only are auto makers holding the line on prices, but they're also lowering them in many cases while offering more vehicle for the buck.

Technological advances continue to pile up, especially improvements in handling, engine efficiency and crash safety, making even the most basic of today's new cars and trucks as good as or better than some of the best of two decades ago.

Influenced by a crop of young designers who are starting to make waves in automotive studios in Europe and the U.S., styling of the '99s--and for many of the cars and trucks waiting in the wings to be , introduced as new-millennium models--is the edgiest and most diverse in years.

Auto makers "are no longer going to be following the trends," says J. Mays, the new vice president for design at Ford Motor Co. and, as former chief stylist at Audi in Germany, developer of the concept car that became the seed for Volkswagen's retro-styled New Beetle and Audi's revolutionary TT sedan, a car scheduled to arrive in the U.S. next year.

Designers born in the late 1950s and '60s, when cars still had personality, are now becoming senior stylists and studio directors and are intent on reintroducing the concept of character to the corporate automobile world, Mays says.

One of the first places Southern Californians will be able to see most of what is being offered for 1999 is the California International Auto Show, running Oct. 14-18 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

More than 600 new cars, trucks, vans and sport-utility vehicles will be displayed under one roof, representing the 1999 lines of 35 manufacturers from eight countries. The show, run by the Orange County and Long Beach-area new-car dealers associations (and sponsored by The Times), is the first of a string of '99 new-car shows across the country through early spring.

It is the look of a vehicle--its design--that draws buyers. But it is technology, which determines dependability, function and performance, that makes a car or truck successful.

So one of the most important--and hardest to spot--things that auto makers do each year is improve the technologies and materials that go into their vehicles.

"There are almost no bad cars out there today," says Jim Hossack, a consultant and analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Santa Ana. "The cars with marginal reliability and durability have largely been driven out of the U.S. market."

There is a bumper crop of technological improvements for 1999, from the composite-plastic intake manifold on Chrysler's new 3.5-liter aluminum V-6 engine to the refrigerated glove box on the new Saabs from Sweden.

Computer-aided functions like remote locks and emission and fuel management systems have been around for years, but auto makers' engineering and scientific departments are coming up with increasingly sophisticated applications.

Anti-lock braking systems are standard for 1999 on scores of cars and optional on most others. Now traction control--an incredibly complex system that helps cars keep their grip on the road by regulating power to individual wheels when things get slippery--is frequently showing up on top-of-the-line models.

More visible are offerings like on-board navigation systems, many with electronic voices that give the driver turn-by-turn directions. They are options this year on BMW models and the Acura RL and are coming soon for selected Infiniti and Lexus models and other luxury makes.

Cadillac, which has a less sophisticated navigation system--you make a call on your cell phone and get directions from a human attendant--will soon offer a revolutionary night-vision system. It uses infrared technology to project on the bottom part of the driver-side windshield a view of the road ahead, and of what's on it, letting the driver "see" far ahead of what is illuminated by the headlights.

On the safety front, frontal air bags on the driver's side have already been augmented with passenger and side-impact bags, and now the industry is installing head- and face-protection air-bag systems.

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