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GM Just Can't Wait to Unwrap Its Concepts


DETROIT — The auto show season will soon be upon us, and the time of year when major manufacturers show their concept cars for the coming season is getting earlier and earlier.

The companies used to wait for the major auto shows themselves--Los Angeles and Detroit in January, Chicago in February and New York in April--to unveil their concepts, which showcase design hints, powertrains and technology that could be applied to future production vehicles.

But General Motors Corp. beat everyone to the punch this month, pulling the wraps off the class of '01.

"Exposure to the media and the public is wonderful feedback," said GM Vice President of Design Wayne Cherry. "When we show what we're actually working on, it motivates the design teams and brings the development process to a whole new level."

Traditionally, concept cars are not slated for production. But GM has been taking its concepts much more seriously in the last couple of years, and of the nine concepts it unveiled a year ago, it has said it will produce six. GM already has announced that it will make the Chevrolet SSR, a hot-rod-styled pickup truck, in a version scarcely changed from the concept.

This year, GM has mapped out a decidedly youthful orientation.

"We want to appeal to younger, more diverse, more active, female, higher-educated, more affluent and technologically savvy consumers," said Ed Welburn, executive director of GM's Corporate Brand Character Center.

Said Cherry: "We want to appeal to young people--to create changes they find exciting and the kinds of vehicles they want to be seen in."

GM's target audience can be quite young, indeed: Cherry hopes these cars reach so-called echo boomers aged 6 to 23, because "we know that people form their images about vehicles they like well before they're able to buy one."

Some of the engines and interiors for the concepts are still on the drawing board, but others are almost ready for the words every designer and engineer fervently hopes to hear: "Do it."

You can bet that several of the concepts shown here will see production in versions close to what GM is showing. All of the vehicles will be officially unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, except where noted.


Chevrolet Borrego. The Borrego--its name refers to a mountain sheep that "can climb anything"--is a crossover vehicle inspired by rally races in Baja California.

The car-truck concept is built on the Subaru Legacy platform--including its 2.0-liter, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine (turbocharged to 250 horsepower) and compact all-wheel-drive system--but is topped off with a 6-foot pickup bed.

GM took a 20% stake in Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries this year and has said that the partners were jointly developing a small truck-like product for Chevy.

"This is it," said Frank Saucedo, director of GM's Los Angeles design studio in North Hollywood. "It's a complete compact package with the attributes of a sport-utility truck but the emotions of a coupe."

The Borrego's bulkhead behind the front seats rises and slides back, making room for two more passengers and shrinking the pickup bed to 3 feet. The concept also boasts an air compressor with a hose that can be used to inflate outdoor equipment, blow dust out of the interior or serve as a shower when hooked up to a water tank.

The vehicle, aimed at the twentysomething market, will premiere at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show in January and most likely hit showrooms before long.


Oldsmobile O4. This sporty convertible is the latest iteration of what Cherry calls Olds' "course correction--to attract someone who might be an import buyer."

The O4 is built on a platform borrowed from Opel, including the 1.8-liter, 115-horsepower engine. Its styling is a collaboration of Oldsmobile's Detroit studio and Bertone Design of Turin, Italy.

Jeff Perkins, Oldsmobile's brand character chief designer, described the O4 as "an open-air car but with a four-seasons top configuration that seats four people."

The all-seasons top amounts to twin panels that snap off to be stowed behind the rear seats. The rear window also retracts into the space behind the rear seats, leaving a stylized, swept-forward airfoil in place, which also can be stowed.

There are prominent fender flares, and the thin, slit-like headlamps are only 1.4 inches high and use fiber optics and projector beam technology to shine brighter than conventional lamps.

Inside, designers were inspired by the growing numbers of personal digital assistants to craft a 10-button "information ring" around the steering column that can be reconfigured to show various information: The speedometer will always be there, but it can be accompanied by a tachometer, climate-control settings, audio controls or other gauges. There is also an integrated port for a PDA and for a Sony Memory Stick that can hold digitized music, maps or mirror and seating settings for the driver and a passenger.


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