Chrysler Debuts Fanciful Concept Cars

The Chrysler side of DaimlerChrysler AG reached into its recent past with three concept vehicles touting American inspiration.

Morale has been slipping at the Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Chrysler Group amid slower sales, red ink and a management shake-up that put a German, Dieter Zetsche, in charge, and sent other American managers packing.

Exhibitions like the North American International Auto Show in Detroit focus on nothing but the upside of the auto industry. In DaimlerChrysler's case, the concept vehicles that were unveiled Tuesday hinted at a backlash against Wall Street and media perceptions that Chrysler is subordinate to its nominal partner, Daimler-Benz.

Touting them as "exercises in Americana," DaimlerChrysler introduced the Crossfire coupe, Dodge Super8 Hemi sedan and Jeep Willys — "Hemi" echoing a famous Chrysler engine of the 1960s, "Willys" a brand dating to the early 1900s.

"These are dreams of what [our] designers would like to see on the road," said Trevor Creed, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president of design.

Dune Buggies, Dorm Rooms on Wheels

The Willys features light gray tires. "I asked the designers, 'Why gray tires?' [and] they answered, 'You wouldn't want to leave nasty black tire marks on the American landscape," said Creed, driving home the concepts' theme.

Other fanciful designs and ideas abounded Tuesday.

Ford Motor Co. showed off two concept trucks — one made with fishermen in mind, the other for serious off-roaders.

The Ford Explorer Sportsman includes room for fish in a 30-gallon tank, complete with clean-air filter, that locks behind the rear seats. The running boards have storage space for fishing rods. The Ford EX is essentially a modern dune buggy, with exposed frame rails and an interior that can be hosed out. It's powered by a 375-horsepower V8.

Mazda Motor Corp. introduced the RX-8 four-door sports car powered by a 250-horsepower Renesis engine. Mark Fields, president of Mazda's North American operations, said he expected the RX-8 to reach showrooms in about two years.

Ford's Land Rover unit unveiled the 2002 Freelander, a sport utility rolled out in Europe in 1997 and headed to North American showrooms by this year's end. The new-edition SUV has a 175-horsepower, V6 engine and all-wheel drive. Land Rover said the vehicle will start at $30,000, though no firm price has been set.

Honda pulled the wraps of its Model X, a boxy concept car the Japanese automaker bills as a possible "dorm room" on wheels for active, college-age students looking to haul mountain bikes, surfboards and friends.

The Model X features rear doors that open from the center, giving way to an interior equipped with a satellite navigation system, DVD player and wireless Internet access. The Model X has two bench seats and a low, flat floor for easy loading.

Suzuki Ads Draw Laughter

Tom Elliott, American Honda Motor Co.'s executive vice president, said the Model X melds the best attributes of a pickup truck and sport utility vehicle into a product that "provides everything you need for the ultimate road trip.

"Young buyers are the lifeblood of the brand," Elliott said. "They're the new blood every auto manufacturer is interested in."

Nissan's luxury Infiniti division showed off a redesigned Q45 sedan and the FX45 concept, a high-performance sport utility vehicle.

The flash and glitz of the vehicle introductions drew smatterings of applause at most exhibits, but Suzuki drew laughter and sustained applause when it aired three commercials contrasting its small SUVs against their ever-bigger counterparts.

In one ad, a Suzuki slips around a huge SUV that can't fit into a parking garage; in another, a Suzuki driver sits at a red light and rolls her eyes as a behemoth SUV passes by and clips off the overhead traffic signal.