Utahns dragged themselves away from their television sets Friday for a much-needed break from war news. Their mission: to check out $6 million worth of cars, trucks and minivans at the annual Utah Auto Show in the Salt Palace.

The display represents the best of the world's automakers and their best is very good indeed. Every year it becomes more difficult to distinguish the great from the near great. Gains in quality control, safety features, design and engineering have all narrowed the gaps between the domestic and imported marques and even between the "entry-level" cars and the luxury models.Also better each year is the show itself. Sponsored by the Utah Automobile Dealers Association (UADA), the Utah extravaganza, staged by Edward Greenband Enterprises, has become one of the nation's premier coming-out parties for the 300 new offerings of some 90 Utah dealerships.

At Thursday's ribbon cutting and dealer preview, Gov. Norm Bangerter and Mayor Palmer DePaulis signed proclamations declaring Jan. 17-20 as Auto Show Week in Utah and Salt Lake City. Acknowledging that recent months have not been banner ones for auto sales, the governor predicted that 1991 would see a recovery, a prediction heartily cheered by the Utah dealers.

The show has become more than just new cars, it's also show biz. For their $4 ticket (children under 12 free and discount tickets are available from new car dealers) participants get to ogle the "Back To The Future" De Lorean in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) made flitting through time look easier than negotiating the I-15 freeway at rush hour.

Also on hand are the vehicles no one will be driving this year but which give us a peek at where the industry is heading.

These include the Dodge Intrepid, a futuristic prototype from Chrysler's Advance Design Studios that has an aircraft-style canopy which redefines the term "aerodynamic."

The Buick Bolero features a "future generation" supercharged 3300 V-6 engine generating 206 horsepower, sequential-port electronic fuel injection and fiber optic electrics. All components are flush with the body, including the license plates. A version of the car is said to be heading for showrooms in the early '90s.

Perhaps the most unusual "real" item (as opposed to a one-off "concept") on display at this year's auto show is not even an auto. GMC's Syclone LSR, a heavily massaged Sonoma pickup, became the first truck in history last September to surpass 200 mph. This month, a street version of the truck will be in dealerships.

All interesting vehicles, no doubt. But if someone offered to let me take home any of the cars in this year's show (alas, no one did) I would opt for BMW's new flagship coupe, the 850i. This awesome V-12 powered starship just may be the current state of the automotive art in both performance and design.

Show hours are noon to 10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.