As the new millennium draws near, the future attributes of American cars are starting to emerge. And designers are drawing them from the popular light trucks of today and the cars of yesterday.
This is less contradictory than it sounds, as George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc. consulting group, sees it. "Go back and see what made cars popular in the past, and those are the same things that are making trucks popular today," Peterson argues. "If you can envision a 1955 or 1956 Chevrolet, it's a really tall car, tall doors, very easy to get into and out of, and has lots of glass so there's great visibility."Some of these elements are showing up in Detroit's latest car designs, such as the Lincoln LS6 and LS8 luxury sport sedans, which Ford Motor Co. unveiled at the New York auto show last month. And that car looks more like an expensive German luxury car than a truck. Similar features are starting to appear on other new cars as well.
There is a certain symmetry in this development, for car companies have been making light trucks, such as vans, pickups and sport-utility vehicles, more and more carlike. The newest designs, including Toyota Motor Co.'s Lexus RX300, are built using the architecture of cars, without a high-riding steel frame underneath.
But making cars more trucklike isn't really the same thing, industry executives and outside experts argue. Future cars will still be cars, but they are likely to be taller and more utilitarian, including even luxury cars. For example, Lincoln's new LS series, due out late next year, adopts a long list of trucklike features, but subtly, says Ken Kohrs, the Ford vice president in charge of large and luxury vehicles. These include:
Rear seats that sit higher than the front seats. This gives passengers in the back a better view. The idea was initially tried in light trucks such as minivans.
Big, flat-folding side-view mirrors. Sport-utility vehicles and other trucks have them, and research shows drivers love them. So Lincoln put some on the LS.
Oversized cup holders in front and back seats. Until lately, most cars had small ones in the front only. To get holders big enough to hold anything larger than a can - and to get them in the back seats, too - you had to buy a minivan or a sport utility vehicle, or SUV.
Compact-disk player in the glove box. Because of space problems up front, most cars have stuck players that can handle multiple compact disks in the trunk, but SUVs had the room to package them up front. To give passengers the same convenience, LS designers made a point of creating the space in the front.
Optional all-speed traction control. One of the big selling points of SUVs has been the security of four-wheel drive. As an alternative, and to achieve similar aims, more cars are installing computer-controlled traction control or, in the case of Volvo and Audi, all-wheel drive.
Versatility for handling bulky cargo. In the LS, the rear seats fold flat, opening up a space extending into the trunk. Or, for something long and not too wide, the front passenger seat also can be folded flat, creating an open area extending from the dashboard all the way to the back of the trunk. This sort of thing has been one of the big appeals of SUVs and minivans.
"Car designers have had to learn that the interior package is important," Ford's Kohrs says. "We are finding better ways to get fuel efficiency - by taking weight out of the car and better engines - and we are able to give the room back to the customer."
There is one more thing to watch for in future cars: multiple power outlets. Until now, most cars came with just one outlet, for the cigarette lighter. Now, following the lead set by pickups and minivans, cars are starting to be designed with several outlets to power electronic games, cellular phones, computers and radar systems, says Chris Theodore, vice president, platform engineering, at Chrysler Corp.