Wheel Be Seeing You

A first-timer's guide to this year's auto show

When President Bill Clinton attended the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month, he got a private tour of the show, crawled around in some cars and was greeted at several of the exhibits by big cheeses from the Big Three automakers, according to the Detroit Free Press.

But Mr. Mike, an auto-show novice, isn't expecting presidential treatment when he escorts Deb and the kids to the Greater St. Louis International Auto Show at America's Center this week, and I'll wager you aren't, either.

So, for all of you nonpresidential types, here's Mr. Mike's guide to this year's show, Wed.-Sun., Jan. 20-24, thanks in large part to the splendid press kit furnished by public-relations wizard Judy Taylor and a visit to the auto show's Web site at autoshow.reedexpo.com/stlouis/.

Dad, It Looks Like the Batmobile
I think it was my buddy Tom Raber, who for quite a while wrote a popular auto column for The Riverfront Times, who explained to me what concept cars are. Or maybe it was someone else. Doesn't matter. Point is, I was told that a concept car often looks like the Batmobile.

Nobody ever gets to drive the Batmobile, except Batman and, maybe once in a while, the Boy Wonder. Or maybe Alfred. And, except for the folks who make them, nobody ever gets to drive a concept car, either.

Automakers build concept cars to get consumers thinking about what cars could be like in the future. Concept cars are like the coolest toys that the richest kids I knew used to get for Christmas -- something like a gold-plated gyroscope (hey, this was back in the '60s). I was never going to get one, but they sure were fun to look at.

Even the richest grownups are probably never going to get a concept car, because one of these babies rarely reaches the production stage. Even then, it is usually with many modifications.

Concept cars travel the auto-show circuit, and the ones scheduled to be on display at the St. Louis show are the Jeep Icon, the Mercury MC4, the Lincoln Sentinel and the Dodge Intrepid ESX2.

The Icon is billed as a "fresh approach to the popular Jeep Wrangler," with its major difference being a unibody construction with an integrated aluminum roll cage. Deb and Mr. Mike, however, will probably be most impressed by the waterproofed leather upholstery, even though the kids are past the diaper stage.

The MC4's "most novel features" are the semiconcealed rear half-doors. But here's what attracts me: the twin, parallel sliding sunroof panels, "which can be enjoyed individually." Woof.

The Sentinel, a full-size vehicle, is said to resemble the traditional Lincoln but also continues to introduce Ford's new "shape-upon shape" technique of auto design. I'm not sure what that means, but I did like the sound of this description: "improved aerodynamics" and "forward-thrust style." Hmmm.

And although the Intrepid ESX2 sounds like a good name for a spaceship, it's actually a 70-miles-per-gallon alternative-power vehicle with "mybrid" technology, which means that it is an electric vehicle relying on both an electric motor and a small gas- or diesel-powered engine. You've got to like a car that creates a new word.

You Could Actually Buy One of These, Eventually
If you've got the bucks, you could buy a 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 later this year after you eye it at the St. Louis show. Introduced at the auto shows in LA and Detroit earlier this month and scheduled to appear in dealerships early this year, it "incorporates permanent four-wheel drive utilizing a viscous clutch" and "is the first four-wheel drive Porsche sports car to include Tiptronic S automatic transmission." I am assuming this is good.

Then there's Toyota's model-year 2000 full-size Tundra truck, which will arrive in showrooms in May but will be here in St. Louis this week. How about this: "The Tundra's 4.7-liter engine will be the first dual-overhead cam, 32-valve V-8 ever offered in its segment." It also features all-new sheet metal and an all-new chassis. Man, if I had taken that power-mechanics course in high school I could appreciate this obviously righteous vehicle even more.

Of Course, You Could Buy Most of These Cars Now
"The president wants to see the cutting-edge technology that is coming out of the American automobile manufacturers," White House spokeswoman Sara Gegenheimer said before Clinton visited the Detroit show, according to the Free Press.

A major benefit of a show such as the one in Detroit or the one here in St. Louis is that the consumer gets to check out a zillion new cars, American and imports, all at once, thereby eliminating the need to visit a zillion different dealers.

That said, assuming you've got cash or your credit is good (or, who knows, maybe you could even qualify with "less than perfect" credit, as I often hear on the radio and TV), the dealers would love to sell you something. We're stating the obvious here, but this show is the biggest sales opportunity of the year for most dealers.

Hundreds of vehicles will be on hand, and factory and dealer representatives from more than 30 vehicle lines will answer questions.

In alphabetical order, here's who will be there:
Acura, Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, GMC Truck, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Isuzu, Jaguar, Jeep, Kia, Land Rover, Lexus, Lincoln-Mercury, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Porsche, Saab, Saturn, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Mr. Sandman Says: Maybe You'll Win a Car
Mr. Mike always signs up for chances to win a car, and, of course, I am usually notified that I am a "winner" of either a car or a TV or a set of knives, we can't tell you for sure right now, but if you and your spouse will drive 90 miles to Plainburg to claim your prize, we'll tell you what you won after we give you a two-hour sales pitch about time-share condominiums.

But that's not how it's going to work at the auto show.
You get to dig for your prize. Say what?
Yep. U.S. Open sand-sculpture champions Kali Bradford and Steve Buckner will spend the week sculpting a fantasy convertible, complete with a family and dog (the sculpture, that is, will include family and dog). But within that idyllic sand sculpture will be the keys for a 1999 Mazda Protege ES, and one auto-show attendee will be chosen on Sunday to have a chance to dig through the sand sculpture in search of the keys. Other prizes will also be hidden in the sand. You've got to register at the show, though.

"Buckle Up with Sesame Street"
Deb and Mr. Mike will be battling to get our kids a better view of the auto-safety show than other adults can get for their kids. It's got Sesame Street characters and will, fittingly, indoctrinate the kids -- and, I hope, the adults -- to use seat belts and car seats. It will be presented at least three times daily, but I should probably go to all of the shows in light of my getting a ticket last Sunday on the way to church for having four kids unrestrained in the backseat of a 1981 VW Rabbit. It's not my usual practice, but I shouldn't have done it even this once. Bad Mr. Mike.

Times and Prices
The show is open from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Wed.-Fri., Jan. 20-22; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat., Jan. 23; and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun., Jan. 24.

Tickets are $8 for adults, $4 for ages 6-12 and free for those under 6.

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