What I'm Driving At: Showing Off in Florida

There are auto shows and there are Auto Shows, and the chief way to tell them apart is by the presence of media buzzards circling about fresh pieces of news and newly unveiled vehicles. Of course, the international shows like Frankfurt, Tokyo, Geneva, and Paris claim the high ground every year; but their relevance to reality -- their yokel-quotient, if you will -- is relatively nil. They are supermodel parking lots full of the same sort of eye-candy that sidles down the supermodel runways of the rag trade.Back in Yankee-dom, it's the Detroit, Chicago, New York, and sometimes Los Angeles Auto Shows that provide the best media feasts. They're the A-Class shows, distinguished by their special-built displays and a staccato pace of new-model intros. Ironically, in the Southeastern U.S., where now unfolds the greatest growth in car and truck making, Auto Shows are somebody else's business in some other place. Sure, local dealers from time to time will posse together for a little regional auto show well after all the new models are old news. But until the last few years, A-Class show organizers have seemed oblivious to a Southeastern car culture that now embraces Nissan in Tennessee; Toyota in Kentucky; Ford in Virginia and Kentucky; BMW in South Carolina; Mercedes-Benz in Alabama; and General Motors in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.Only Miami -- in that most and least Southern of states (continentally speaking, of course) -- has seized the initiative and blustered its way into A-Class Auto Show territory. In so doing, it has established itself first on North America's major auto show calendar with an early November date each year (Nov. 7-16 for 1997). Manufacturers are responding by dipping tentative toes into Miami's tepid waters: This year, four new models were introduced to the world at the South Florida International Auto Show, as it's called. Even though they weren't especially ooh-aah announcements on the order of an 800-horsepower TVR supercar, they were tasty enough tidbits that we media birds picked the bones clean without hesitation.Ford Crown Victoria & Mercury Grand MarquisYou might be tempted write off the twin intros of the Ford and Mercury mongo-sedans as "Granddad's got a great new gig." But even whippersnappers dismiss these cars at their peril. Behold the last surviving V8-powered, rear-wheel-drive, non-luxury-priced, six-passenger sedans in the world -- and nobody's got 'em but Ford and Mercury. Far from letting them languish in the model line, now that Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster are permanently parked six feet under, Ford has refurbished the Crown Vic and Mercury's alter-aristo Grand Marquis into capital cars at bottom dollar.Starting at $21,540 (including destination charge) for the base Crown Vic and $22,495 for the frillier Grand Marquis, these new full-size sedans offer more power and noticeably better road feel at prices poaching upon midsize turf (including Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, to be sure). An unexpected chance to drive around Miami in a leather-loaded, upscale Grand Marquis LS revealed several treats. For one, acceleration and braking, both boosted for '98, are crisp and precise. The LS features the optional, so-called handling package, which in addition to suspension tweaks includes a dual-exhaust system making 215 horsepower. Bigger front disk brakes nested inside larger 16-inch wheels actually feel more responsive and progressive for a car this large.Another pleasure is the car's sharpened steering feel. Ironically, a new Precision Trac rear suspension largely accounts for this new directional stability, which is a welcome change from yesteryear's floaty-boatiness. The suspension is a four-bar Watt's linkage, if you must know, and it controls sway better than before in both horizontal and vertical planes. The result, as Ford engineer Ed Nalodka terms it, is "no more tail wagging the dog."The challenge remains to attract younger buyers to Crown Victoria and, even more so, to Grand Marquis. Mercury's stratagem comprises a genuinely funny new ad campaign, while hip image packaging will pave the way for both cars' sales launches Dec. 26. Another flourish is the distinctly Jagu-esque sheet-metal styling at the rear of both cars -- courtesy of Coventry itself, no doubt, now that Jaguar has joined the Ford brood. Ford's refurbished full-sizers don't exactly revolutionize big-car tastes, but they've done an impressive job of evolving to meet those tastes head-on.Toyota RAV4 Soft Top"Head's-up" is the word for Toyota's new ragtop version of its popular RAV4 mini-SUV. This quasi-new model features the finishing touch destined to make Toyota's Corolla-based sport/ute into a genuine beachcomber. As introduced by project member Paul Czaplicki, the RAV4 Soft Top yields open-air rear seating combined with a standard pop-out sunroof for front occupants. The effect, with the top down, resembles an old-timey rumble seat for bungling through the urban jungle. Removing only the side and rear vinyl windows of the convertible top effects what Czaplicki calls a "Bikini Top," which is really just a fancy new name for the old-fashioned landau canopy of bygone horseless carriages.A price for the RAV4 Soft Top hadn't been set for the Miami show, but delivery of the vehicles was announced for February '98. It's a cute idea, and well-executed in Toyota's typically careful fashion. It might as well even come with its own SPF sun-protection rating: Toyota says it takes two-and-a-half minutes to lower the top and four more to raise it. So much for spontaneous spells of sun worship during a dash to the convenience store.Isuzu TrooperIsuzu's Trooper is not only the bedrock product for this beleaguered truck maker, it's virtually synonymous with the four-door suburbo-sport/utility craze it helped inaugurate in the '80s. For '98, Isuzu has dressed up Trooper's appearance with softer folds of sheet metal. A new hard-case spare-tire carrier spruces up the rear of the truck. But the best news for next year is the provision of increased power pouring though the new four-wheel-drive system.The new twin-cam V6 makes 215 HP, up 13 percent for '98; torque is up 22 percent. The new push-button Torque On Demand (TOD) drive system is the industry's first to dedicate a stand-alone computer system for instantly and continuously proportioning torque between front and rear wheels. TOD was developed by Borg-Warner for the Trooper; it can detect -- or even predict -- minute amounts of slippage and reduce wheel-spin by "throwing" torque to the other wheels in a eye-blinking trice. A lever-actuated 4WD-Low mode remains for those occasional exultations of stump-pulling and rock-hopping that every red-blooded four-wheeler oughta indulge in, oh, at least once.Audi A6Audi decided to debut its striking new A6 midsize sedan to North America at the Miami show precisely as the cars rolled into dealer showrooms for the first time. This is the sedan on which a reinvigorated Audi is pinning most of its ambitious hopes in the U.S. The swoopy, flowing silhouette is consciously coupe-like, despite the four doors and generous seating space. The vaguely clamshell appearance harmonizes with Audi's "world-is-my-oyster" attitude.Announcing the car's base price of $33,750, Audi's Gerd Klauss fully intended to shoot across the bow of BMW's more expensive 5-Series sedans and Mercedes' even pricier E-Class cars. With a 2.8-liter V6 making 200 HP, the A6 comes in front-wheel-drive and 4WD Quattro versions. Front passenger side airbags are standard; optional side airbags for the rear seats are a first in this category. With its svelte lineup of lean, mean, Teutonic machines, Audi has pared back from 11 models only four years ago to just four platforms for '98. The arrival of the new A6 sedan, to be followed shortly by the A6 Avant wagon, strengthens Audi's bid to redefine North America's concept of the German auto experience.


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