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CAR CULTURE

More Than Horsepower on Display in New York

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page G02

NEW YORK -- Horsepower sells. Unfortunately, it also blinds, obscuring and sometimes obliterating views of more sensible vehicles.

Thus, it is not surprising to see dispatches from the media preview of the 2005 New York International Auto Show hailing or condemning mega-horsepower vehicles such as the 450-horsepower Ford Shelby Mustang Cobra GT500, or the similarly rambunctious Dodge Viper SRT-10 roadster with its huge 8.3-liter, 500-horsepower V-10 engine.

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Those cars are sexy. They attract photographers and legions of gear-heads from traditional automotive media. I mean, which would you prefer on the cover of your glossy car magazine -- a hot Viper, or an all-things-common, 2.4-liter, economical, 150-horsepower Dodge Stratus sedan?

The problem is that such reports give the impression that the world is going to hell in fire-breathing chariots while oil fields are running dry, or are being consumed in the flames of yet another resource war. How feckless and uncaring must the world's automotive companies be to flood the market with such wasteful vehicles in an era of diminishing fuel supplies and increasing armed conflict?

And what about the carnage such vehicles are causing on the roads by encouraging people to speed and take chances in cars or trucks they have no competence, or limited ability, to drive? Is everybody going wacko?

No.

They're just being suckered by the headlines.

The New York show opened to the public over the weekend and closes April 3. If you are in New York City while it is running, visit the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to see for yourselves what the automotive industry is offering. It's substantially more than horsepower, which makes sense when you think about it.

Most consumers can't afford the gigantic purchase and operational costs that accompany gigantic horsepower. That Viper SRT-10, for example, will set you back $82,295 just to get it out of the showroom. That price does not include taxes, fees or insurance costs. DaimlerChrysler Corp., maker of Dodge vehicles, has no plans to offer the Viper SRT-10 as a mass-market or mainstream product.

The same thing is true for almost any high-horsepower car or truck you can find. They are limited-edition rides, designed and produced more to yield a marketing buzz than anything else. Car manufacturers call that buzz the "halo effect," the glow that attracts consumers to the showroom to wind up buying something a heck of a lot more affordable and practical.

There are more than 1,000 vehicles on display at the New York auto show, and the vast majority of them are priced from about $15,000 to $40,000 -- just as they are in the real world. And people looking for fuel-sippers will have absolutely no problem finding them here, just as they should have no problem finding them, if they really want them, at most new-car dealerships in the United States.

You want cars that get more than 30 miles per gallon? Check out the 1.7-liter, normally aspirated, inline four-cylinder, 115-horsepower Honda Civic sedan, or an 85-horsepower Civic gas/electric hybrid. Ford Motor Co. offers the Focus car in several fuel-saving iterations; and Chevrolet has two versions of its little 1.6-liter, four-cylinder, 103-horsepower Aveo urban runner.

Would you like something hip, fast, yet reasonably fuel-efficient? There is the new Audi A3 compact, expressly designed for city/suburban use, equipped with a base 2-liter, four-cylinder, 200-horsepower engine. If you desire still more horsepower, while holding onto the image of being environmentally conscious and socially responsible, there is an Audi A3 with a 3.2-liter V-6 engine producing 250 horsepower and developing a maximum 237 foot-pounds of torque.

There also is a bevy of fuel-saving concept vehicles on display at the New York show. "Concepts" are exactly what the word implies. They are ideas, which may or may not come to fruition. But they are good indicators of how the car industry is looking at the future.

One of the more notable concepts in this category is the General Motors Sequel multipurpose vehicle, a hydrogen-powered vehicle that can run 300 miles on a tank of gas and accelerates from 0 to 60 miles per hour in, well, a not-so-stunning 10 seconds.

But the purpose of the Sequel -- which also has been exhibited at auto shows in Detroit, Los Angeles and Geneva -- is not to win races. The idea is to provide a reasonable, workable alternative to fossil-fuel cars and trucks. There is something else: The Sequel emits nothing except water vapor.


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