Longing for Size and Speed
Auto Show Crowd Eschews Green

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Like it or not, the most enticing cars at the Washington Auto Show have little to do with alternative fuels, pollution-reducing technology or any of the Earth-friendly marketing themes spilling forth from the world's top automakers.

People see the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the latest iteration of the mammoth British luxury sedan, and they exude desire. Tucked on a sliver of convention floor space up against a black wall, it has the presence of a tank. Its audacity affects people.

Some circled it yesterday and tugged at its door handles, trying to get in. Others stood off to the side, leaning back, trying to get all of it into their camera's viewfinder. "You can come out of this car and slap somebody," said Chukie Gboneme, a 25-year-old from Bowie who was at the show this week with his little brother Ike.

Ike said the show's environmental themes and the heavy emphasis on fuel efficiency that has taken hold of the auto industry were of little importance to him. No matter that the Phantom can manage only 11 miles per gallon in city driving, or what that might mean for air quality.

"I really don't think this is going to do too much against the environment," he said. "They should go against people in trucks."

Every major car company in the world is employing green-car strategy, involving concept cars, special fuels, prototypes, limited-production vehicles and loads of marketing hype. They will roll out these models in the coming years, but many have expressed a nagging fear that consumers won't bite.

Matt Parker of Rockville summed up the prevailing consumer attitude at the show while inspecting a black and red special edition Ford Expedition. He said he was leaving fuel economy to automakers to figure out.

"They're big business," Parker said. "I'm just the consumer."

Brian and Sara Dulany and their kids were climbing around the Hummer H3.

"It's definitely not the car for us," Sara Dulany said. The family will probably buy another Toyota 4Runner, but would like something cool and truckish.

"We're truck and SUV people -- real SUV, not the car-based SUV," she said. A small car is impossible because of the groceries, kids, kids' friends, and their sports. Anything but a Honda minivan.

"We live in the Maryland suburbs," Brian Dulany said. "You would think the neighborhood is sponsored by Honda Odyssey."

Americans buy not-so-exciting cars all the time. The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla topped sales charts years before Japanese engineers thought about styling. Still, gearheads and Motor Trend magazine have clout in the industry as trendsetters that can influence the buying decisions of co-workers, family members and neighbors.

The few muscle cars at the show, like the Shelby GT500KR, which Ford describes as the most powerful production Mustang ever, had young men taking turns posing beside the front fender's cobra emblem as others snapped pictures with cellphones.

"It's a piece of Americana, like the Whopper," said Yuriy Guzman, 17, of Baltimore. "They have to find a way to make it environmentally friendly."

Even when examining small cars, car lovers were looking for something special at the show, which runs through Sunday at the Washington Convention Center.

Terry White, of Alexandria, was feeling around the interior of a new Mini convertible yesterday, testing the jet-like flip switches of the center console. Like most Americans, he said, he was looking for something with oomph and luxury with technology under the hood that could solve the gas problem.

"I'm charmed," he said.

Small-car options appeared limited, pushing aging baby boomers onto the unfamiliar territory of Scion, Toyota's youth-car brand.

"I shouldn't even be in this section," said Larry Waldron, a 60-year-old retired federal worker. The Scion could be a real draw for older people, he said. It is easy to get in and out of and has thin windshield posts, giving drivers a wider view of the road. But he said Toyota will have to dress the brand down so the car doesn't look quite so funky.

"My first question if I went to buy one: Could I get it with normal wheels? I just want old-fashioned fat tires and normal wheels," he said.

"And can I get it in a normal color so it doesn't look like it's that slick?"

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