Event Preview: Car junkies fill up at city’s annual Auto Show

Last year, U.S. automobile sales fell to the lowest levels in nearly a decade. Houston bucked the trend, posting a sales gain of 2.6 percent. It’s evidence that the nation’s largest car-friendly city is the right stage for auto manufacturers to showcase their very latest vehicles.

Unfortunately, the annual Houston Auto Show is scheduled between major shows in Detroit and Chicago, depriving Houston drivers of the chance to experience emerging technologies firsthand.

Showgoers won’t be able to drool over the recently unveiled Audi R8 TDI concept, a Lamborghini-based supercar fueled by clean diesel. Also absent are the 2007 Ford Airstream and Chevrolet Volt series hybrid concepts, which feature drivetrains that could eventually reduce or eliminate the need for petroleum fuels altogether.

Token Priuses aside, even Toyota’s exhibit is devoid of new alternative fuel vehicles.

Instead, carbon-conscious Toyota fans will be shocked to see the 13-mpg Sequoia sport-utility vehicle on the company’s tallest turntable.

Chevrolet’s competing Tahoe Hybrid, also on display, utilizes an electric motor at both city and highway speeds to maximize efficiency. Federal fuel economy estimates say that the eight-passenger SUV can achieve 20 mpg in the city – more than some midsize sedans.

Redesigned versions of the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram full-size pickups post relatively minor increases in fuel efficiency, but offer significant advances in cabin infotainment. Both offer Sirius satellite radio and traffic data, but F-150 drivers can also seek movie showtimes, sports scores and gas prices using Sirius Travel Link. Ram owners can satiate younger backseat passengers with Sirius Backseat TV, which airs three channels of children’s programming.

Sirius Travel Link and Backseat TV are manufacturer-exclusive through 2009, but should find their way into other vehicles soon after.

By then, Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge expect to equip their trucks with high-efficiency, clean-burning diesel engines. Chevrolet and Dodge plan hybrid powertrains as well.

The city’s speed demons will sorely miss the Nissan GTR, which had standing obligations that prevented a proper Houston debut. The leadfooted must instead tread to Lotus, where the lithe 2-Eleven lies in wait. The $80,000 Elise-based beast is devoid of doors and a proper windshield. Those aspiring to checkered glory should bring a trailer: the 2-Eleven is a purpose-built track car. Driving it on public roads is illegal.

Mitsubishi salutes the burgeoning generation of younger enthusiasts by displaying the 1984 Pajero Rally truck, which used a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system to race to a third-place overall finish in the 1984 Paris-Dakar Rally. The three-door SUV was the prelude to Mitsubishi’s hard-fought climb to World Rally Championship victory in the decades that followed.

The storied Pajero sits next to the Lancer Evolution X, the tenth iteration of Mitsubishi’s mountain-taming family sedan. Its turbocharged four cylinder engine channels 295 horsepower to all four wheels.

Dreamers eager to experience the automotive future must settle for visions from years past. The monstrous Chrysler Imperial sedan is the most recent concept car at the show – it debuted in Jan. 2006. Twin Hemi V8s bedeck Jeep’s Hurricane concept from 2005, when gas prices averaged less than $2 per gallon.

A chopped, dropped and glitzed Suzuki Grand Vitara was introduced as the Wave concept in 2005. Envisioned as the ideal jet-ski hauler, the topless four-door brings back memories of the beach-loving Suzuki X90 and Samurai.

However, the most interesting open-topped vehicle at the show won’t ever see the beach. Students in the College of Technology chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers are showcasing their Formula SAE racecar, which will ultimately be raced against dozens of other schools’ cars at national competition.

Visitors can closely inspect the car’s intricate double-wishbone suspension, similar to systems used on Formula 1 cars.

The super-lightweight one-passenger vehicle will be engineered by students, to maximize acceleration, braking and handling dynamics.

Such a distilled vehicle is a rare sight at a show intended to celebrate automotive excess. However, mechanical engineering technology senior Alfio Arcidiacono said visitor response has been positive.

"We get a lot of people who have competed in SAE in past generations," said Arcidiacono. "They remember what it was like when they did it. They tell you how much fun it was."

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