Jay Leno and EcoJet concept car
GM
The EcoJet concept car, a one-off collaboration between GM and talk show host Jay Leno, shown here, shows there is an emerging sense of environmental responsibility in the automobile customization business.
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updated 11/3/2006 6:50:06 PM ET 2006-11-03T23:50:06

Even as a celebration of American muscle cars took center stage at this year’s mod-manic Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas, an emerging sense of environmental responsibility was also evident.

The most striking example of this was the world debut of the EcoJet concept car (shown above), a one-off collaboration between General Motors and noted speed nut and talk show host Jay Leno. The car, built around a Corvette Z06 aluminum frame, is powered by a 650-hp turbine engine (similar to a helicopter engine) that will rocket the 2,100-pound car off line with 585 pound-feet of torque. The “eco” part of the name comes from the fact that the car will run on biodiesel, a clean-burning fuel derived from renewable resources.

“We live in an era where liking cars and the environment don’t seem to mix,” Leno said during the EcoJet’s unveiling at the SEMA show. “But we wanted to show that not every environmentally friendly vehicle has to drive like a Prius.”

SEMA itself jumped on the green theme, creating a new hybrid category for its vehicle design awards, which go to the most accessory-friendly vehicles on the market. Designs are judged by the modification shops and companies that make up the Specialty Equipment Market Association. In the standard award categories — cars, trucks and SUVs — muscle was well represented: The winners were the Ford Shelby GT500, Toyota Tundra and Jeep Wrangler four-door, respectively.

But the surprise winner of the new hybrid category was a brawny choice, too: the Chevrolet Silverado Classic Hybrid, which uses an electric motor to assist its Vortec 5.3-liter V8 engine to boost fuel economy. Unlike its more buzzed-about green brethren the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrids, the Silverado can’t drive on electric alone.

“The Silverado did come out of the blue, in that a lot of other hybrids were getting a lot more press,” said SEMA vice president Peter MacGillivray. “Yet the Silverado has more accessories available for it than any other vehicle.” So while green is good, customization is still king at SEMA.

Other show highlights included a surprising appearance by GM’s stodgy Buick brand, its first official presence since the show started in 1967. Buick made a group of 10 Lucernes available to various tuner shops to modify as they saw fit, and then gathered the tricked-out rides at an informal media event that Buick hopes will start changing the tide of how people see the grandfatherly brand.

“You can’t just wake up one day and announce, ‘OK, now I’m cool,’” said Buick general manager Steve Shannon, adding that the brand’s reputation has yet to catch up with the strides in quality that it has made in recent years. The model showcased in GM’s booth at the show was dubbed the Lucerne CXX Luxury Liner, a playful riff on Buick’s traditional luxo-boat history.

On the smaller side of things, Honda showed off two versions of its new Civic Si sedan that just went on sale Nov. 1. One of them featured a Honda Factory Performance package that will be available next year and includes cosmetic add-ons, stiffer suspension springs, larger wheels, performance tires and a less-restrictive muffler. The will kit cost $4,300 and all of its components can be ordered and installed separately through Honda dealers.

A prototype of a limited-edition Mugen Civic Si sedan was also on display. It will come to the U.S. in spring 2007. Only 500 of these body- and suspension-enhanced Mugen sedans will be available, and although power numbers were not revealed, it likely won’t offer much more horsepower than the stock 197-hp Civic Si sedan. Honda says the suggested retail price will start below $30,000.

Volkswagen showed the R GTI, a concept version of the new 2007 GTI, which VW says is a more “streetable” (meaning more comfortable for everyday driving) concept than the 600-hp-plus Jetta R concept cars they showed at last year’s SEMA event. The R GTI features plenty of carbon-fiber pieces to trim weight down and a turbocharger by APR that boosts engine output to 375 hp.

The show wouldn’t be complete without the unveiling of larger, wider and more expensive wheels than ever before, including a few measuring 34 inches in diameter, and a set of diamond-encrusted rims with a price tag of $2 million.

© 2013 Forbes.com

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