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msnbc.com

If SUVs are so 1998, then sports cars are even more passé. Combine the two, though, and you might just have the next motor trend. It’s quite a concept. Sports car performance with room for friends or even a jet ski — all in a package you can still parallel park. Call it a rally car for consumers.

It's an emerging idea among the many mutations of the SUV that will debut at this week’s 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Chevy, Infiniti, Mitsubishi, Toyota and even BMW and Porsche have already unveiled sports car-SUV hybrids. Isuzu even built one.

“I do think there is definitely a market out there for a vehicle that combines everything,” said Sjored Dijkstra, spokesperson for DaimlerChrysler. “The American customer is so used to getting what he wants.”basically a rally car. The back can carry mountain bikes or two additional passengers, depending on how it’s configured. Estimated cost is under $25,000.

It’s aimed at “the person just getting out of college, has a real active lifestyle — is in their 20s, early 30s — and they’re looking for a vehicle that makes a statement about where they are in their life,” said Saucedo.

The rally generation
Chevy might have to compete with Mitsubishi and Toyota. Each has unveiled a rally-like concept car in the past year. So have BMW and Infiniti, though they aim for an upscale audience.

In the past, automotive trends have typically focused on families. The station wagon evolved into the minvan, which morphed into today’s SUV. Now, some automakers are shifting their sales strategies toward younger buyers in a bid for future customers. The carmakers hope that if they ensure a positive experience with their first new vehicle, the customers will be back next time.heard of that car, you probably don’t play video games.

“Recently, at the New York Auto Show, we unveiled the EVO 7 and these young people came running up, all excited. Our sales people are watching, just astonished, saying, ‘How do they even know about this car?’ But the (young people) are saying, ‘This is the one in PlayStation 2’ and they’re all excited about it,” said Sims.

In fact, at Chevy’s design studio, a rally-racing video game was part of their research.

“You’d be drawing along, trying to come up with some ideas and take time out to go play that. You come back, you’re relaxed, and you’re able to go forward with some ideas,” said Saucedo.

California dreamin’?
Toyota's also toying with a rally-type concept called the RSC (Rapid Sport Coupe). It's aimed at the same demographic as Chevy and Mitsubishi's prototypes. It, too, was designed in Southern California.

 "I think young people have a real zest for life in California," said Kevin Hunter, who heads up design at Toyota's Calty Design Center. "You can go out on weekends and see things happening and it was designed in Southern California.

"I think young people have a real zest for life in California," said Kevin Hunter, who heads up design at Toyota's Calty Design Center. "You can go out on weekends and see things happening and it response to their vehicles. “In general, they’ve very interested. Most everybody is like, ‘Well, when are you going to build it?’” said Saucedo.

The fact is, most concept cars never see production for a variety of reasons. Chrysler has cranked out about 100 concept cars since 1988, according to Dijkstra. Only 10 made it to production.

A slow (r)evolution
The 1997 Jeep Jeepster concept, a forerunner of today’s rally concepts, was one that never made it. “The first reaction was typically, ‘What a cool design.’ But we got a whole bunch of letters and e-mails saying, ‘But you’re not really serious that you’d have a high-performance Jeep?’” said Dijkstra.

Jeep enthusiasts, it turns out, largely rejected the idea.$30,000, they’re beyond the reach of most young buyers.

“Our objective with the VehiCross has always been a niche vehicle … partly mass manufactured, but also partly hand-crafted, much like a fine micro-brew,” said Hyde. “The most ground-breaking aspect of the VehiCross is that we did it.”

Like prints of fine art, Isuzu aimed only to mint a few thousand copies before destroying the molds. Their goal was to create a rare and mysterious vehicle, an icon for their brand, much like the Viper is for Dodge.

X factor
Sometimes a concept vehicle is simply a design study. BMW’s X coupé, for example, may never see production, but its spirit may resonate in future models.Walk around the car and you’ll notice subtle differences on each side. The rear left side opens up and out, like a clamshell, allowing easier access to the rear seat and trunk.

“A car is the biggest product that people end up buying, apart from their own home, that really expresses their personality,” said Warming. “I do think a concept like asymmetry can be a really integral part of people expressing themselves. We really think we’re standing on the brink of something big here.”

Making it to market
Chevy, Mitsubishi and Toyota have a more immediate goal: Sell cars.

“The interesting thing about the (Toyota RSC) is that it really could sell in Europe, Japan and America. Rally is certainly popular in Europe and Japan,” said Hunter. He admits the RSC still needs to gain some traction within the company.

Saucedo notes that the Chevy Borrego would be relatively easy to produce because it shares underpinnings with the Subaru Legacy Outback. “We were trying to concentrate on this vehicle being somewhat low-tech, that everything would be very buildable,” said Saucedo, who hopes the Borrego will be the first to market.

“In order to do it and be profitable, you’re going to have to have somewhat of a mass market,” said Mitsubishi’s Sims.

He predicts someone will make it to market with an affordable rally car soon, but it will take time to create a consistent balance between performance and ruggedness.

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