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A car-car -- auto for the masses
Designers answer the call for what America's middle class likes to drive

Automakers are reluctant to admit to making what designers call car-cars, the basic family sedans bought by millions of typical Americans. Instead, they prefer to draw attention to fanciful design studies that project fun and freedom -- all the better if they exude elegance, like the Buick Velite, or design innovation, like the Lexus LF-C.

But car-cars do still exist, and they are especially noteworthy this year, given the unusual confluence of new mass-market models from General Motors, the Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co. These new cars include the compact Chevrolet Cobalt, the midsize Buick LaCrosse and Ford Five Hundred, the family-size Chrysler 300 and several others.

In decades past, solid square-deal cars such as the 1949 Ford or the 1955 Chevy -- and later, the Galaxie and Impala, the Taurus and Caprice -- transported the vast middle class. Although hundreds of thousands were sold each year, the cars were not just average, they were stylish enough to bring a touch of romance to the masses.

But in 2004, there is no single iconic family sedan, the bland Toyota Camry notwithstanding. This reflects social and cultural change, a shift toward a more heterogeneous society, said Ed Welburn, executive design director at GM. "We don't have a single set of fashion rules any more, for instance," he said. "We don't go from wide to thin all at once. You can buy ties of different widths in department stores."

The decline of the universal family sedan is partly a result, too, of the industry's learning to build many different models on common foundations. The car-car is also fading as the industry gets better at building and selling the more specialized, low-volume models known as niche vehicles.

That is why Ford is replacing the Taurus not with a single restyled model, but with two sedans, including the Five Hundred on display at the show, and the Freestyle utility wagon. The other, unnamed Ford sedan will have variants from Lincoln (the Zephyr) and Mercury (the Montego).

The Five Hundred is an unabashed tribute to the Audi A6, with taillights that wrap around the corners like those of a Mercedes. Over at GM, the Chevrolet Cavalier has been, for a quarter-century, the quintessential cheap rental car for many and the first new car for millions of middle-class Americans. For years, GM has sold about 250,000 Cavaliers a year, more than the total U.S. sales of BMWs.

But the Cavalier's low-rung spot will be taken this fall by two cars: the Aveo and the Cobalt. The Cobalt comes not just as an unassuming sedan, but in extreme versions such as an SS coupe aimed at the young enthusiasts who usually aspire to imports. Although the sedan is no more distinctive than any other small four-door, the coupe is a blank canvas. Customized by options and added accessories, it will no longer seem generic.

In New York, the Aveo sits forlornly at the edge of GM's display. It is the company's smallest, most basic car, a Korean-built Daewoo that wears Chevy's bow tie. The look is the product of Italdesign, Giorgetto Giugiaro's Italian design house known for small, universal car-cars such as the original Volkswagen Golf and the Fiat Panda. Customers might be forgiven for thinking that by relying so much on foreigners, Chevy doesn't have its heart in small cars.

The most innovative car-car is the Chrysler 300, which comes with a six-cylinder option, at $25,000 or so, or the brutish Hemi V-8. The innovation here is in the proportions created by a shift to rear-wheel drive.

Trevor Creed, senior vice president for design at Chrysler, rightly calls the look "noble" and emphasizes its American roots. (Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's design director, designed the car.) To the man in the street, the upright lines suggest the nobility of a Mercedes -- even if he hadn't heard that the car uses many Mercedes parts.

The new car-cars show the influence of sport utilities. Americans have grown accustomed to the size: Car-cars now offer more interior space and higher seats that permit a better view, while diminishing the "loomed over" feeling one gets from being surrounded by trucks.

A Five Hundred driver sits 4 inches higher than in the Taurus; in the new 300, you are nearly 3 inches above where you'd be in a prior model, the 300M.

The effect of trucks is also visible in the fact that the 300's sibling, the Dodge Magnum, looks like a station wagon but is classified as a truck.

The new car-cars claim to be luxury cars disguised as ordinary cars -- "value propositions," in marketer-speak. They try to look European, for one thing, and they are pitched as luxury products at attractive prices. Ford will give you an American Audi; Chrysler, an American Mercedes. The Chrysler offers luxury touches such as optional tortoiseshell-look accents on the steering wheel and dashboard. Ford offers a vast trunk and SUV flexibility.

But Pontiac's G6 joins the Nissan Altima and Mazda 6 to prove that basic cars need not be dull. The problem lies with designs aimed at generating acceptance rather than enthusiasm. Too often the shape of the average car comes out looking like the average of other shapes. The car-car will disappear only if designers make it so bland that no one notices it any longer.

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