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Concept cars worth snapping up

Microbus is evocative of the old — but safer

DETROIT — I've been saving my money since our last fantasy automobile shopping spree and I'm ready to spend again. Saw a fine passel of concept cars at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and decided that if they will build them, I will buy.

I've added onto the garage, so let's go shopping.

First up, I'll take that Volkswagen Microbus. Got the abbreviated front end, the short overhangs, big wheel wells, plenty of windows, and that rectangular shape we grew to love right from the introduction of the original bus in 1950. The folks at VW did a fine job when they gave us the New Beetle — evocative of that cult car, but in no way the same. Well, they've done it again with the Microbus concept. It's got a little bulge up front, owing that you couldn't possibly meet today's safety standards with a flat nose like the old days.

Thin-line Xenon headlights are nothing like the original, but they work. The side doors slide. And it's got 20-inch alloy wheels. Won't find it sputtering up hills, thanks to a 3.2-liter V-6 that delivers around 250 horsepower. Inside, folks, it's lava lamps be gone! Got entertainment screens everywhere, front and rear. The seats in the middle swivel to face the rear bench and everybody can sit back and enjoy their favorite movie.

It's all hush-hush, but I am pursuing the rumor that the new Microbus will be lubricated with patchouli oil.

And while we're drifting back in time, I'll take that Ford concept, the Forty-Nine. At the introduction, they teased us with an original 1949 Ford; teased us again with a candy apple red version of what folks liked to do to the stock '49er — chopped and channeled and all full of grace. Then they rolled out the concept, glistening black velvet, looking chopped and channeled — I had to order a seat belt installed in my pal Bugsy Lawlor's auditorium chair just to hold him back — and the crowd ooohed and ahhhed like fireworks were going off. This slab-sided beauty is one fine automobile. It sits on the same platform as the new Thunderbird (which sits on the same platform as the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type), so production should not be a long step away. Inside, the primary gauges are all housed in a round binnacle. Two-tone leathers — saddle above, leather below — swathe the interior. Mount this on 20-inch wheels, slap a Powered by Thunderbird badge on the side, referring to the 3.9-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V-8 under the hood, remind me again that I see not only '49, but '55 Crown Vic and a touch of Ghia, paint it velvet black, and park it right there in my garage, please.

Born to be w-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-ld, born to be w-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-ld. So right there, between the Microbus and the Forty-Niner, park that Audi Steppenwolf. You know the one: sits high on big, rugged tires even as it looks as if it's crouching. A high-performance road car that will run with the gnarly rigs in serious off-road tests. Got an electronically controlled clutch that distributes power — from 3.2 liters of V-6 — to front and rear wheels. Got the Electronic Differential Lock that swaps torque between the wheels on each axle. Like the Microbus and the Forty-Niner, this one looks as if it's ready for ramp-up and we'll see it in showrooms someday. Of course, mine will already be parked in the garage by then.

So now I'm ready for Woodstock 2010, cruise nights at any burger joint, and the next Mud Bog Boogy. What else to add to the garage?

I'll take that Ford Explorer Sportsman. Not your everyday Explorer; Land Rover-esque, in fact. It's got rectangular headlights, a slightly sloped grille, high roof with big glass all around, a clean-chopped rear end, and tubular cargo rack on top. Tip to Ford: Build it.

Next time I head to the paint ball jungle, I'm going in the Jeep Willys concept. Its serious tires, alone, tell you this plastic-bodied rig is ready for battle. Sits high, sits open, sits angular. Reminds me of a Volkswagen Thing on steroids. Inside, high-tech gear and machined metal amenities tell you it's a serious ride.

There's something about a Hemi I just love, and that's why you can add the Dodge Super8 Hemi to my stable. It's brawny on the outside, powered by a 5.7-liter V-8 — that's the throwback part; inside, you find voice-activated controls and Internet access, front and rear. Welcome to tomorrow.

OK, so I have to get the kids to soccer. Do I do it in a van (so passe), a truck, or a sports ute? How about all of the above? And that's why I'll pony up for the Honda Model X. It sits high, it's chunky, it's big inside and looks as if you could hose it out after a long road trip. Its seats move about on channels, leaving room for gear, children, pets or groceries. It has active satellite navigation, wireless Internet capabilities, DVD player for movies and video games, and a digital satellite radio link that will let you download MP3 music files. On second thought, let's just sit in the driveway and entertain ourselves.

Golf, anyone? Let's take the Buick Bengal (Tiger — get it?). Nothing wrong with a supercharged roadster with a retractable tonneau cover. Look beneath and you'll find room for two golf bags or, bags removed, seats for two more occupants. And wonder of wonders — did I see this on a Duesenberg? — there's a third door just behind the driver's door to make it easy to get your clubs in and out.

And finally, just because I got to drive the BMW Z8 this fall, I have to have the Z9. Numerical pattern and all that, you understand. This one is a 2+2 that is slung low owing to a low engine compartment. It's got a chopped rear end, low, sloping windshield, and kidney grilles that just dare you. Add 21-inch wheels to the back, 20s up front, and it pleads from the garage, "Drive me hard."