WASHINGTON — The new buzzword in the auto industry is the "crossover car," a vehicle that combines elements of a minivan, station wagon and sport utility vehicle. The idea is to come up with the best features of all three in a car that is not too suburban, dorky or politically incorrect.
Recently General Motors unveiled a new concept car, a bare, skateboard-like platform with an integral fuel cell. The buyer would then customize the chassis into whatever kind of car he wanted. Since everything is electronic, the small steering apparatus and the hand grips for speed and braking could be located anywhere in the car, giving actual meaning to the phrase "back-seat driver."
In a popular TV car commercial, a guy looking for change for the parking meter approaches a driver who has just parked and asks, "Change for a dollar?" Driver No. 2 starts flipping these panels around and changes his weird-looking pickup into a weird-looking SUV and pockets the buck.
It's not hard to see where this trend is going — the changeover car that the owner can transform from a truck to a station wagon to a minivan to an SUV. In an era of vehicle crowding, when neighborhood associations are getting picky about letting the citizens park in their front yards, one car that does the work of several makes sense. Pushed a little further, the concept has real merit.
Environmentalists and social puritans are coming down hard on SUVs as being too big, too dangerous, too energy-consuming and just too in-your-face. SUV owners are liable to find leaflets on their windshields denouncing them as planet-hating polluters.
By flipping around the panels, seats and trim on your platform, your Leviathan 4X4 is transformed into a Whispering Willow econobox with an Earth First! bumper sticker. It is now safe to move around Berkeley.
Rearranging some additional panels transforms your Whispering Willow into the Hombre 250 pickup truck, because when you stop at a crossroads bar in Wyoming you don't want the cowboys to put your econobox in the Dumpster.
For your class reunion, your changeover car becomes a passable imitation of a Rolls-Royce and, once you've wowed your classmates, it transforms into a clunker so you can park the car in the rougher parts of town without coming back to find it up on blocks.
For commuting, the car transforms into a sensible, 5-year-old, four-door sedan so that your employers won't think that you're living too fast or too well. And it transforms into a throaty two-seater sports car, the Flashfire 600, so you can pick your kid up at school in front of his friends, and once out of sight it becomes a minivan so you can get your knees out of your chest.
Of course, your changeover can become a limo for the school prom, and the following morning you can thwart road rage and blow through traffic by reconfiguring the platform to become the Anthrax 666 Death Car with the large warning, "Toxic Medical Waste. Keep 100 Yards Distance."
Sadly, no matter how useful, the changeover car will never come to be — and for a simple reason: Americans will never buy a car that comes with the warning "Some Assembly Required."