New York Auto Show Preview: Hybrids, Minis, & Muscle Cars

From hydrogen-powered concept cars to the latest incarnation of the Mustang, the New York International Automobile Show is a showcase of cutting-edge car technology. Here's an opinionated take on the goings-on, along with a companion photo gallery of engine-equipped eye candy.

Interior view of Ford's hydrogen-powered Airstream concept minivan.

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Interior view of Ford's hydrogen-powered Airstream concept minivan.

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In practice, though, Japanese automakers such as Toyota and Honda remain well ahead of Ford and GM when it comes to taking alternative vehicles beyond the concept stage and actually selling them in volume.

For example, Ford's big introduction at the show wasn't an alternative vehicle but rather a so-called "crossover" called the Flex. All the rage these days, crossovers are bigger than a car but smaller than the minivans they're intended to displace.

To be fair, Ford does sell gas/electric vehicles, most notably the Escape Hybrid. At the show, the future tilt was toward hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Mulally told a mischievous anecdote about demonstrating a hydrogen car at the White House, and having to prod President Bush away from the vehicle's hydro port, where he was poised to plug in a power cord, toward the correct alternating current receptable.

Ford's hydro concept vehicle is called the Airstream. On the outside, it looks like a slightly more jellybean-like realization of a minivan. However, the interior is Star Trek enough that it seems unlikely the vehicle will move all that quickly from Ford's labs to its showrooms.

More market ready may be Chevrolet's Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle. GM's most popular marque plans to build 100 units of the car this year, to test the viability and market acceptance of hydrogen power in the midsize sport-utility segment.

For the near term, gas/electric will remain the nexus of activity. This year, going green may mean no longer having to say you're sorry. Lexus showed the first such hybrid power train I've seen that didn't look like it was sacrificing comfort or power in the name of fuel savings (as does the Toyota Prius).

The cabin of the small but fancy Mini Cooper is space-constrained, but not spartan.

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The cabin of the small but fancy Mini Cooper is space-constrained, but not spartan.

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No auto show is complete without nods toward raw horsepower, and it's here that the New York event really excels. NASCAR showed its "Car of Tomorrow," which isn't a future vehicle but rather a universal platform intended for use in the Nextel Cup Series. XM Satellite Radio had its logo all over a race car, which was among the winners at the recent American Le Mans Series race in Florida. And racing legend Carroll Shelby was on hand at the preview to unveil his latest Mustang, the GT500KR.

There also were numerous luxury offerings, ranging from Aston Martin's V8 Vantage Roadster -- a car Daniel Craig's James Bond could love -- to new Jaguars and Bentleys.

For upwardly mobile aspirants without as much of a budget, or much space, there's the Mini Cooper. Now made by BMW but inspired by the decades-old British design, the car has become a popular sight on New York City streets. It looks even better indoors, shined up and undented by encounters with the Big Apple outside.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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