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smart Naming Concept AUTOS ON FRIDAY/Design; If This Is the Future, It's Not Exactly Pretty

CONCEPT cars have long been a staple of automobile shows because these vehicles allow auto makers to achieve two self-serving goals simultaneously: manufacturers can appear to be engineering leaders by showing off state-of-the-art technology (even if some of it is so conceptual it may never find its way into mass production) while keeping consumers hooked on one of the industry's most potent narcotics -- the dream machine.

"Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century," an exhibit that opened July 22 at the Museum of Modern Art, takes the concept car and turns the concept on its head. Although all the vehicles displayed in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden include cutting-edge engineering and design features, some are already available to consumers in various countries, and most of the others will soon be as well.

And far from being fantasy inducing, these vehicles -- designed for a world running short of clean air, crude oil and parking spaces -- offer a conscience-awakening look at the types of cars that we may not want to drive in the future, but probably will have to.

The poster child for the show is its smallest exhibit: the Smart Car, a joint venture of DaimlerChrysler and Swatch. Sport utility owners may shudder at its length: a shade under 100 inches long. With little more than a dashboard and two seats inside, the Smart Car looks as if it could have accidentally rolled off a conveyor belt on a Disney World ride. But in Europe, where it has been on sale since 1998, it is smart indeed, taking up half a typical parking spot.

As small as the Ford Ka is -- 143 inches long -- it is about 45 percent longer than the Smart Car. About a half million Kas have been sold in Australia, Europe, Latin America and Japan since 1996. The Ka looks at home in the Modern: its exterior and interior are marked by soothing, organic curves and long, unbroken lines. Nonetheless, its name -- an Egyptian word for soul -- may seem like a self-deprecating joke. It's so small, a three-letter word is far too lavish to describe it.

For drivers whose cars represent an inviolable and essential chunk of their personal space, two vehicles in "Different Roads" provide the comforting promise that the spacious interior is safe for Year 2000 and beyond. The Audi Al2, a 1,700-pound minivan expected to go on sale in Europe later this year, uses extensive aluminum construction and takes styling cues from the Audi TT. The museum notes play up features that are not unusual -- navigation system, clutchless manual transmission -- but ignore the intriguing multilens head lamps.

Another minivan, the Fiat Multipla Bipower, comes by its tongue-twisting name deservedly. Its hybrid engine can combine gasoline use with diesel, electric or methane. The dashboard makes ergonomic sense: the screen for the navigation system is directly in front of the driver (the instruments -- requiring less-frequent glances by comparison -- are in the middle). Or the screen can be plugged in to face the passengers, to show movies to entertain children. The middle front seat can even be replaced by a small refrigerator. Not to worry, though, Americans won't be adding refrigerator raids to their long list of driving distractions because there are no plans to sell the Multipla in the United States.

Hybrid and alternative-power cars are also represented at the Modern's exhibit: the General Motors EV1 electric, available for lease in Western states, and the Honda VV and Toyota Prius, gasoline-electric hybrids to go on sale here within a year. The Prius features homely styling typical of the Japan-only market, but the VV (to be called Insight here), like the EV1, has a tapered tail reminiscent of Citroen sedans.

Speaking of Citroens, the one vehicle that does more to produce dread for the future of car styling than any other is the DaimlerChrysler Composite Concept Vehicle -- CCV for short (like everything in this exhibit). It is meant to evoke the Citroen 2CV and to be as easy to build as a toy, but its injection-molded plastic body makes the CCV seem more like motorized lawn furniture. The CCV will be marketed in developing countries, which may or may not ease their resentment of the major economic powers.

"Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century" is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53d Street, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400, through Sept. 21.

By JOSEPH SIANO Published: July 30, 1999 New York Times
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