- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

You've seen the TV commercials: A smiling Tiger Woods touting the virtues of a Buick Regal. Well, that scenario didn't ring true with the folks at Buick. Oh, the Regal is a nice car, an ongoing Buick success, but is a Regal really what a single, 24-year-old pro athlete would drive? I mean, discounting the influence of a trail of zeros following a number and dollar sign.
Back at the drawing board, Buick's designers (some relatively close to Tiger's age) were sculpting out a concept car that might be more appropriate for one so young, so successful and so radiant of smiles. They came up with the Buick Bengal. This tiger was introduced at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit in early January. The concept car made admiring onlookers who stood around it reflect their own smile in its gleaming sides. This little car is a beaut.
Don't rush off to get your name on a waiting list. The Bengal is still just a concept, which means it was created for car shows and probably promotion on the greens of PGA venues. Take heart, however. In recent years, concept cars have a fair shot of making it into production. Buick's Bengal, judging by the reactions from the multitudes of media on the show floor, should very well go into production.
AutoWeek magazine cited the Bengal as "Best Concept" in the show and dubbed it "Dead Solid Perfect." A Princeton, N.J., engineer admittedly made nervous by the very notion of design if it isn't technical in purpose was quite taken by the Bengal and pronounced it the "best looking vehicle since the 1924 LaFrance pumper." For all of that, the Bengal is more apt to start fires than put them out.
The Buick Bengal is purposeful but not arrogant. The camera likes it, but naked eyes like it better. For one thing, only in-person viewing can appreciate that this four-seater roadster is not much bigger than a Porsche Boxster, maybe 4 inches more in length and less than that in width.
If the driver doesn't want to carry two in the rear seat, he can put two golf bags there and cover all from prying eyes. A neat idea is the concealed rear-hinged door (similar to the Saturn coupe's door) that makes access to the rear easy.
The performance-minded driver will probably like the 3.4-liter V-6 with 240 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque, but he might question the front-wheel-drive layout. The weight balance fore and aft, however, are said to be quite central because a new six-speed automatic transmission allows the placement of the transaxle in front of the engine. And the true car folk all nodded in approval at the 20-inch wheels.
General Motors also pleased the media with its relatively simple Pontiac Vibe GT (sister to the Toyota Matrix and sharing the same 1.8-liter 180-horsepower four-cylinder engine). AutoWeek saw fit to dub the Vibe "Most Significant" of the show. The Vibe an appealing little wagon-hatchback-crossover-SUV shares a family resemblance to its odd sibling, the Pontiac Aztek, but somehow transcends it. At the Detroit auto show, it was confirmed to me that the misbegotten Aztek will be trotted off to the plastic surgeon and may well emerge with an exterior more fitting to its smart interior.
Sticking with the General, the Cadillac Escalade EXT was unveiled at the Detroit show. As the sport utility vehicle market heated up in the past decade, Caddy dealers were urging the home office to give them a competitor to Lincoln's Navigator. They finally got the Escalade. So you could buy a truck, albeit posh, at the local Cadillac store. Now, with the EXT, you can buy a luxury pickup truck.
It seems SUVs were getting so aristocratic that owners hated to carry such less-than-pristine stuff as "garden dressing" or even firewood inside the vehicle. And, yet, they didn't want to give up the passenger roominess by going to a pickup. Even a crew cab was too cramped.
Thus was born the SUV with a truncated pickup bed. All that stinky or messy stuff now has a place in the open air, and the inside passengers can stretch out as much as they want.
Actually, Lincoln with its Blackwood pickup has beat Cadillac to the punch, but the dealers don't mind.
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