Cars Bring Touches Of Home To La Auto Show

LOS ANGELES | Tuesday, January 10, 2006

What do you get when you cross "Pimp My Ride" with "Cribs"? Something like the wilder offerings at this week's Los Angeles Auto Show.

Auto makers are taking cues from customizers, including those on MTV's car-makeover and celebrity homes shows, to design rides that feel more like living rooms - or in the case of one customized Chevrolet SSR, like backyards.

The truck, tricked out by a Southern California company and unveiled Wednesday, features a barbecue grill that folds out from the flat bed - along with a refrigerator and 32-inch satellite TV.

It's not even the most extreme example of a trend toward cars that feel like second homes. That would be a Nissan concept car called the URGE, which lets drivers park and use the steering wheel and pedals to play video games. It debuts Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

While the more whimsical features - grills and video games - won't be in showrooms anytime soon, an "explosion of the customization" has led some automakers to offer frills consumers once had to add themselves, said Larry Wu, who monitors emerging technologies for the marketing research and consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates.

It wasn't so long ago that only champagne-popping rappers had TVs and DVD players in the back seat - options that these days are nothing new to bored kids strapped into minivans.

More than 50 models now offer back seat entertainment systems, Wu said. BMW and Apple Computers, meanwhile, have developed an adaptor to integrate iPods into the sound systems of several BMW models.

Cars have always could offer a retreat from the outside world, but long commutes are increasing some consumers' desire for a rolling sanctuary, said Art Spinella, president of the Bandon, Ore.-based automotive firm CNW Marketing Research. That means a growing demand for the built-in comforts of home.

Though difficult to quantify, the market for home-style add-ins including computers and entertainment centers now totals $150 million to $200 million and could easily grow to $750 million within the next six years, Spinella estimated. Over just the past two years, the portion of drivers who want Internet connections in their cars went from 3 percent to 11 percent, according to the company's surveys, and there was an even bigger jump when it came to MP3 players.

"More and more people are outfitting their cars the way they would a room in their house," Spinella said. "It used to be that coffee holders were more than sufficient, but now they want to plug in their coffee and keep it hot." The recent rash of customization - and of automakers borrowing customers' ideas - reflects the influence of Southern California's hip-hop-infused car culture on the rest of the country.

"Pimp My Ride," the MTV reality show hosted by rapper Xzibit, is the gold-and-diamond-studded standard of car-makeover shows. The show features junkers being rebuilt into immaculate show cars with such homey touches as fireplaces and fish tanks.

Al & Ed's Autosound, a Van Nuys-based chain that built the grill-equipped SSR, started out in 1954 installing radios and speakers. But as factory sound systems improved, the company started outfitting cars with iPods and even the occasional refrigerator.

Each month the company also installs six to 12 laptop computers so drivers can look for directions or send e-mail. "Well, not while they're driving," adds John Haynes, Al & Ed's product manager.

Nissan is trying to grab the attention of younger drivers with the URGE. The XBox is one of many lures for the sporty coupe, which also has an MP3 player and system that projects caller ID from a cell phone onto the dashboard.

The company may eventually mass-market the URGE with a sticker price of less than $20,000, said Nissan North America spokesman Tim Gallagher.

Not all accessories are about flash. An advertisement for the 2006 Volkswagen Passat suggests one use for its air-conditioned glove compartment, which comes standard. The ad shows two guys buying sushi in the desert, then stuffing the raw fish in the glove box for later.

The automaker doesn't plan to add full-fledged refrigerators to any of its models, but company spokesman Tony Fouladpour jokingly declined to rule it out.

"You never say never in this business," he said.

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