Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, April 6, 2001

Tyler Baumgardner, 3, stands on his toes to open
the door of a Ford Lariot.

Auto exotica

For every fantasy there is a vehicle,
and the Auto Show delivers -- while
noting the need for education
can't be driven off

By Scott Vogel

ON THE FAR SIDE of the Hawai'i Convention Center, almost lost behind a sea of Hondas, Hyundais, Chryslers, Toyotas and Subarus, is a small, rather nondescript booth sponsored by the Hawaii Department of Education. It is an exhibit, the walls of which list more than 5000 concepts -- everything from algebra to Zeus -- that students should ideally learn during their progress from kindergarten to the 12th grade. Meant to educate auto show attendees about the state's upcoming educational standards testing, the booth was practically ignored on Wednesday night by guests at the 2001 First Hawaiian Auto Show's VIP preview.

There was something chilling and yet entirely apt about this. Even as the state's educational system braced itself for a massive strike whose deadline loomed just hours away, the faces of its teachers-of-the-year -- each clutching the keys to a shiny new car -- smiled down at a nonexistent audience from giant placards above the exhibit.

Meanwhile, just a few yards away and garnering a great deal more attention was Gov. Ben Cayetano, who made an appearance not long after his announcement elsewhere that the state's latest offer to the teachers had been rejected. Just a stone's throw from a giant twirling Mercedes-Benz medallion, the governor cut a ribbon -- or unbuckled a seatbelt, actually -- and officially declared the the auto show open.

Get behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Diablo 6.0 on display
at the 2001 First Hawaiian International Auto Show.

Hundreds of shiny new cars of every shape and hue surrounded him, a landscape dotted with fun and fantasy, technological marvels and whimsical concept cars. It was, in short, the last place you'd expect a reminder of real-world tensions. Deborah Oyama, the Education Department's Assistant Superintendent for Public Affairs, offered to explain the connection.

"The auto dealers have really embraced education as a priority," she said, "and it begins with their sponsorship of the Teacher-of-the-Year program. But this year they said, 'you know, we have a venue where we have a large number of people -- over 100,000 -- coming to the auto show. Wouldn't it be great to also tell stories about what kind of learning is going on in our classrooms?' It's really the vision of Dave Rolf, the executive director (of the Hawaii Auto Dealers Association), but has the support of all the members."

For Rolf, the juxtaposition of cars and schools is completely natural: "The very thing that represents freedom of movement, the automobile, ties in well with the concept that preserves it -- democracy -- which depends on an enlightened and educated electorate." This year's exhibit, he said, is really the logical extension of HADA's involvement in the Teacher-of-the-Year program, which began in 1998 with a single Volkswagen presented to a single teacher.

"To have that red Jetta parked at the school was like having a flag saying 'we have the Teacher-of-the-Year'," he said. "So the Dealers Association said 'we'll do that to all the district teachers.' This year, seven teachers will get to use the cars for a year." And while Rolf knows that cars and not educational standards exhibits are the auto show's main drawing card, he clearly hopes that not a few patrons will take a detour.

Gov. Ben Cayetano and his wife Vicky try out a Camaro.
The Cayetano was on hand for opening ceremonies of the
2001 First Hawaiian International Auto Show.

That might be a tough sell, given the number and variety of cars on display this year. From the BMW James Bond drove in his last film, to a bells-and-whistles Pontiac Aztek, complete with an air mattress (for the best in car slumber), the show may be the closest most of us ever get to the automotive high life, and patrons are explicitly encouraged to get behind the wheel and start dreaming.

This can lead to delirium, as I soon found out while comfortably ensconced in a banana-colored Lamborghini Diablo, an imposing handmade roadster that sells for a cool $245,000. Despite a self-conscious sportiness and a cockpit that makes Apollo 8 seem roomy, I had a hard time giving up my seat voluntarily. "I want -- no, I need -- this car," I caught myself saying out loud.

"I need flip-up doors, I need to go from zero to 60 in less than 4 seconds, I only need 9 miles to the gallon ..." It's just a good thing I don't like yellow. Things might have gotten ugly otherwise.

Parked nearby was the sleek 2002 Lexus SC 430, a cream-colored convertible hardtop with a roof that -- in just 25 seconds -- automatically retracts into the trunk. Boasting a nine-speaker sound package that is state-of-the-art, the system magically adjusts the volume as the roof comes off, creating a virtually seamless aural experience. At a mere $59,000, the Lexus will no doubt be on lots of Christmas lists this year.

For the excessively pragmatic among us, there are lots of intriguing new models whose stickers won't induce heart failure, among them the Honda Insight, a half gas/half electric number that gets 68 miles per gallon, and a new, less boxy Jeep for 2002.

The world of motorcycles, meanwhile, is welcoming the reappearance of an old friend. Two months ago, Vespa, the largest scooter manufacturer in the world, reentered the American market with a flourish, its retro-looking models just the thing for visiting the corner gelateria, or zipping down to Blockbuster for a Fellini flick. For every budget and fantasy, it seems, there is a corresponding vehicle, and the show is expected to attracts droves this weekend, proving once again that Hawaii's unabashed love affair with the automobile shows no signs of abating.

Or as Motor Trend's editor-in-chief C. Van Tune put it just before Gov. Cayetano opened the show, "Europe has mad cow disease. I have mad car disease. That's just the way it is."

All in all, there may be no better place for car addicts -- or, for that matter, educational standards addicts -- to get a fix.

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