NEW YORK – The New York International Auto Show (search) comes with built-in irony. It's one of the world's biggest car exhibitions -- yet it takes place in Manhattan, a place that's notoriously difficult to drive in.
But even if you don't own a car, there's still plenty of fun to be had at the auto show, which officially opened Saturday.
Imagine: Just down the street from the Empire State Building, you can watch a monster truck with tires taller than Yao Ming squash a bunch of cars. Then step inside the Javits Center (search) and ogle Shaquille O'Neal's tricked-out Cadillac Escalade, which comes complete with a 5,000-watt stereo system and Superman logos stitched into the seats.
Some of the most fun attractions at each auto show are the wildly experimental concept cars -- million-dollar, one-of-a-kind vehicles that usually look like something out of "Star Trek."
This year, the star of the show will be the Toyota I-Unit (search), a "wearable personal mobility vehicle," as the company calls it, that's like a Segway scooter on steroids. The I-Unit driver steps into a leaf-like robot exoskeleton, then motors away. You can either stand upright and scoot along slowly, or convert the I-Unit into a ground-hugging recliner built for speed. You'll be able to load the I-Unit with your favorite music and customize the colors.
When New Jersey native Fred Kanter goes for a drive, he sails through traffic -- in a boat car! Kanter, who owns an auto supply store in Boonton, N.J., spent a month a couple years ago marrying a 1984 Chevy Cavalier convertible (bought for $45) to a $200 teal motorboat. He stocked it with nets, fishing poles, mermaid dolls and an outboard motor converted into a grill. But it's just one of the wacky art cars that will be on hand at a special art-car exhibit at the Auto Show on Wednesday. Also on hand will be a stretch limo that Kanter tricked-out with a Jacuzzi in the back and a pool table in front, as well as a "bubble" car by art-car maker Steve Heller, who sliced and re-welded a 1948 Plymouth four-door sedan to look like a flame-covered bubble on wheels.
Saturday morning, as part of the Auto Show's opening day festivities, New York saw a monster-truck (search) rally as big as Texas. The main attraction at the rally, which came back by popular demand after a couple of years hiatus, was Calvin Carrington's superstar monster truck Full Throttle (search), a Godzilla-sized machine that will smoosh four junkyard cars flatter than a stack of MetroCards. Auto Show director Candida Romanelli was very excited about this, saying, "There's no better way to start the show."
The most popular attraction at this year's show will surely be the indoor, off-road track Camp Jeep, where you can hop into the not-yet-for-sale Jeep Commander -- the first-ever seven-person Jeep -- and hold on tight as a pro driver rumbles you across an all-terrain rollercoaster. Trample 3,000 yards of dirt mountains and more than four tons of rocks, boulders and gravel -- a course that took $1 million and eight days to create. After the five-minute ride is finished, stick around the Camp Jeep area, where bands will be rocking out from day to night.
URBAN TUNER SALON
It's MTV's "Pimp My Ride" come to life! Thanks to Dub magazine, the bible of those who love "tuners" (search) (those hyper-modified cars tweaked for warp speed), you can drool over a collection of super-slick rides owned by hip-hop and sports stars. The bling-worthy roster includes Shaq's Escalade, Snoop Dogg's Dub Edition Chrysler 300c with four 12-inch kicker speakers and suede seats and door panels and an Escalade EXT soon to be owned by Ludacris, with suede interiors and several built-in TVs, including one in the gas cap for some reason.
Inspired by armored cars, Ford has developed a wild new concept car -- the Synus (search) (pronounced like "sinuous") -- which boasts a security system that could comfort the most paranoid city dweller. Park this car and engage the secure mode, and Batmobile-like bulletproof shutters seal the driver and passenger's side windows and windshield. The back windows remains uncovered -- but who can blast through reinforced bulletproof glass? Or six-inch-thick doors? And while the Synus is moving, you can keep tabs on tailgaters and traffic with video cameras.
SWEET STREET RIDE CONTEST
Vote for your favorite restored vintage auto in the Sweet Street Ride competition, happening on Tuesday. Last year, a meticulously restored Corvette duked it out with a funky '69 Chevy Nova -- and the Nova won over the crowd. This year, more than 40 auto enthusiasts entered, but only six made the final-round cut, vying for the $500,000 prize. Among the contestants are a 1966 Pontiac GTO (with vintage racing stickers still on the rear window) and a 1975 VW Super Beetle.
TOMMY HILFIGER'S LIMOUSINE
Hilfiger's customized Mercedes S-500 limo, on display Friday-Sunday, is 30 inches longer than normal, rigged with top-end audio and video, nap-worthy recliner seating and tint-changing glass. "It goes from zero to frosted in the blink of an eye," says Lenny Levin, owner of Brooklyn's HQ Custom Design, which performed the overhaul. The Mercedes alone cost $100,000, and the six-month customization ran Hilfiger an additional $150,000. The Mercedes may soon be up for sale, and Levin will let serious customers touch the soft leather interior.
The show runs through Sunday at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, (800) 282-3336, autoshony.com.