STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The 2012 North American International Auto Show opens to the public on Saturday. And there's one new model on the floor that's bound to turn some heads. Fast, powerful and loaded with amenities, the CTX is the only vehicle of its kind at this year's show. And as Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, it's not likely you'll see this one on the road.
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TRACY SAMILTON, BYLINE: OK, the CTX is not a car. It's a new line of Craftsman lawn tractors, a.k.a. riding lawn mowers. Onney Crawley is director of brand management for lawn and garden. She says everyone was sitting in a meeting one day, talking about how similar the lawn tractors are to cars, and someone came up with a brilliant idea.
ONNEY CRAWLEY: Everybody knows that Detroit's the national stage for cars. I mean, Motor City is where autos come from. So this show made perfect sense - to come here and launch the tractor.
SAMILTON: Crawley says like cars, the CTX has automatic traction control. It also has tilted steering, cruise control, a digital dashboard and a cup holder. The next iteration will have an iPod port.
There's another reason it makes sense to show a riding mower at an auto show, and that's the shared customer base. Kris Malkoski, of Craftsman, says thousands of people who attend the show have big yards, a do-it-yourself attitude, and enough disposable income to afford upscale vehicles.
KRIS MALKOSKI: They care about the way their yard looks, just like car fanatics care about the way their car looks.
SAMILTON: But lawn tractor customers don't necessarily want to spend all day mowing the lawn. So for a lawn tractor, speed is of the essence - and this puppy is fast.
MALKOSKI: It allows you to go eight miles per hour forward; three miles per hour backwards.
SAMILTON: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Them's fighting words in the lawn tractor industry. Eight miles an hour - are you kidding me? Kim Ridel works for John Deere. She's tactical brand manager for riding equipment.
KIM RIDEL: We have tractors that go up to eight and a half miles per hour.
SAMILTON: Not only that, Ridel says John Deere has been introducing automotive features on riding lawn mowers since 1982. So Craftsman can't take credit for the trend. What the company can take credit for is a good marketing gimmick.
Now, in every story about cars, there has to be an analyst critiquing the claims about the product. Here's the problem: There really aren't that many independent riding lawn mower analysts out there. Actually, there are no independent riding lawn mower analysts out there. There are, however, plenty of car analysts.
MICHELLE KREBS: So I grew up on a farm in upstate New York. My dad was a dairy farmer. And I learned to drive on a 1939 Allis Chalmers tractor.
SAMILTON: Michelle Krebs, you're hired. Krebs is an auto industry analyst with Edmunds.com. She says even though she drove a real tractor as a kid, this one is still impressive.
KREBS: This is a suburban tractor. Thirty horsepower - I guess that's pretty fast for a lawn tractor.
SAMILTON: What about styling?
KREBS: Very sleek lines, aerodynamic; headlights that look like - I don't know if they're LED or - but very jewel-like.
SAMILTON: And it has creature comforts she never had back on the farm.
KREBS: This is way more comfortable than the metal seats on the Allis Chalmers I grew up on.
SAMILTON: Of course, there's a big downside. The CTX can't get you to work in the morning - unless you commute through your neighbors' backyards. But at 2,500 to $6,500, depending on model and trim level, the CTX is by far the most economical vehicle on display at the show. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The least expensive tractor model is $3,000, not $2,500.]
For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.
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