Inside a shop on Grand Island, Mark Abate and his team were giving a Saturn VUE hybrid a thorough makeover.
The finished version will use interior video screens connected to cameras instead of side-view mirrors, to reduce wind resistance. Beneath the vehicle is a full underbody pan, akin to a Formula One race car.
Not all the modifications are about fuel efficiency. For instance, passengers in the back seats will have added legroom and access to touch screens, monitors and audio speakers, providing the VIP-style ride Abate envisions.
"You're going to feel like you're a king," Abate said.
Abate is eager to park this head-turning VUE in a prominent spot: the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas, a top event for automotive specialty products that starts Nov. 4.
The show allows shops like Abate's Sound Choice Audio & Performance to demonstrate their handiwork on a national stage and compete for awards. He and his team won awards from General Motors engineers for two previous entries in 2005 and 2006.
"My goal is to have people notice me as a builder, a designer," said Abate, 35, who has run his shop since 1996. "In this industry, everyone is trying to take top honors."
Abate got a taste of the SEMA show in 2004 after helping modify a buddy's car that ended up winning an award. GM encouraged Abate to submit a proposal to work on a vehicle for the following year's show and was accepted.
Under the program, GM gives the recipient a designated new vehicle for $1. The builder or designer does the rest, acquiring parts and making modifications. The recipient keeps the vehicle, though under an agreement with GM, over the following year it must be taken out to various events to provide exposure.
Abate and his team worked on a Saturn ION in 2005, then a Saturn Sky in 2006. He declined to reveal how much he has spent on the projects, but he said donated parts help defray the costs, and he returns the favor by putting those companies' names on the vehicle.
The projects fuel Abate's passion for car design. He says he loves coming up with eye-catching ideas, but at the same time making those improvements appear to be a natural fit.
"One of the best compliments I've received is, 'What did you do to the car?' " he said.
GM has grown familiar with Abate's work and this year extended invitations to him and roughly a dozen other builders to apply for a project involving a Saturn VUE. Others were also eligible to submit proposals. The field was trimmed to five finalists, and Abate was chosen to receive one of the two VUEs.
Bob Kern, SEMA relations manager for GM, said Abate has developed a reputation for creativity and going far beyond basic upgrades. "We have a lot of respect for Mark and the work he has done in the past," he said.
Kern said GM benefits from the project vehicle program by stimulating the automotive aftermarket to come up with accessories than can be added to its vehicles. The program also allows participants like Abate to make contacts in the industry and provides them with a vehicle to promote their work, Kern said.
Kern estimates that Abate's VUE will compete with about 30 to 40 other GM vehicles for an award in its category.
Abate says he takes his work for the project vehicles seriously. He knows automakers like GM count on it as well, to draw traffic to the booth.
"Every manufacturer wants to get noticed, and if you don't have that extra special car, people are going to walk right by," he said.