True, you can vanish inside some of the potholes on New York City streets, but the Big Apple isn’t the kind of place you’re likely think is big on off-roading. Well, think again, especially if you’re planning to pay a visit to the centennial New York International Auto Show. (You can get all of our New York coverage by clicking here.)
The Javits Center is filled, top to bottom, with trucks, trucks, trucks. But as TheCarConnection team discovered, this year’s show also illustrates some dramatic shifts taking place in the booming light truck market. For one thing, there’s an expanding gulf between conventional light trucks, like the new Yukon Denali XL, and car-based "crossover" vehicles, such as Toyota’s all-new Highlander.
"Sometimes you feel like a truck, sometimes you don’t," said Toyota Division VP Don Esmond. In the future, Esmond explained, Toyota trucks will either be car-like or traditional in design.
With optional all-wheel drive and a Camry-derived V-6, the Toyota Highlander shows the emerging softer side of sport-utes.
The Highlander and the newly redesigned RAV4 fall into the first category. They may look like sport-utes, and feature modest off-road capabilities. But they’re unibody designs that translate into smoother rides, better driver control, and improved fuel economy. For those who might need something a little more durable, versatile or tow-ready, that’s where Toyota’s long-popular 4Runner and new Tacoma SUVs come in.
(You see the same strategy shaping up in the automaker’s upscale Lexus division, where the RX 300 is aimed at the crossover market, and the LX 470 appeals to those who want a more traditional truck.)
Playing catch-up with car-utes
As Esmond pointedly noted, Toyota has been leading the market in its development of car-based trucks. But other manufacturers are quickly trying to catch up. The NY show gives consumers a good glimpse at Ford’s new Escape, while dealers are already taking orders for the stylish Chrysler PT Cruiser and Pontiac’s quirky Aztek, both car-based machines.
General Motors may be late to market with its first crossovers, but it doesn’t intend to lag behind, with a range of "innovative" products, some hinted at with a NY display of nine recent concept vehicles. According to Ron Zarrella, President of GM’s North American operations, at least six of the nine are under active consideration for near-term production. Among the most likely to see an assembly line is the Chevy SSR, essentially a Corvette pickup.
Honda’s Acura division is hoping it can win over buyers who want the best of both worlds with its new MDX. Short for Multi-Dimensional, this seven-passenger SUV is designed to deliver attributes of luxury sedan, minivan and sport-ute. "It’s a vehicle that overcomes the shortcomings in SUVs," asserted Honda’s top U.S. executive, Tom Elliott. Among its features: three-row seating, plenty of cargo capacity, and a peppy, 240-horsepower, 3.5-liter engine. "This is first and foremost a luxury SUV," Elliott added, and that means plenty of creature comfort features, including standard leather seats and woodgrain interior touches, as well as an in-dash CD/cassette audio system.
To many, the line that divides traditional trucks from crossovers is whether they’re body-on-frame or unibody in design. It’s an easy rule of thumb, but as always, rules are made to be broken. Of the three new trucks GM put on display in NY, the GMC Sierra C-Series is the most difficult to categorize. It’s body-on-frame, like the regular Sierra pickup. But the C-Series features an all-wheel-drive, rather than four-wheel-drive system, and a suspension intended to deliver a very car-like ride.