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2003 Detroit Show: Behind the Stories

2003 North American International Auto Show banner

2003 North American International Auto Show banner

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2003 North American International Auto Show banner

2003 North American International Auto Show banner

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2003 Detroit Auto Show Coverage by TCC Team (1/2/2003)

“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” says Ford Design Director J Mays, as he surveys the array of new cars, trucks and concept vehicles that will make up the 2003 North American International Auto Show.

“We’re all aware of the brutality of the competition,” which will quickly become obvious to anyone attending the annual Detroit event, echoes David Cole, director of the think tank, The Center for Automotive Research.

It’s a daunting, profit-squeezing scenario for those in the industry. But if you’re looking to buy a new vehicle in the months to come, things couldn’t be better.

Here’s a look at some of the hot stories, trends and products that will be showing up in chilly Detroit this week:

Fragments in the market

In years past, it wasn’t all that difficult to categorize the cars—and trucks—that showed up in Detroit and other auto shows later in the year. There were sedans and coupes, wagons and sports cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs. But then came the PT Cruiser which, as one Chrysler executive declared, “was too cool to categorize” during its own NAIAS preview. The Cruiser’s retro look and unexpectedly roomy interior put it into a new niche.

The Dodge Magnum taking bows in both Los Angeles and Detroit is another vehicle that won’t find an easy fit in conventional categories. Call it a station wagon, crossover or, as company officials prefer, a CrossTourer. What matters most, says Dieter Zetsche, is delivering what customers want and not limiting it to set categories.

“The more products a customer can choose from, the more those customers expect exactly the product that fits their needs,” says Zetsche, CEO of DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group. 

Manufacturers debate the precise number of product segments now on the market. But according to Volkswagen’s count, it went from nine to 33 between 1985 and 2001. By 2005, the German automaker expects to see it grow again, to 40 worldwide.

2004 Cadillac SRX

2004 Cadillac SRX

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This trend, dubbed “fragmentation” by industry insiders, is getting much of its momentum from the growth of the light truck market. Last year, truck-based vehicles accounted for more than half the American motor vehicle market.  But many buyers are looking for a way to maintain the most attractive features of light trucks, such as their ruggedness, utility and high seating position, without giving up the comfort and mileage of a passenger car.

The hard-to-categorize Cadillac SRX, debuting in Detroit, is another example of what’s to come as the trend continues.

True trucks still rule

The crossover craze is emerging fast with products such as the new Nissan Murano, and after a slow start, domestic makers are weighing in with a wave of vehicles such as Chevrolet’s stylish Equinox, which debuts in Detroit. Chevy’s first car-based ute, it shares platforms with the popular new Saturn VUE.

But traditional trucks aren’t about to vanish. And there’ll be some significant announcements at this year’s NAIAS.

GM will weigh in with the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins, replacements for the dated S-10. The compact pickups were jointly engineered by General Motors and its Japanese affiliate, Isuzu. 

The American automaker has been putting a premium on innovation lately, as demonstrated by the GMC Envoy XUV. It boasts a dual-function tailgate with power window, and second-generation midgate, as well as a power sliding rear roof, that creates a space 32 inches by 32 inches when fully retracted, so tall pieces of furniture, appliances or even trees now are easily transportable.

One of the most significant truck debuts, however, will come from Ford, with the introduction of an all-new F-Series. The best-selling American truck, and leader of the overall U.S. sales sweepstakes for a quarter century, the 2004 F-150 could represent a lot of hope – or anxiety – for the troubled number-two automaker.

2004 Ford F-150 FX4

2004 Ford F-150 FX4

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And to expand its appeal, Ford is clearly acknowledging the fragmentation trend. It will offer five distinct variations on the F-Series theme, each geared to a different buyer group. There’ll be a stripped-down entry model, a youth-oriented sporty F-150, as well as a high-line model with a distinctly upscale flair. This involves more than simply slapping on a chic badge and adding leather seats. Each version will feature different instruments, seats, and both interior and exterior trim.

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