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.
Isuzu’s proverbially named car-ute, the Axiom, is a blend of truck and car roots — even though Isuzu hasn’t sold cars in years.
The same is the case with the new Isuzu Axiom Sportwagon. The prototype on display at Javits Center is a close approximation of the upcoming SUV. It’s also body-on-frame, but perhaps the interior is perhaps most telling hint of where the Axiom is aimed. The plush cockpit is designed in the Euro luxury sedan mold, declared Gary Tucker, Isuzu’s Vice President of Marketing and Sales. Indeed, despite some macho-style cladding, the Sportwagon looked more like a, well, station wagon than an SUV. "Are we moving away from our no-car position? Absolutely not," insisted Tucker. But consider this a hint of another trend.
Circling more wagons
Station wagons were nearly ubiquitous in the Leave It to Beaver days, but since the ‘70s, they’ve all but vanished from American roadways. Ask an American marketing exec, and they’ll still tell you station wagons are dead. Perhaps in traditional form, but one way or the other, the NY Auto Show provides a clear signal that a new type of wagon is on its way back.
Audi, which has fared well with its traditionally styled Avant wagons, staged the American debut of its new All-Road sport wagon. Intriguingly, when the original All-Road prototype debuted several years back, it was a much more macho, SUV-like vehicle than the production version has become. The All-Road may be more wagon-like, but Audi is emphasizing its ute-like versatility. The vehicle’s automatic suspension system can rise to more than eight inches, giving plenty of ground clearance on back trails. At speed, the suspension lowers nearly three inches, improving aerodynamics and balance. With its beefy biturbo, 2.7-liter V-6, pumping out a healthy 250 horsepower, All-Road becomes a sporty wagon, with 0-60 times of just 6.8 seconds with the optional six-speed stick.
Lexus SC 430
Lexus’ production-ready SC430 hardtop convertible was one of the scant non-ute entries at the ’00 New York show.
Subaru weighed in with two of its own SUV/wagon packages, both variations of the popular Legacy Outback. The DVC model features Subaru’s take on stability control and a new boxer six-cylinder engine, while the L.L. Bean Edition is perfect for those who wouldn’t be caught dead in the backwoods with the wrong hiking boots.
The sportwagon class is growing fast, with BMW struggling to meet demand for its new X5, and Volkswagen and Porsche getting ready to launch the two versions they’ve been developing.
Will wagons replace the SUV? That’s not likely any time soon, but in one form or another, the light truck boom continues to defy Newtonian logic. What goes up must, it seems, keep going up. "We think, over the course of the next five years, maybe even sooner, that trucks and (crossovers) will be 60 percent of the overall U.S. market," Zarrella predicted.
That’s good news for the Big Three, who’ve come to depend on these high-profit vehicles. ("Full-size trucks are the fuel in GM’s engine room," Zarrella noted.) But NY made it clear that the Big Three are going to have a tougher fight ahead if they hope to maintain control. Nissan President Carlos Ghosn confirmed long-standing rumors that his company would soon launch an American-made, full-size pickup. Toyota officials said they plan to add new models to their line-up, too. Long-term, Toyota wants trucks and crossovers to account for 50 percent of its U.S. volume, up from 40 percent today, but in line with the current U.S. market mix.
Passenger cars certainly won’t disappear. Lexus brought a peach to the Big Apple in the form of its new SC430 convertible, the division’s first-ever convertible. Chrysler unveiled three new versions of its Sebring lineup, a coupe, a convertible and a sedan. Nissan’s upscale Infiniti division unwrapped a completely redesigned version of the flagship Q45 sedan. BMW rolled out its 330i, which features a new 3.0-litre in-line six, as well as the ultra-performance M3. And tiny, Georgia-based Panoz pulled the wraps off its sleek Esperante sports car.
But these days, it seems, passenger cars have to take the back seat as the truck market continues to grow — and fragment. Perhaps it’s all for the best. Considering the condition of New York roadways, you can use four-wheel drive and plenty of ground clearance to maneuver your way around town.