2001 Detroit/L.A. Show Preview

January 1, 2001


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Forget the chaos of the presidential election and capsizing dot-coms: we’re betting this year’s Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows are going to be even edgier. Would you want to be Juergen Schrempp walking the show floor within rubber-band distance of DaimlerChrysler employees? Or Jac Nasser explaining why the new Explorer is the best yet, never mind that little tire fiasco?

Detroit’s annual international auto show, the biggest and most important on the American circuit, isn’t a place for the timid. Neither is the L.A. show, a sort of Gemini twin that’s less critical to the bigwigs, but more so to the guys who actually sell cars, trucks, and minivans.

Either one gets easier when you have good product to hide behind — or pose in front of. And good product is what could propel the industry’s moving targets through this year’s January shows. In the face of bad economic news, automakers are putting forth exciting concepts like the Acura RS-X, and betting big on nostalgia with the return of beloved names like Thunderbird and SE-R.

Here’s our best guess at what’s coming from the Los Angeles and Detroit festivities. We’ll be reporting from L.A. on January 4 and 5, and from Detroit from January 7 through the 10th, with a wrap-up the following Monday.

Hold on to your cupholders – and check back all week long for the latest from The Car Connection.

Acura RS-X

Acura RS-X concept car

Acura RS-X concept car

Don’t say Integra any more: think RS. That’s the lesson behind the aggressively styled, four-seat three-door concept bowing this week in Los Angeles. The RS-X — a version of which is said to replace the Integra later this fall — maintains Acura’s signature five-sided grille and oversize four-light headlamps. Among the more notable styling cues, the RS-X features extremely short front and rear overhangs, and a sharply chiseled front end. Acura officials declined to provide specific details, but the windswept, muscular stance of the RS-X suggests it’s likely to be offered with a fairly high-powered V-6 or turbo four. The production version, Honda does disclose, will be its first vehicle to feature the new i-VTEC engine. The time-tested VTEC has won a reputation of delivering good performance, as well as low emissions numbers and relatively good fuel economy. Honda claims the new engine—the "i" stands for "intelligent"—should do even better by automatically adapting to a wide range of driving conditions.

Honda Model X

Honda Concept Suv

Honda Concept Suv

Set to debut at the Detroit show next week, the Model X is officially designated a "concept car," but probably not for long. "It has real production potential," acknowledges Honda’s top American executive, Tom Elliott. The prototype has gone through a number of focus groups as the automaker tweaks the details to improve its appearance. "The styling reaction from focus groups has been extremely strong," Elliott said. But he stressed that the company wants to gauge the reaction when the Model X makes its rounds on the 2001 auto show circuit before deciding whether to give it the final go for production. Barring some unexpected problems, company sources suggest it could hit the streets as early as the 2003 model year. The hallmark of the X-truck’s design will be its extremely flexible interior. Seats will fold or roll away—much like the Chrysler PT Cruiser. There’ll be enough room in the surprisingly long vehicle, to carry a 10-foot surfboard with the rear hatch closed.

VW Microbus concept

We don’t have much on this vehicle, but word has it that the concept will be a front-driver that’s headed for production within a couple of years, built off a more conventional VW platform than the hippie-style Microbus that powered many a Deadhead from parking lot to parking lot in the Sixties. If they show this one off in the Cobo garage with stir-fry tofu and tie-dyed parkas, we’ll know they really get it.

Jeep Liberty

Jeep Liberty silver

Jeep Liberty silver

Jeep has a new SUV, and it’s notable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the brand’s first new nameplate since the Grand Cherokee issue forth in 1992. Second, it might be the first Jeep that can’t cross the Rubicon — an infamous test former Chrysler president Bob Lutz insisted all Jeeps pass. Named Liberty, the new Escape-sized trucklet will roll off the automaker’s new assembly plant in Toledo next summer, months later than originally scheduled. Once seen as a replacement for Jeep’s aging Cherokee, the two vehicles will now share space in the automaker’s showrooms, alongside the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. Liberty will be built at an all-new, $750 million plant on the outskirts of Toledo. It’s located just across the street from the Cherokee/Wrangler plant, one of the country’s oldest automotive assembly lines. The Liberty has an independent front suspension, optional 3.7-liter V-6 (based on the new aluminum 4.7-liter V-8), rear- or four-wheel drive, and a base 2.4-liter four with about 150 hp.

2002 Dodge Ram

2003 Dodge Ram Spy Photo

2003 Dodge Ram Spy Photo

The 2002 Ram isn’t as radical as some predicted, but probably still macho and tough enough for the crowd down at Lowe’s. It’s said to be powered by an all-new 5.7-liter V-8, with an option for the likely replacement for the Cummins Turbo Diesel: Mercedes-Benz’ own MBE-906 (Freightliner) diesel engine. Production of the Ram was originally scheduled to begin in the summer of 2002 in Windsor, Ontario, at the Pillette Road assembly plant and the Ram was expected to debut for the 2003 model year – but now sources are pretty certain the Ram will make an earlier appearance for the 2002 model year. A heavy-duty version will follow close behind, with the Dakota and an all-new (code named DH74) full-sized Ram-based SUV will follow, probably as late 2003 or 2004 models.

Mazda RX-Evolv

Mazda RX-Evolv concept

Mazda RX-Evolv concept

Mazda says the version of the RX-Evolv four-door sports car they’re showing in Detroit will be a step closer to an actual production model than the RX-Evolv concept car unveiled in Tokyo last year. To power the RX-Evolv, Mazda is developing the new generation rotary engine, called Renesis, which is not the name of a new kidney treatment or alternative rock band. The true name of the car will be announced at the show.

GM’s Gaggle of Concepts

Of course, you read all this news in TCC’s preview of the GM ’01 Concepts. In case you missed it, click on the link and review the Buick Bengal, a roadster with slinky good looks; the Chevy Borrego off-roader; the Pontiac Rev all-wheeler; the Hummer H2 SUT (that’s sport-utility truck, for the unwashed), Cadillac Vizon, GMC Terracross. It’s unknown if the Oldsmobile 04 concept will be shown, what with the recent announcement of Olds’demise.

Nissan Sentra SE-R and Big Truck

We’ll have to get back to you on this trio – Nissan showed us the two production vehicles in Arizona late last year, but bribed us into secrecy with a steak dinner and a nifty tube of sunscreen. (We ask so little.) We’ll have details later this week on the L.A. debut of the 2002 Altima, and next week, word on the SE-R and full-size truck concept.

Chrysler Crossfire

Chrysler Crossfire concept car

Chrysler Crossfire concept car

Though it’s Chrysler that is under fire at the moment —parent DaimlerChrysler is reorganizing its American division and anticipating a billion-dollar loss — the American brand will definitely turn heads at the North American International Auto Show next week with the Crossfire concept, a sort of response to the machined good looks of the Audi TT coupe. Built on an aluminum space frame, the Crossfire’s body is made from one piece of carbon fiber. Big wheels with fat rubber (225/40-19 front, 295/35-21 rear) add to the chiseled appearance. A supercharged 2.7-liter V-6 engine, coupled to a five-speed manual transmission, powers the prototype. With 275 hp and a maximum torque rating of 270 lb-ft, the Crossfire is claimed to be able to sprint from 0- 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and reach a top speed of 148 mph.

Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix

Toyota Matrix front

Toyota Matrix front

Ever wonder what would happen to Toyota/GM’s joint venture in California, once it stopped building Prizms and Corollas? Here’s the hot tip: Toyota has released some preliminary photos of its concept car that will be shown at Detroit, called the Matrix. The Matrix, according to Toyota product news spokesman Sam Butto, "...will closely resemble an upcoming Toyota product that's about a year away." A Toyota teaser describes it as an affordable, compact vehicle that will have high levels of utility and image. Pontiac uses similar words in describing the Vibe, its rumored version of the same platform. All you Buffy fans will have to check back later this week for more.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe

2001 Mercedes C Class Coupe

2001 Mercedes C Class Coupe

Part of the family affair that began last fall with the introduction of the new Benz C-Class sedan, the C-Class Coupe is just a touch shorter and lower than the fab four-door already on sale. Observers may be surprised by some of the very non-traditional design cues, such as the coupe’s rear end, which reminds some picky folk of a Japanese sports car. The new two-door features an optional "panoramic" sliding roof that’s about a third bigger than a conventional sunroof, and which can be operated by remote control. There will be four engines available in the European edition, though likely only two will make it to the States. Look for a spring ’01 rollout and a price about $1000 below that of the new C-Class sedan.

MORE DEBUTS

Los Angeles: Ford 49er retro rod...Ford Mustang Bullitt....Daewoo U100 concept

Detroit: Ford “Truck Concept”...Land Rover Freelander for U.S...Volvo SUV Concept and Safety Concept Car...BMW M3 Convertible, M Roadster with new M3 motor, high-performance X5, and Z3 Coupe concept...Subaru Impreza/WRX...Mitsu concept

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