2003 Detroit Show: Behind the Stories

January 5, 2003
2003 North American International Auto Show banner

2003 North American International Auto Show banner

2003 North American International Auto Show banner

2003 North American International Auto Show banner

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

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

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.

Ford is betting this approach will not only maintain but grow the F-Series’ sales leadership. But the big pickup line will be facing some tough competition from an unusual source.

Taking on the domestics

A little more than a decade ago, the organizers of the annual event decided to change its name to the North American International Auto Show. It was more than semantics, reflecting the growing presence of foreign-based brands and the increasing number of products they’re bringing to market.

Asian and European imports now account for roughly four of every ten cars sold in the United States, a record share – and one that only seems certain to grow in the coming months.

Significantly, the auto show opened with the annual North American Car and Truck of the Year Awards from a panel of 49 top journalists. Of the seven finalists, six were Asian or European, and when the envelopes were opened, the Volvo XC90 took top truck honors, with the Mini Cooper S grabbing the trophy on the car side.

Notably, Nissan underscored its comeback by placing three vehicles in the finalist list: the 350Z, the Murano crossover and the Infiniti G35. But the automaker’s big news concerns the launch of its new pickup. True, Toyota was there first with a full-size truck, but Toyota’s limited its own appeal by failing to offer a wide range of cab, bed and powertrain variations. Don’t expect Nissan to make the same mistake. A senior official hints to TCC Nissan will be going after a wide range of truck users with standard, crew and king cabs, numerous engine offerings and other “surprises.”

Mitsubishi will chase the hip crossover buy with the Endeavor, while Lexus will refresh its strong crossover lineup with the debut of the new RX330. And from Europe, BMW will tease showgoers with the unusual xActivity Vehicle, a thinly disguised version of the upcoming X3, which will bring X5 idea to a more price-sensitive segment.

Bigger is better – so is faster

Performance has become more important than at any time since the muscle car days of the 1970s. Even minivans are being sold on their 0-60 mph times these days.

2004 Pontiac GTO

2004 Pontiac GTO

Pontiac’s production version of the GTO will zoom to Detroit after its first showing at the L.A. Auto Show earlier in the month. And you can be sure that manufacturers will be tripping over each other to talk about how much horsepower their new products will deliver. 

“That’s one of the things that never changes,” laughed GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. “People like fast, responsive vehicles more than slow, sluggish ones.” But is there a limit to how far things can go? “There is a logical limit,” Lutz conceded, and “for normal production cars, it’s somewhere south of 700 horsepower.” Of course, barriers are made to be broken. Volkswagen’s Bugatti Veyron is planning to hit 1001 hp and while Cadillac says there are no plans – for now – to produce the Sixteen show car debuting in Detroit, it will make an even 1000 horsepower out of its 16-cylinder engine.

Ultra-lux drives on

Some of the biggest engines on display in Detroit will be found – not surprisingly – in the show’s most expensive products. The DaimlerChrysler Maybach, making its first North American appearance, can cruise at more than 150 mph thanks to its 550 horsepower. And perhaps, if you can afford the $360,000 “base” price of the 22-foot-long M62, you can afford to pay the speeding tickets.

The big news in the Ultra-luxury segment is the eagerly awaited Rolls-Royce Phantom. It’s the first new Roller since the British marque was purchased by BMW and split from longtime affiliate, Bentley. Expect a length in excess of 212 inches in short‑wheelbase form, with long‑wheelbase Park Ward variants likely to run close to 235 inches. Hidden under the long con­toured hood is a sophisti­cated four‑valve‑per‑cylinder V-12, a modified version of the BMW 760’s powerplant, but reportedly bored out to 6.8 liters.

There’s a big battle brewing in the market above $150,000, with a wide range of new entrants, including the Bentley Continental R sports coupe, which will also make a first appearance in North America. The question is whether the market can support all the new product. Even in the peak of the Internet bubble, sales in this stratospheric segment never got much over 7,000 annually. By mid-decade, manufacturers hope to push that closer to 18,000.

And there’ll be a number of new entrants just below the $150,000 mark, including the sexy sports coupe Aston Martin intends to introduce in Detroit.

Green machines

The environment was a big issue in year’s past at the NAIAS. And while it’s not the top story this year, it will continue to play a significant role. As TheCarConnection has reported, General Motors is expected to use the show as a backdrop to announce plans to produce a wide range of hybrid gas/electric vehicles by sometime after the middle of the decade.

There should be plenty of talk, as well, about fuel cell vehicles, which have just gone into limited, extremely low-volume production. (With most observers predicting these emissions-free vehicles won’t make a serious dent in the U.S. market until at least decade’s end.)

What a concept

What would an auto show be without concept vehicles? But this year, there are likely to be more than ever as automaker’s battle for the hearts and minds of skeptical consumers. GM will use its show cars to underscore its recent resurgence. Both Ford and Chrysler want to convince the public – and critical investors and analysts – that they have moved beyond their financial problems and are now getting ready to unleash an assault of competitive new products. And the imports are out to prove that they’re equal players on the American battleground.

2003 Ford 427 concept

2003 Ford 427 concept

One important trend in the concept-car wars this Detroit show is the re-emergence of the rear-drive four-door. Ford’s 427 concept thunders along with V-10 power and an origami-crisp shape that belies its age. Chrysler’s Magnum wagon concept, meanwhile, poses the nifty possibility of a Hemi-powered, rear-drive Dodge sedan and wagon coming to market before long (and insiders say the upcoming Chrysler LX vehicles will in fact be rear-drive and Hemi-powered, in some versions).

Among the imports, the hybridization of coupes and SUVs continues apace. Infiniti’s Triant weds all-weather capability to a two-door shape, while Kia’s Slice removes the truck heritage from a wagon/crossover package in the same vein.

The world intrudes

Concept cars and creative displays can help paint a pleasant picture that might get you to forget what’s happening in the real world outside the confines of Detroit’s Cobo Center. But this year, in particularly, it’s not easy to keep events from intruding.

The threat of an Iraqi War is of particular concern since it has the potential to create the most significant disruption in fuel supplies since the 1970 twin oil shocks. Even if a peaceful settlement can be achieved in this crisis, there’s growing pressure on the auto industry to reduce fuel consumption — as well as emissions – a fact underscored by the oil-friendly Bush Administration’s recent increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard for light trucks.

The weak economy is another factor that industry leaders and average showgoers alike can’t dismiss. Show floor traffic has proven to be a surprisingly good indicator of where car sales will weigh in over the coming year, so you can bet industry watchers will be keeping a close eye on Cobo’s turnstiles.

Increasing competition and a shrinking market is a terrible formula for automakers, but great news for auto buyers. It’s meant that with rare exception, new car prices have actually fallen by about one percent a year since the mid-1990s, even before you add in the hefty incentives that have become a norm in recent months. Automakers talk about curtailing those givebacks in 2003, but barring a surge in the economy, that seems unlikely. The question is how much further can the industry go than the current incentives? “Maybe we have to offer negative financing,” suggests Chrysler’s Zetsche.

We can see the ad campaign right now: “Buy a car, get a check…every month.”

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