2003 Detroit Show: Behind the Stories Page 2

January 5, 2003

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

Enlarge Photo
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.

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