2003 Chicago Show, Part III

February 13, 2003

2003 Chicago Auto Show Index by TCC Team (2/10/2003)

COSWORTH COMEBACK

Look for a comeback of Cosworth, the British performance operation once closely associated with Ford of Europe. “Officially,” said Ford Motor Co.’s top muscle maven, John Coletti, “I can’t say anything.” But unofficially? First, Ford and Cosworth have inked a deal to produce new engines for Indy Series racing. And it’s pretty apparent the Cosworth name will eventually adorn some Ford products. But don’t expect it to become a high-volume badge Ford slaps on just anything. “The Cosworth brand is intended for very serious machines,” Coletti stressed, which must “put a lot of horsepower down.” When might the Cosworth badge reappear? It could be several years, other Ford sources caution.

HOT CARS R US

2004 Ford SVT Focus

2004 Ford SVT Focus

In the meantime, look for an increasing assortment of high-performance products from Ford’s Performance Vehicle Group, and in particular, its premium Special Vehicle Team, which will be at the center of this expansion, added Coletti. He noted that “over the last 10 years, SVT has grown from a kind of skunkworks operation…to an integral part of the Ford Motor Co.” Volumes are already on the rise, and should keep growing, Coletti said, with vehicles like the three-door SVT Focus, which is getting a new special European Appearance Package that includes sporty black leather Recaro seats. There’s also a 10th anniversary version of the SVT Cobra on the way and, appropriately, Ford intends to build just 2003 of them.

LIGHTING STRIKING AGAIN

2004 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning

2004 Ford SVT F-150 Lightning

Promising power of “500-horsepower-plus,” Ford rolled out the concept version of its F-150 Lightning pickup already shown in Detroit at McCormick Place on Thursday. The big truck uses an unusual “SuperCooler” system to draw some extra punch out of its supercharged 5.4-liter V-8. A traditional intercooler uses a separate, air-cooled radiator. Instead, the SuperCooler uses the Lightning’s air conditioning system to chill a small storage tank of coolant to about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, resulting in an even denser air charge during peak acceleration. According to Coletti, it “acts like a nitrous (oxide) injection system,” generating an extra 50 to 60 horsepower. And that, Ford claims, should help maintain Lightning as the world’s fastest production pickup.”

DODGE WANTS TO RAM THE COMPETITION

2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10

2004 Dodge Ram SRT-10

Being king-of-the-truck-hill may be the conventional wisdom at Ford, but DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge division is all about “defying convention,” declared marketing czar Jim Schroer, as the new Ram SRT-10 screeched onto the stage. The production version of the high-performance Ram pickup first shown a year ago, it boasts a V-10 engine lifted whole from the two-seat Dodge Viper sports car. That should be enough to launch the Ram SRT-10 from 0-60 mph in “a hair over five seconds,” and take it all the way up to a 150-mph top speed. Developed by Chrysler Group’s new Performance Vehicle Operations, Schroer insisted it will grab the mantle of “world’s fastest truck.” But it is also “nimble and agile,” he emphasized, reflecting the attention paid to its suspension. The truck rides on 22-inch wheels, and features a six-speed manual also lifted from the Viper, but with a custom Hurst linkage and shifter. The SRT-10 not only weighs in with 500 cubic inches, 500 horsepower and 525 lb-ft of torque, but a full 508 watts of audio power delivered through a dozen speakers and a 10-inch subwoofer. “The only thing not included,” added the glib Schroer, “is the insurance payment for your neighbor’s windows.” Look for production of somewhat more than 2000 of the trucks annually, following its introduction late this year. Company officials wouldn’t provide a final price, though sources suggest it will be “in the range” of $50,000.

FORD UTTERS THE F-WORD WITH FREESTAR

2004 Ford Freestar

2004 Ford Freestar

Expect virtually all new passenger cars and car-like products to now begin with the letter “F.” And that means some long-time products will be getting new monikers. It’s a good time to change Windstar to Freestar, since the popular minivan goes through a complete redesign this coming year, said Ford Division President Steve Lyons. The new vehicle doesn’t look remarkably different from the old minivan, but there are plenty of changes under the skin, “and in this segment, safety matters,” emphasized Lyons, as he ran down a list of features including four-wheel anti-lock brakes and stability control. There’s a new, three-row head curtain airbag designed to provide additional protection in rollovers. And the automaker aimed its engineering effort to ensure Freestar would have the best crash performance of any minivan on the market. But a big selling point is likely to be Freestar’s fold-flat third-row seats. Taking a poke at DaimlerChrysler, whose minivans don’t have that feature, Lyons insisted, “If you don’t have a fold-flat third row, you’re not going to be in the game anymore.” Powered by a 4.2-liter V-6, the all-new vehicle will hit market for 2004.

THE NAME GAME

Why abandon a well-known nameplate like Windstar? That’s always an issue as automakers roll out new models, and in some cases, it can prove disastrous. It took Acura years to regain lost ground after giving up such names as Legend for alphanumeric designations. Some marketing experts have suggested it can cost as much as $50 million to re-establish a replacement nameplate, and Ford division boss Lyons is in the ballpark. But he notes dealers will invest even more than the automaker in promoting the launch of the new minivan, and that should get them even more involved in its success. Ford decided to switch names to underscore that its minivan was completely new, and not the old, middle-of-the-road model requiring hefty incentives for dealers to push it out the door. One possible problem is that Freestar is uncomfortably close to Freestyle, the name Ford has given to a new crossover vehicle also set for launch next year. Ever upbeat, Lyons argued that “I don’t feel confusion will be a factor,” adding that if anything, the two new models may be advertised together to let buyers know they have a range of options to choose from.

MORE CROSSOVERS COMING AT FORD

“I see a couple” more crossovers coming for the Ford division after the launch of the Freestyle, Lyons told TheCarConnection.com, “and we’ll take it from there,” after seeing how they’re accepted by the market. The fragmentation of the U.S. market is forcing Ford to consider a wide range of new models that it can sell in lower volumes, anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 units a year. One big question is how big the market will be for relatively conventional passenger cars, Lyons noted. One thing Ford doesn’t see the need for, he said, is an ultra-small, entry-level car such as the Korean-made Aveo Chevrolet introduced earlier in the week. But never say never, Lyons added, admitting that “we’re going to watch” to see if the market accepts the cars, which will be produced by General Motors’ new Daewoo subsidiary.

MUSICAL CHAIRS AT THE BRIT GROUP

Mike Beasley will be the one left without a seat as he retires as managing director of Ford Motor Co.’s Jaguar brand following the upcoming launch of the new XJ sedan. Beasley’s departure sets in motion a string of changes at Ford’s so-called “Brit Group,” which also includes Aston Martin and Land Rover. Bob Dover, who’d been chief operating officer of all three marques, now become CEO and chairman of Jaguar and Land Rover, turning control of Land Rover to Matthew Taylor. These and lower-level changes serve as the first strategic realignment at the Brit Group since Mark Fields became head of Ford’s global luxury arm, the Premier Automotive Group, in mid-2002. With the PAG undergoing a sizable shift in direction, observers believe further shakeups could follow.

FOUR-C COMES TO VOLVO’S S80

2004 Volvo S80

2004 Volvo S80

Volvo’s range-topping S80 sedan receives some subtle improvements in the 2004 model year. The updated model, shown in Chicago, adopts the all-wheel drive system from junior S60 sedan; it’s also provided by Swedish company Haldex in this application. The interior gets new door trim and jewel-like instruments and a minor exterior facelift. Underneath, the S80’s optional FOUR-C suspension setup offers driver-selectable firmness settings, and the steering rack is now provided by ZF. —Marty Padgett

HOTTEST VOLVOS EVER?

2004 Volvo S60R

2004 Volvo S60R

With just 2500 copies destined for sale in the U.S. beginning this spring, the S60R and V70R could be the most exclusive Volvos ever sold here. They’ll also be among the fastest: the most powerful engine ever stuffed in a Volvo gets 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque out of the cars’ 2.5-liter, in-line five-cylinder engine. The S60R and V70R also gain the Four-C suspension, which uses sensors to measure wheel speeds and cornering forces to automatically adjust suspension settings. Electronically controlled all-wheel drive and four-piston Brembo brakes complement the high-power turbo engines, as does a six-speed manual gearbox. —Marty Padgett

ONE MORE TIME FOR THE CURRENT RL

The 2004 Acura 3.5 RL luxosedan hasn’t changed much for the 2004 model year, unless you’re a huge fan of XM Satellite Radio. The ’04 model of the long-running big Acura gets XM as standard equipment (except in Alaska and Hawaii, where it’s not yet available). A sound system with more speakers comes with the XM service, which Acura provides for free for three months. Too for 2004, Acura throws in its navigation system for free. A new console design with metallic inserts and burled camphor wood round out the trim upgrades. —Marty Padgett

MONSTER MINI

Monster Mini

Monster Mini

It might seem small enough to get buried in a snowdrift, but with the touch of a button, the Monster Mini can transform itself into a 300-horsepower snowmobile and claw its way through the toughest stuff Winter can throw at it. Don’t rush to your local dealer, though. This is a special one-off produced for the Dicovery Channel’s Monster Garage TV program. It took customizer Jess James less than five days and only about $3000 to transform a stock Mini into the ultimate snowmobile. When activated, the system literally raises the car’s wheels off the ground; skis up front take over the job of steering, while a pair of grooved traction belts under the rear wheels give the Mini-mobile traction.

MOTORWEEK PUTS Z AT THE TOP

The Nissan 350Z is MotorWeek’s “Best of the Year” for 2003. This is Nissan’s second win in a row — last year it ranked first with the car TV show with the four-door Altima. MotorWeek host and producer John Davis says the Z won because “it’s a terrific value at its price point.” MotorWeek’s staff also named the Z the Best Performance car; other category winners include the Mini Cooper, Saab 9-3, Mazda6 sedan, Kia Sorento, Honda Element, and Ford Expedition. —Marty Padgett

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