2005 Chicago Auto Show, Part I

February 9, 2005

2005 Chicago Auto Show Index by TCC

Hyundai Welcomes Newbies with Portico

Hyundai sales are up 364 percent since 1998, according to U.S. chief Bob Cosmai — and new products like the Santa Fe and XG sedan have fueled those sales. For the next year Hyundai will continue to aggressively build out its portfolio with new vehicles like the Sonata due in the second quarter, a new minivan coming this year and the seven-seater Santa Fe also due this year. Looking further into the future, the Portico concept seems like a natural addition to the lineup. A crossover with six seats, the Portico could be drawn from the Sonata platform. Designed with the U.S. market in mind, the Portico has staggered middle seats in both rows that fold down, so as few as two seats can be reserved for passengers, leaving a big cargo area in back. The Portico sports a new V-6 engine, a six-speed Shiftronic automatic and is hybrid-capable with the electric motors providing all-wheel drive.

Dodge Mega Cab Opens for Business

2006 Dodge Ram Mega Cab

2006 Dodge Ram Mega Cab

“Look at this beast!” George Murphy, senior marketing VP for Chrysler, crowed at the launch of the Ram Mega Cab. The Mega Cab is an extension of the Ram lineup that blends a long-bed chassis with a Quad Cab cabin to provide 44.2 inches of legroom in the back and 145.2 cubic feet of interior space. Overall the cab is 20 inches longer than the standard Quad Cab and sits at 111.1 inches long, a foot longer than a Ford Crew Cab. Dodge’s Cummins turbodiesel or the 345-hp, 5.7-liter HEMI are offered; the latter has a five-speed automatic, the former a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox. In heavy-dutiest configuration the Mega Cab tows 15,800 pounds and carries a 2840-lb payload. Options include a navigation system, a power sunroof, and a DVD entertainment system.

The Mega Cab is part of what Chrysler says is the largest, most interactive show display ever. This year

McCormick Place
has connected the older section of the show hall to the newer one, which has hosted the auto show for a couple of years. The combination gives
McCormick Place
the potential for 2.2 million square feet of show space — and there’s more expansion planned to make the complex one of the largest in the U.S.

Toyota Christens New FJ Cruiser

2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser

2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser

Think of Toyota’s edgy FJ sport-utility vehicle as part of a new class of “Freedom Trucks,” suggested Don Esmond. With the help of the legendary improv group, SecondCity, Toyota Division’s general manager pulled the wraps off the FJ during the opening news conference at this year’s Chicago Auto Show. Loosely linked to the classic FJ Land Cruiser of the 1960s, the new truck will be aimed at young males looking for a “platform for extreme sports activities,” explained Esmond. Toyota’s challenge, he added, was to balance price, utility and amenities. On the cost side, look for FJ to come in somewhere between the current RAV4 and Toyota’s conventional mid-size SUV, the 4Runner. FJ began with the bigger ute’s platform, shortening the wheelbase four inches, and the overall length by eleven inches. That, company officials said, will deliver excellent off-road capabilities. A 245-hp, 4.0-liter V-6 will move the metal, with buyers offered an option of four-speed auto or five-speed stick. The FJ will come equipped out of the box with Toyota’s Vehicle Stability Control and ABS brake technology. The brick-like prototype, with its white roof cap, is pretty much what the production vehicle will look like when it rolls into showrooms a year from now, said Esmond, adding that he expects Toyotato sell about 40,000 FJs annually.

Toyota Targeting New Niches

The FJ is definitely not a car for the mainstream, stressed Toyota’s Don Esmond. Then again, neither are a growing number of products in the giant Japanese automaker’s ballooning line-up. That’s in keeping with current trends, with the number of individual models on the market growing at a rapid pace in recent years. “It’s always a challenge for a manufacturer to come up with products people don’t know they want yet,” said Esmond. But carmakers like Toyotaare betting that by fragmenting existing, mainstream segments, they can grow sales and share one nibble at a time. The key is to start with flexible platforms and then to produce them in equally flexible assembly plants, Esmond stressed. But there are other challenges to consider, including the issue of marketing. It’s one thing to spend $100 million annually to promote a high-volume product like the best-selling Camry sedan. Niche products, such as the upcoming FJ sport-ute, are not well suited to high-cost TV ads. Instead, the automaker plans to use the time before next year’s launch to build interest through a “viral” marketing campaign and other, non-traditional efforts, “like we learned from (the youth-oriented, low-volume) Scion.” Expect to see even more niche products from Toyotamoving forward, company officials promised. But the competition has much the same idea. “There’s (demand for) much more choice today than ever before,” echoed Gary Cowger, president of General Motors’ North American operations. “That’s why you see us putting more flexible manufacturing in place. It will allow us to do more niche derivatives,” such as the upcoming Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky roadsters.

Caddy Debates Future After DTS

2006 Cadillac DTS

2006 Cadillac DTS

It’s long been the nation’s best-selling luxury car, and Cadillac hopes to maintain its lock on the market with the DTS, an all-new version of the long-running DeVille. The new name underscores the changes reshaping the Caddy brand, something also echoed in the ’06 model’s more architectural shape. Though offered in only the single, DTS body style, there will be two powertrain packages, a base V-8 rated at 275 horsepower, and a more performance-oriented version of the big Northstar engine making 300 hp. The ’06 DTS will get some much-needed new technology, including a radar-guided Active Cruise Control system, as well as GM’s sophisticated MagneRide suspension. Buyers will be able to opt for any of three different suspension packages, from a relatively traditional boulevard-style ride to the feel of the more sporty DeVille Touring Sedan — which lent the new DTS its name.

While Caddy designers worked overtime to give the 2006 DTS the sort of edgy lines and creases that have won raves for the smaller CTS, the two cars might as well be from two different divisions. The “new” Cadillac is focused on rear-drive products, such as CTS and STS, delivering a taut, European-style driving experience. Even with MagneRide, the front-drive DTS keeps alive the more traditional driving dynamics of the “old” Cadillac. “They’re very different animals, and attract very different customers,” General Manager Jim Taylor explained to TheCarConnection.com. Caddy doesn’t want to simply walk away from such a large market, Taylorstressed, though he admitted there’s lots of debate about what to do with DTS in the years ahead. In its current form, the big sedan will remain around “four or five years,” at most. Then it may very well evolve to something more in line with Caddy’s new rear-drive lineup. Because of shortened development cycles, Taylor and his team have a bit of breathing room, “another year to a year-and-a-half before we decide what our move is going to be.”

Buick Back in V-8s with Lucerne

2006 Buick Lucerne

2006 Buick Lucerne

Despite its more aggressive stance, long-time Buick fans will likely get a sense of déjà vu from the new Lucerne , the big front-drive sedan making its debut in the Windy City this week. There’s the broad, oval, “waterfall” grille, and even a line of chromed portholes, one of Buick’s most recognizable signatures. Perhaps even more significant is the optional 32-valve, DOHC, 4.6-liter V-8 under the hood, making an estimated 275 horsepower. The standard powertrain is a 195-hp version of GM’s time-tested 3800 Series III V-6. The new Lucerne is taking aim against an array of import contenders, such as Mercedes and Lexus. And like Lexus, Buick has put a premium on interior noise levels with its new QuietTuning acoustic package.

With the upcoming rollout, Buick will have completely relaunched itself since 2002, a critical step in GM’s efforts to rebuild the once powerful brand. “We are not as relevant as we should be” to current buyers, admitted new Buick general manager John Larson, “in spite of how good our products are.” The challenge, he said, will be to get the message out about Buick’s quality — which tops many of the imports — and other attributes. After killing off the Oldsmobile division, many analysts have speculated GM might next pare away Buick, at least if it can’t deliver a turnaround anytime soon. But Larson insisted that the new Buick Lucerne is “absolutely not” a last-stand effort.

Milan, Mountaineer Star at Mercury

2006 Mercury Milan

2006 Mercury Milan

Ford Motor Co., struggling to get things in order at its own troubled Mercury division, used the Chicago show to roll out two more new products, bringing to six the number of new Mercs hitting the road in a four-year burst. The mid-size Milan is Mercury’s take on the also-new Ford Futura. In turn, they both share an underlying architecture with Mazda’s well-reviewed 6 sedan. The Milan will become the “most affordable model” in the Mercury lineup, noted Phil Martens, head of North American planning for Ford. The sedan will launch with one front-wheel-drive V-6 package, but a second, more powerful engine, along with all-wheel drive, will be added a year later.

2006 Mercury Mountaineer

2006 Mercury Mountaineer

Along with the ’06 Milan, officials lifted the covers on the 2006 remake of Mercury’s Mountaineer. The new model has undergone some significant improvements. The rear, independent suspension has been modified to allow for an unusually flat load floor, even with three rows. The split-fold rear seats are both operated electrically. The Mountaineer gets a 292-hp, three-valve-per-cylinder, 4.6-liter V-8 producing 292 hp. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic. The SUV gets such niceties as an electrically heated front windshield, and added safety features including a new, dual-depth airbag designed to reduce the chance of injuries to small women and children. Active safety features including the AdvanceTrac stability system, and an anti-roll system.

Ford Betting Bigger on

All-Wheel Drive

Once all the powertrain options come onboard for new Ford Motor Co. models like the Milanand Futura, the automaker will be betting big on all-wheel-drive technology. In 2006, the automaker expects to produce about 400,000 AWD passenger cars, and that figure might fall short, said product development director Phil Martens. On the Five Hundred and Freestyle models, where the traction technology is already available, demand is “outstripping capacity,” Martens revealed. Over half of all Freestyles are being ordered with AWD and for the Five Hundred sedan, the figure is “in the mid-20 percent range,” Martens added. That may actually be a signal that the long-running migration from passenger cars to light trucks has peaked, the executive added. Ford research suggests that many customers would like to switch to car-based crossovers, even back to sedans. But those buyers don’t want the same cars they had in the past. They’re looking for SUV-like attributes, Martens said, such as higher seating, bigger cargo compartments — and AWD.

Escape Hybrid Hitting High Demographics

Just because you want to cut your fuel bills doesn’t mean you can’t afford to pay for gas, said Ford product czar Phil Martens. The initial group of buyers opting for the new hybrid version of the Escape SUV could easily ignore what’s happening at the pump, since their average income is “more than twice” the household income of the rest of the Escape customer base. Ford research shows hybrid customers “are willing to pay $5000 or $6000” more to get the green technology, even if it’s just to feel like they are making a contribution to the environment.

Mustang Makes a Hit at Motor Week

The new Ford Mustang’s list of kudos grew even bigger on opening press day at the Chicago Auto Show. The retro-style pony car was named Driver’s Choice Best of the Year by the editors of the public TV show, Motor Week. Meanwhile, for those with the need for speed — and a lot more money — the show’s staff chose the Porsche Carrera GT3 their ultimate Dream Machine.

Horsepower Feast at Mercedes

How much power is too much? For those who can’t conceive of the question, never mind expect an answer, Mercedes pulled the wraps off two new models on Wednesday. The new E350 replaces the more tame E320, introducing a new 3.5-liter V-6 engine producing 268 horsepower. That’s a 20-percent bump over the old, 3.2-liter engine.

2006 Mercedes-Benz S65

2006 Mercedes-Benz S65

Then there’s the new S65 AMG, which Mercedes is billing as the “world’s fastest production sedan,” capable of screaming from 0-60 in a neck-snapping 4.2 seconds. Resemblance to the classic S-Class are only a bit more than coincidental. Besides the new fascia, grille, and aero trim, the heart of this fire-breather is a twin-turbo, 6.0-liter V-12. At peak, it pumps out a full 604 horsepower and 738 lb-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a special five-speed Speed Shift automatic transmission that can be operated in fully manual mode. To slow the “uber-sedan” down, the car is equipped with massively oversized brakes. Up front, they measure 15.4-inches, with eight calipers. Every AMG engine is hand-built by a single technician. In a first-ever move, Mercedes brought an AMG technician to Chicagoto produce a pair of V-12s. They’ll eventually be shipped back to Germanyto be installed in a pair of S65s.

Nothing Ruled Out At Smart – Almost

There’s only one option not on the table when it comes to the future of DaimlerChrysler’s smart brand, a senior executive told TheCarConnection.com. The automaker recently confirmed it is delaying development of the formore. The mini-ute was earmarked for the U.S., where it was to serve as anchor for the smart brand’s launch, a year from now. The formore is still on the books, but whether it ever sees an assembly line will depend on a review of smart’s prospects by new Mercedes-Benz boss Eckhard Cordes. “The only thing ruled out is getting rid of the (smart) brand” the official confided. Though sales of the marque’s micro-cars have steadily grown in recent years, smart continues to be a money-losing prospect for DaimlerChrysler.

Meanwhile, Mercedes will likely put the new B-Class Grand Sport Tourer back on the U.S. books — but only after exchange rates between the dollar and euro level out. The weak dollar, officials said, simply makes it impossible to make a profit on the low-priced car if it has to be imported from Europe.

Bridgestone Building A Big Marketing Campaign

You may not know whether to dance to a new Bridgestone ad campaign or go out and buy a new set of tires. The series of 30- and 15-second spots was put together for the rubber company by Matthew Rolston, better known for his rock-video work with the likes of Beyonce, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna. For the spot itself, the producer opted for a disco re-mix of Rosanne Cash’s song, “The Wheel.” Bridgestone executives noted during a media briefing that it took 800 auditions just to find the right dancers for the ad campaign. Over 14-days of filming, the production company ran through more than five miles of film. The project required 87 tires and — for reasons not explained — also used up 250 pounds of filling from baby diapers. Unused, Bridgestone executive Michael Fluck was quick to point out.

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