We Drive Chrysler’s 2007 Concepts

May 20, 2007
Chrysler’s recent crop of concept cars hasn’t been approved for production — but that didn’t stop the company from letting the press get their hands on them for a spin.

The automaker brought an assortment of show cars — a handful from each category — out on a warm spring afternoon, some just to sit and look pretty, but most for us to actually slip inside and drive down the tony waterfront in Grosse Pointe, Mich.The selection covered quite a range, from entry-level roadsters to high-line sedans, as well as a variety of Jeeps and trucks.


“We try to strike a balance,” explains Joe Dehner, the new design vice president at Chrysler, between the pure fantasy cars, with their wild and fanciful shapes, and “the stuff that’s more disciplined, with show car flair (tempered by) the potential to make it onto the showroom floor.”


Demon on the loose


2001 Mazda Millenia

2001 Mazda Millenia

For those who’ve been wondering about the name of Chrysler’s new owners, Cerberus, it refers to the three-headed guard dog of Hades, from Dante’s Inferno. We don’t know if that’s a reference to what the troubled automaker will be facing in the future, but perhaps it’s appropriate that the star among recent Chrysler show cars was named Demon.


Introduced at the Geneva Motor Show, last February, it’s Chrysler’s take on the classic, entry-level roadster. Think Mazda Miata or Pontiac Solstice.


Under the skin, the Demon shares roughly the same chassis as found in the current production model, the Chrysler Crossfire, but the roadster show car features a smaller, 2.4-liter in-line four engine.


Firing it up, the Demon let out a nice little burble through an exhaust system unfettered by a catalytic converter. We struggled to get the manual transmission into gear — a sin forgivable in a prototype which had to make its borrowed drivetrain fit whichever way possible. In production form, we’d expect to see a reworked version of the four, which would boast more than enough power for such a lightweight vehicle. (We’d also hope that Chrysler would consider at least one up-market drivetrain option, much as Pontiac as done with the Solstice, however.)


As with the drivetrain, the borrowed steering package was a little notchy and not quite ready for prime time, but the overall feel of this Demon on the loose was perfect for a cool, sunny spring day. While this may officially be described as a concept car, it has the feel of something getting ready for production. And perhaps for good reason, according to Dehner.


While there’s been no formal decision, designers had a clear mandate. “The idea behind it was to do an entry-level sports car that, if it were to get approval, could get into production very quickly,” Dehner explained, pointing to the Crossfire, which went from concept to production in barely 18 months.


If the Demon gets the go, insiders hint that it would likely share its platform and key components with another entry-level Chrysler minicar. The most probable? The production version of the Hornet show car. The U.S. maker is developing that as part of a joint venture with the Chinese automaker, Chery, and it could reach showrooms by 2009. We’re hoping like the devil to see a production Demon around the same time.



Caliber: Small is beautiful


2001 Mazda Miata rear

2001 Mazda Miata rear

Since the introduction of the modern minivan, back in 1984, Chrysler’s lineup has been dominated by various light trucks. But with gas prices likely to stick in the $3-a-gallon range, and sales of once-hot models, like the Ram pickup, faltering, there’s been a push to bring out more competitive cars — small cars, in particular, Dehner told TheCarConnection.com. “But just because they’re small doesn’t mean they have to be boring, or cheap.”


One of the automaker’s few recent success stories is the inexpensive but strikingly styled Dodge Caliber. What happens if you trick it out, with a performance-modified powertrain, oversized rally lamps, and a full aero body kit? The Caliber Targa is an indication of what’s possible, a prototype developed by Chrysler’s in-house “skunk works,” and aimed at the tuner crowd that normally swarms to Las Vegas every autumn for the annual SEMA show.


This one-off was designed for Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s design director, who put it through as serious a test as you could imagine, racing it in the Targa race in rugged Newfoundland last year.


Rolling that down

Jefferson Avenue
, with its 30 mph speed limit, was no challenge at all. While we don’t expect such an extreme edition, we’d be pleased to see Chrysler continue to push the limits with its entry-level products, as it did with the old Neon SRT-4.



Nassau: Who needs Mercedes?


2001 Mazda Protege

2001 Mazda Protege

Now that Chrysler’s trans-Atlantic marriage is ending in divorce, there’s less reason for the automaker to worry about pushing into luxury territory, where it would have otherwise bumped up against Mercedes-Benz. But is the Nassau show car a sign of things to come?


Launched at the North American International Auto Show, in January, it’s a striking alternative to the more macho 300 sedan, upon which the Nassau is based. Rather than the current production sedan’s sharp edges and massive grille, the Nassau is defined by sweeping curves and an unusual rear that falls somewhere between hatchback and wagon. Perhaps the closest similarity is the tail of the Lexus RX crossover.


The coupe-like four-door features unusual half-pillars between the doors, so windows down, there’s an unbroken view and flowing air. Two glass panels sweep the length of the roof, adding to the almost convertible-like feel.


With a 6.1-liter V-8 under the hood, you feel the raw power as soon as you fire the HEMI up. Yet even in concept form, with its ten-spoke, 21-inch wheels, the Nassau is a surprisingly smooth ride. We’d have loved to put our foot into it, but the Chrysler technician, who came along as guardian, cautioned that with the lowered show-car suspension, a pothole could rip out the entire undercarriage. We chose to behave ourselves.


With its huge 120-inch wheelbase, the Nassau is a roomy ride as well. The high-tech interior, with its retro-modern push-button gearshift and iDrive-like controls, is divided into four quadrants by the center console that runs the length of the cabin.


While the Nassau pushes to the edge of production styling, we’ve got a feeling we’ll be seeing significant elements of its design when Chrysler rolls out the next-generation 300 sedan.



Back to basics with JT, Trailhawk


2001 Mazda MPV ES rear

2001 Mazda MPV ES rear

The automaker’s Jeep division is just wrapping up the most significant expansion in its long and storied history, jumping from three to seven models. Yet Jeep is still focused exclusively on the SUV segment, even with the launch of its first crossover, the Compass. And that’s irked some loyalists who would love to see the return of the old Jeep Scrambler, from back in the 1980s.


That short-lived SUV/pickup would seem to make a perfect addition to the lineup, and the JT — literally, Jeep Truck — suggests that Chrysler is listening. Like the Caliber Targa, this was a skunkworks project, rather than a conventional concept vehicle. And it was a surprisingly simple effort: start with the new, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, chop off the rear doors, seal it up and turn the back end into a compact pickup bed.


Chrysler showed an alternative approach several years ago with the Gladiator concept, but Dehner suggested the JT involved “a lot more discipline and thought” about what it would take to make an affordable production model. So, we’ll take that as a hint of what may be coming.


2003 Lincoln SUV

2003 Lincoln SUV

Sadly, another concept we were hoping to drive was parked, with keys hidden. The Jeep Trailhawk had been driven a little too hard before we got there, it appears, and the prototype’s transmission had locked up in fourth gear. Too bad, because the show car is one of Chrysler’s best efforts in recent years.


At first glance, you’d be likely to think of the Trailhawk as a potential replacement for the current Grand Cherokee. Though that still might be possible, the concept ute is actually based off of the same platform as the new Jeep Wrangler. The overall dimensions have been stretched to Grand proportions, though the roofline has been chopped by three inches, giving the show car a striking and stylish feel. Meanwhile, the low brow over the headlights gives Trailhawk, “the look of a bird of prey,” said design boss Trevor Creed.


The prototype ride massive, 34-inch tires, and draws power from a 3.0-liter Bluetec diesel V-6, borrowed from Mercedes-Benz. It makes a strong 376 lb-ft of torque. And if Mercedes’ diesel-powered ML and GL models are any indication, we were expecting to experience impressive off-line acceleration. Now, we’ll have to wait for another opportunity.


Exactly how the Trailhawk might fit into the Jeep lineup is unclear. Instead of using two separate platforms for Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, it shows both size segments could be handled with one flexible “architecture.” That provides an interesting alternative that the new, cost-conscious owners, the folks from the dogs of hell, might like.


Related Articles


Tell us which Chrysler concept should be built at our blog


Chrysler Drums Up Nassau, Trailhawk by TCC Team (1/8/2007)
Concepts range from HEMI power to diesel.


Will Dodge Deliver the Demon? by TCC Team (3/6/2007)
Roadster concept appears at Chrysler turning point.


Ten Concepts Detroit Should Have Built by TCC Team (4/11/2007)
Sheetmetal fantasies that deserved a wake-up call.

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