Ask most folks for their definition of "heaven on earth," and you'll get answers like Springtime in Paris, Autumn in New York, and even Easter in Moab (wherever the heck that is). For oddballs like us, though, a chilly week in January in downtown Detroit just can't be beat-at least, if you're jonesing for the latest in cutting-edge truck and 4x4 tech from the major manufacturers.
The North American International Auto Show, held each year in the dead of winter, at Cobo Hall on the frozen banks of Lake St. Clair, is the biggest and baddest factory automotive expo in the U.S. It's the one place where even plebes like us can walk the aisles with bigwigs like Bob Lutz and Bill Ford, and tell them why they should build their vehicles with Muncie transmissions and 205 transfer cases. (Not that they'll listen, but they're always polite.) And it's the one show that gives you the best indication of what the hottest trends in truck and SUV design are likely to be for the coming year. Pull on your thermals, and check out what we found at this year's show.
Why It Was Built: With Chevy, Toyota, and Nissan all aggressively marketing its newest fullsizes to "tough truck" buyers, Ford product planners must've figured that their meal-ticket pickup needed a bit of machofying to stay competitive. So, with some broad-shouldered styling cues and a slew of cool work-truck add-ons grafted from the current Super Duty, the new F-Series looks poised to retain its stake as the top-selling light-duty truck in America.
What's Inside It: Under the hood, the 2V 4.6L V-8 remains the base engine, while the 3V 4.6L V-8 is the optional. The top dog 5.4L V-8 gets a boost in power and can now be had with a six-speed automatic. Suspension is coilover/double wishbone in front, 6-inch-longer leaf springs in the rear, and yes, you can get a manual-shift transfer case and a rear locker for it, too. Other cool stuff? Well, there's an integrated trailer-brake controller, under-bed lockboxes, retractable bed sidesteps, tailgate step and handle, stowable bed extender, Trailer Sway Control ... are you getting the "work truck" idea yet?
What's in Store: For 2010, a new 340hp 3.5L V-6 and a 4.4L diesel V-8.
When Can You Get One: Later this year, in one of seven trim levels and 35 total configurations.
Our Take: Combine the best work-truck features of the Super Duty with the F-150's class-leading creature comforts, give it a rear locker and an off-road suspension package, and what do you get? From our perspective, it looks like the best of both worlds. We'll be testdriving one in a few months, and we'll let you know how she runs.
(and 120 head of longhorn cattle)
Why It Was Built: Facing stiff competition from the other truckmakers, Dodge knew a refreshening was in order for the Ram, and the new truck aims to capitalize on the sudden upsurge in consumer demand for Crew Cab models. (The hoofers ... well, 2,000 journalists have gotta eat sometime.)
What's Inside It: Powertrains carry over from the previous year, with the 3.7L V-6, 4.7L V-8, or 380hp 5.7L Hemi mated to either the Getrag 238 six-speed manual, 42RLE four-speed, or 545RE five-speed automatics. The Ram's suspension is the big news this year, with coilover shocks and A-arms in front, and a coil-spring/five-link setup in the rear-yeah, you read right, and it's the first link rear suspension ever offered in a light-duty truck. Other cool stuff: Hill Assist, Trailer Sway Control, integrated bedside cargo bins with built-in drains and lights, triple-seal weatherstripping, an all-new interior, and, uh, yeah, that rear suspension.
What's in Store: A Hemi hybrid and a 5.0L Cummins V-8 diesel for model year 2010.
When Can You Get One: Late summer, for the 2009 model year.
Our Take: Leave it to the jokesters at Chrysler to turn downtown Detroit into a rerun of Rawhide to launch the new Ram, which would seem to be a significant improvement over the previous model in ride, utility, ergonomics, and interior quality. We'll tell you more as soon as we can testdrive one.
Why It Was Built: Based on the 2005 Mesa concept, to round out Kia's burgeoning vehicle line with a fullsize SUV.
What's Inside It: The first V-8 ever offered on a Korean sport-ute-in this case, the 375hp 4.6L V-8 sourced from the Genesis sedan, backed by a six-speed automatic (a 3.3L V-6/five-speed is also available). Suspension is independent at both ends, and the Borrego uses the same Torque-on-Demand four-wheel-drive system (with low-range) found on the Sorento midsize SUV. There's seating capacity for seven inside, and maximum tow rating (with the V-8) is 7,500 pounds.
What's in Store: Tough sledding, we imagine-what surely must have looked good to Kia's product planners five years ago figures to be a hard sell in an era of $3.50 gas. The good news? A diesel six-cylinder is coming next year.
When Can You Get One: Late summer 2008, starting around $25,000.
Our Take: It's dull, it looks dated, and it's horribly timed, but if you gotta have a brand-new fullsize SUV next year, this one should deliver the best utility-per-dollar value around-and she won't be down on power, either.
Why It Was Built: According to GM, it's meant as a "youthful" Hummer for "entry-level buyers," but with a modular top system and removable doors and fender flares, it's also got a certain other 4x4 marque squarely in its sights.
What's Inside It: All-new everywhere, the HX rolls courtesy of a 304hp 3.6L flexfuel V-6 coupled to a Hydramatic six-speed. Four-wheel drive is full-time, with front and rear lockers and 35-inch Bridgestones on bead-locked rims. Suspension is independent front and rear, with Fox Racing piggyback coilovers at all four corners and CNC/billet control arms in the back; approach and departure angles are both over 50 degrees; six-piston-caliper front Brembos provide stoppage; and an integrated front winch is on call for retrievals. And this is supposed to be an entry-level trail rig?
What's in Store: With a few revisions-most likely to suspension design and componentry-it'll appear in dealer showrooms as the Hummer H4.
When Can You Get One: According to our sources, sometime by mid-2009.
Our Take: We hate to tip our hand so early, but can you say "2010 Four Wheeler of the Year" already?
Why It Was Built: Ostensibly, to emphasize Land Rover's new commitment to small-is-beautiful eco-consciousness, but in reality, as a hint of future product to come.
What's Inside It: Conceived as a two-door "cross coupe," the LRX relies on a U.S.-spec 2.0L biodiesel hybrid powertrain and all-wheel drive. Suspension is independent coil/strut at both ends, and Land Rover's quite-useful Terrain Response system recalibrates engine and drivetrain algorithms for off-pavement use. Green-friendly features include recycled headliner and door-insert materials, veggie-dyed leather for seats and trim (no chromium), and lightweight polycarbonate side windows and sunroof.
What's in Store: We can't be certain, but Land Rover doesn't usually spend time building concepts (this is only their second ever, and the first one became the Range Rover Sport). And since its wheelbase is identical to the LR2's, it's probably safe to say we'll see a two-door version-a Mini Rover?, a Range Cooper Sport?-coming down the production pike fairly soon.
When Can You Get One: Mostly likely, sometime by 2010.
Our Take: It's too low to the ground, and there's no low-range or diff-locks, but we dig the way it looks anyway. Land Rover admits it wasn't built with "ultimate off-roading" in mind, but that won't stop us from flailing one in the dirt the first chance we get.
Why It Was Built: Outsold last year by the Toyota Prius (!), Ford's former flagship SUV was already on life support.
What's Inside It: First and foremost, the new Explorer is a showcase for Ford's brand-new "Eco Boost" engine line, which will rely almost exclusively on twin turbochargers and direct injection to improve power and mileage while keeping weight (i.e., engine displacement) at a minimum. The Explorer-America runs a 350hp 3.5L V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission. Other cool stuff? Well, not a lot for 'wheeling or towing. The vehicle's a unibody now, suspension is all-wheel independent, and the rear minivan-style doors are sliders, not hinged. On the other hand, there are three rows of seats, and power steering is all-electric (no fluids).
What's in Store: If the Lincoln MKX-also unveiled this year at Detroit, and also sporting the new V-6-is any indication, the next Explorer will be an all-wheel-drive X-ute with no transfer case or low range.
When Can You Get One: Most likely, sometime in late 2009 for the 2010 model year.
Our Take: The end of an era, as the vehicle that launched the modern-day SUV craze goes the way of all crossovers. And since the next-gen Sport-Trac SUT would figure to share the same platform as the Ex-Am, we have to wonder if this doesn't also mean the end of the Ranger pickup too.
Why It Was Built: To showcase sustainable technologies, and to appeal to what Chrysler calls the "stylish green" buyer-consumers who like to play in the dirt and not feel guilty about belching out tons of hydrocarbons in the process.
What's Inside It: Plenty of interesting stuff, actually. A lithium-ion battery pack and a pair of 200kW electric motors power each axle end for up to a 40-mile range, after which a 115hp 1.5L Bluetec diesel three-cylinder "mileage-enhancer" kicks in. Claimed equivalent fuel mileage is over 100 mpg on a per-tank basis. While the battery's beneath the floorboard, there's still room for a transfer case down there, and locking diffs are found in both axles. Thirty-two-inch BFGs reside in the 'wells, and approach and departure angles are an outstanding 44 and 52, respectively. Soy-based foam seats and doors provide eco-friendly ergonomics (and a meal if you're stranded in the boonies, we'd guess), and you can still hose down the interior, thanks to a drain in the floor.
What's in Store: Hard to say. Recent Jeep concepts have been more eye candy than real-world design studies, so we wouldn't hold our breath waiting for a Wrangler hybrid in tofu trim anytime soon. A diesel JK, on the other hand-well, that's probably coming in the next couple of years.
When Can You Get One: As envisioned here, shortly after the inauguration of President Jenna Bush in 2033.
Our Take: Our initial impression was "Myers Manx Rubicon," but the more we look at it, the more the concept grows on us. While suspension is now independent in front, it's still got lockers, low-range, and plenty of tire, so we'd have to say the folks at Jeep are still keeping their eye on the dedicated 'wheelers who've been their most loyal customers since ... well, forever.
Why It Was Built: Representing "the next evolution of the compact pickup," according to Toyota, the Advanced Breakthrough Aero Truck (A-BAT) was conceived by Toyota's Calty design studio for "maneuvering the suburbs as well as dirt roads." Actually, we suspect it was built as a Scion concept, then given a Toyota badge to showcase its gas-electric hybrid system at Detroit.
What's Inside It: Sporting Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, the A-BAT is essentially a reworked unibody four-cylinder Camry hybrid with an integrated bed a'la the Honda Ridgeline, although the A-BAT adds a midgate. Claimed mileage is 50 mpg in city driving.
What's in Store: If it ever sees production, another platform-a hybrid SUT based on Camry architecture, while easy to reverse-engineer and bring to market, would likely cost way too much for the vehicle's intended (Scion) buyers, and it's hard to see where this vehicle would fit in Toyota's already crowded midsize SUV line.
When Can You Get One: From Toyota, probably never. From Scion, perhaps as an all-wheel-drive xB SUT in two to three years.
Our Take: Cute, yes, and certainly very versatile, but coming five years after the debut of the Prius, and three years after the Ridgeline, this ain't exactly a cutting-edge concept to us.
Why It Was Built: In the words of the original Suzuki press release from the Tokyo Motor Show (where it debuted last fall), the X-Head is "the 'cross-utility vehicle' of the new genre which brings the various values which until recently are not." Actually, Suzuki cranks out concept vehicles the way most of us change our socks, and while there's virtually no chance this thing will ever be built, we want one anyway. Baaad.
What's Inside It: What's not to love? Based off a Jimny chassis and sharing sheetmetal with the Carry (Japan-only) minivan, this body-on-frame, solid-axle cabover runs on a 75hp 1.3L diesel four-banger backed by a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Full-time four-wheel drive uses a center diff-lock for torque splits. Approach and departure angles are unknown, but there are scarcely any overhangs, and knobby Dunlops on bead-locked rims always get our attention. (OK, they're fake, but still.) The X-Head shown here is the "Rescue" version, with plenty of storage cubbies hidden away in the fold-down bedsides, as well as a lockable toolbox in the bed.
What's in Store: One in our garage (we can wish, can't we?).
When Can You Get One: Unless you buy a Jimny overseas, ship it Stateside and build it yourself, probably never.
Our Take: Industry buzz has it that Suzuki will sell a pickup truck in the U.S. next year-a rebadged Nissan Frontier. That's not a bad thing at all, but we'd love to see something like this on the market-it was the coolest thing we saw in Detroit.