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North American International Auto Show - Drivelines

Posted in Events on May 1, 2003
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The Production Trucks
The North American International Auto Show in Detroit kicked off the show season with a bang, as domestic and import companies introduced a bunch of significant new products. Some were fanciful concept vehicles (which we'll talk about later), while others were ready-for-primetime production models. Here's what you can expect to see in showrooms soon. (Note that we've included some AWD and "crossover" SUVs here as well as traditional trucks, just in case you're in the market for something cushy.)

'04 Nissan Titan Nissan's first-ever fullsize pickup truck is truly fullsize and built tough-at least, according to the spec sheet. We won't get our hands on an actual truck for months (and neither will you, since it doesn't go on sale until December), but it sure looks good on paper. Start with its Endurance V-8-a 5.6L DOHC engine that'll put out more than 300 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque, which just about equals Ford's new-for-'04 5.4L Triton V-8 and outright beats Chevy's Vortec 5300 V-8. Power is routed through a five-speed automatic transmission to an electronically controlled transfer case and Dana 44 axles front and rear. Low-range ratio and axle gear specs haven't been released, as Nissan is still fine-tuning the Titan's fuel economy, but the maker promises the transfer case will offer a "best in class" crawl ratio. An electric locker will be available for the rear axle.

The suspension setup will be double wishbone up front, live axle in the rear. Rancho shocks will be available in an off-road package, as will 285/70R18 tires on 17x7.5 alloy rims.

So is it a "real" fullsize? Well, overall the King-Cab is 1.6 inches shorter than an '03 F-150 Super Cab and 3.4 inches shorter than an extended cab Chevy 1500. The Titan's wheelbase is an inch longer than the Ford's, and 3.7 inches shorter than the Chevy's. They're all within an inch of each other in terms of overall width, and all three have 611/42-foot beds. Compared with '03 Fords and Chevys, Nissan wins the tow-capacity race, topping at 9,400 pounds compared with 8,600 pounds for similarly equipped domestic trucks. (The '04 F-150, however, can tow 9,500 pounds.)

There's so much more to talk about-the first factory truck with a spray-in bedliner, a unique bedside storage compartment in the rear quarter, electronic traction control-but we're out of room. Watch for more in upcoming issues.

'04 Ford F-150 Ford's redo of the F-150 is no mere re-skin. Yes, the sheetmetal has evolved into a more chiseled look, with an exaggerated grille that reminds us of the Ram's front end. But the changes to the truck are frame-up. Literally. The boxed frame is nine times stiffer than it was, improving the truck's road manners. The chassis has been refined too, with new coil-on-shock dampers matched with a long-spindle, double-wishbone front suspension. In back, Ford has mounted the shock absorbers outboard of the leaf springs, "allowing more precise tuning and improved ride and handling," says Ford.

Under the hood is a new version of the 5.4L Triton V-8. This optional mill features three valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and other engineering refinements, all of which up the engine's output to 300 hp and 365 lb-ft of torque. The engine is mated to an all-new five-speed automatic transmission. The engine and chassis upgrades bring the F-150's maximum towing capacity to 9,500 pounds.

In tandem with the new look, Ford has stretched the cabin of the regular- and SuperCab F-150s a full 6 inches for improved cargo-carrying and passenger room. Regular-cab trucks also get new rear access doors to make it easier to stow and retrieve cargo behind the seats.

There will be five '04 F-150 models-XL, STX, XLT, FX4, and Lariat-each with its own features (including different interior appointments). The FX4 remains the off-road version of choice, with skidplates, tuned shocks, optional LT275/65R18 tires, tow hooks, and 3.73:1 axles with a limited-slip rear diff.

'04 Chevy Colorado/ GMC Canyon R.I.P., S-10 and Sonoma. The Colorado and Canyon will replace the long-in-the-tooth S-series trucks, and they're longer, wider, taller and more powerful than their predecessors. The size differences aren't huge, but 4 inches here and 2 inches there can make a big difference in ride quality and comfort, not to mention cargo-carrying capacity. Cargo volume in the 6-foot box is 43.9 cubic feet, compared to the S-10's 39.4. Three body styles-regular-, extended-, and crew-cab-will be available, as will two box lengths: 6-foot for the regular- and extended-cab trucks, 5-foot for the crew-cab.

GM created two new engines to power the pickups, both based on the Vortec 4200 inline-six from the TrailBlazer/ Envoy SUVs. The bigger of the two, the Vortec 3500, is an I-5 motor that puts out 220 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. While that stacks up pretty close to the old 4.3L V-6 (190 hp and 250 lb-ft in 4x4 applications), the I-5 will reportedly turn in fuel economy numbers more like a four-banger than the old V-6. The second new engine, the Vortec 2800 I-4, puts out 175 horses and 185 lb-ft of torque, which spanks the 120/140 numbers achieved by the old 2.2L four-cylinder.

Other technical highlights include the availability of a locking rear differential in 4x4 models, and Z71 (Chevy) and high-rider (GMC) off-road packages that include specially tuned suspensions and P265/75R15 tires on 15x7 alloy rims.

Jeep "Freedom" Models Instead of any technical innovations, Jeep decided to unveil a new line of Freedom appearance packages in Detroit for the '04 Grand Cherokee, Liberty, and Wrangler.

In the Grand's case, "freedom" means a silver front fascia accent, silver roof rack and siderails, chrome tow hooks, and graphite-colored 17-inch wheels. The Liberty receives graphite painted grille and fasciae, wheel flares, and graphite-finished 17-inch rims. (Do you see a pattern emerging here?) The Freedom Liberty also receives a graphite-painted front brushguard, side rock rails, and taillamp guards from Mopar Performance. The Wrangler is the only one of the three that doesn't get the graphite treatment. Instead, the Freedom Wrangler is outfitted with body-colored flares, a soft top with full metal doors, foglamps, tow hooks, and chrome 15-inch wheels.

'05 Chevy Equinox Chevy is getting into crossover territory with the Equinox, a compact SUV that will share the same platform as the Saturn Vue. Chevy calls it the largest in the segment, with a 112.5-inch wheelbase, an overall length of 187.3 inches and an overall width of 72.2 inches. By comparison, a Toyota RAV4 is 166.2 inches long, has a 98-inch wheelbase, and is 70.3 inches wide.

The engine in the Equinox will be a Vortec 3400 V-6 that produces 185 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque (which kicks butt over the Toyota's 2.0L I-4 and its 148 hp). It will be mated to a five-speed automatic transaxle, and FWD or AWD drivelines will be available. The unibody chassis will be sprung with MacPherson struts in front and a four-link independent rear with coil springs.

We keep saying "will be" because the Equinox won't go into production until early 2004 as a '05 model.

This Just In
*Ford '04 F-150 news: Automotive News reports that the regular-cab version of the new Ford pickup will have small, rear-hinged doors at the back of the cab to make it easier to reach and stow cargo behind the seats. Ford isn't calling them doors, though. They're "access panels."

*Dodge has launched a comprehensive towing guide on its Web site ( The site includes some "towing basics" information as well as areas where prospective customers can match their towing needs with the right Dodge vehicle. Also new to the site is a vehicle configurator, called the Dodge Accessorizer, where you can customize a Ram pickup with virtual parts like running boards, a tonneau cover, and a grilleguard.

*Seems you can sell just about anything on the Internet these days, even parking spaces. Chicago-based bills itself as the "first commercially available Web-based search engine and marketplace for buyers, renters, and sellers of parking spaces nationally." We haven't spent much time in the Windy City recently, but the parking situation must be just hideous.

*Nissan will unveil two trucks at the New York Auto Show in April. One will be a crew-cab version of the Titan pickup, the other a fullsize sport/utility based on the same platform.

*We're not sure what the judges were thinking, but the Volvo XC 90 (in our minds a tall station wagon) was voted North American Truck of the Year by a panel of U.S. automotive journalists. How that mom-mobile beat the H2 is anybody's guess.

*Toyota is going Winston Cup racing. That's right, the Japanese automaker has announced it will field a Camry with a carbureted V-8 in the 2007 season. As a warm-up, Toyota is building a Tundra-bodied racer for the '04 Craftsman Truck racing series.

*Jeep wins. J.D. Power and Associates ranked highest on its 2002 Manufacturer Web Site Evaluation Study, lauding the site for its "usefulness to consumers in the areas of navigation, appearance/presentation, and relevance of information provided."

*VW has announced pricing for its upcoming Touareg SUV. Prices for the 3.2L V-6 model will start at $34,900, while the 4.2L V-8 model will begin at $40,700. Sounds like a lot of dough for a VW, but it is substantially less than the $55,900 Porsche is asking for its base Cayenne S model. (You don't even want to know how close to $100K the turbo model is.) The Porsche and VW SUVs share a common platform, though as you might guess the performance envelope of the Porsche is much higher.

*More VW news: In its pricing release, the maker offered this handy pronunciation guide for its SUV. Now, repeat after us: "tour-regg." One journalist we spoke with said the best way to say that last syllable is to pretend you're a cat hocking up a hairball.

*Speaking of pricey, um, pricing, Chevrolet has announced the MSRP for its retro-convertible SSR pickup. How does $41,995 strike you? Yeah. Ouch.

*Where do you go to be safe in a tornado? According to the American Meteorological Society, not in a mobile home or outdoors. Duh. Instead, climb into a minivan. Recent studies by the society showed that it took winds of 115 to 150 mph to tip over a sedan, and 130 to 180 mph winds to tip a minivan, even after tilting the suspension five degrees over on its side.

Lexus Accepts 4x4 of the Year Trophy in DetroitWith all the work behind us, it was time to award the hardware. A very happy Denny Clements of Lexus accepted the 2003 4x4 of the Year trophy from Truck Group Director Jim Ryan and Editor Rick Pw on behalf of the winning vehicle, the Lexus GX 470. Ryan and Pw braved bitter Midwest cold (not to mention the food on Northwest Airlines) to make the presentation in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

This was the first time Lexus has won the prestigious award, which goes to the best overall 4x4 for the new model year. The all-new GX 470 topped the largest-ever field in the competition's history, as 16 vehicles battled for the coveted ring-and-pinion trophy. Coverage of the test appeared in our Feb. '03 issue.

If you own one of the following vehicles and haven't been notified by the maker that your vehicle is under recall, get yourself down to your local dealer to find out if the recall affects your 4x4.

*'02 Chevy TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy: Some of these SUVs are missing welds on the rear floor plan. In a crash, the missing welds could degrade performance of the third row seat and safety belt anchorage, and occupants could receive greater injuries. Dealers will inspect the vehicle for missing welds. If they are found, GM will exchange the vehicle for an equivalent vehicle or provide a refund of the purchase price.

*'03 Hummer H2: Some H2s exhibit a condition in which the windshield wiper motor could fail during use because of improper manufacturing. Dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace the wiper motor assembly.

Silver Takes The Gold
For the last 50 years, DuPont has tracked the most popular automotive colors as a means of predicting future color trends. In the 2002 Automotive Color Popularity Report, DuPont found that silver was the most popular color for several vehicle segments, "driven by consumers' correlation of the color with high-tech equipment, precision and performance," said the company. The only area where silver did not top the list was in the truck/SUV/van category, in which white came in First, with silver a close Second.

Other color trends DuPont is watching: Blue, the most popular color in Europe, is gaining ground over green, which was the top color in the '90s. Red metallics, "expressing enthusiasm and energy," are "shaking up" the luxury and sport/compact segments. And light brown, once a drab, middle-of-the-road color, is becoming more popular thanks to the addition of gold metallic effects.

The chart shown here is for North American automotive color popularity overall. In the truck/SUV/van category, the color rank was: white, silver, black, medium/dark blue, medium/dark gray, medium red, medium/dark green, light brown, bright red, and gold.

Calendar Of Events
Apr. 25-27 10th Cajun Jeep Jamboree, St. Francisville, LA. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

Apr. 25-27 Terrible's Town 250, Pahrump, NV. Information: Best in the Desert, 792/457-5775,

Apr. 26-27 Eastern Rock Crawling Championship Kick-off, Jellico, TN. Information: 513/469-2412,

May 2-4 Bronco Daze 2003, Silverwood Lake, CA. Open to all '66-'77 Broncos. Information: Early Bronco Registry, 858/487-9678,

May 2-4 California Rock Crawling & Off-Road Championship Series, Reno, NV. Information: CalROCS, 530/622-0370,

May 2-4 Central Alabama Offroad Society May Madness Jamboree, Gardendale, AL. Information: C.A.O.S., 205/492-0315 or e-mail

May 2-4 3rd Annual Texas Trail Rides & Southwest Four Wheel Drive Association Spring Quarterly Meeting, Gilmer, TX. Information: 281/298-9520,

May 3-4 4WD Safety Clinic, Hollister Hills SVRA, Hollister, CA. Information: Esprit de Four, 408/531-9582,

May 3-4 Avenal sand drags, Avenal, CA. Information: 559/386-5766

May 8-11 Kia Sportage 4x4 Club 2nd Annual Moab Run, Moab, UT. Information: and click on Trailtalk forums and Kia, or e-mail David Scott at

May 16-18 18th Annual Advance Auto Parts Spring 4-Wheel Jamboree Nationals, Lima, OH. Information: 317/236-6515,

May 16-18 11th Big Bear Jeep Jamboree, Big Bear Lake, CA. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

May 16-18 North American Rock Crawlers Association event, Avalanche Ranch, CO. Information: CalROCS, 530/622-0370,

May 16-18 2nd Ozark Mountains Spring Jeep Jamboree, Potosi, MO. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

May 16-18 15th Palo Duro Jeep Jamboree, Amarillo, TX. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

May 17 Austin's Auto Accessories 4th semi-annual auto show & shine & swap meet, Gulf Breeze, FL. Information: 850/916-7100

May 17 MDR Ridgecrest 300 off-road race, Ridgecrest, CA. Information: Mojave Desert Racing, 626/442-9320,

May 17-18 4x4 Jamboree Series, Kielder Forest, Northumberland, England. Information: Richard Potts, 01670/730732,

May 17-18 North Eastern U.S. Rockcrawling and Off-Road Championship, Paragon Adventure Park, Hazleton, PA. Information: 570/384-0550,

May 22-24 RCAA event, location TBA. Information: 801/288-2574,

May 23-25 15th Arch Canyon Jeep Jamboree, San Juan County, UT. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

May 24-25 Trail ride in Cumberland Plateau area, Monteagle, TN. Information: 770/478-2587, or email

May 24-26 CORR Lucas Oil Series off-road race, Dresser, WI. Information: Championship Off-Road Racing, 317/272-2827,

May 30-June 1 11th Hole in the Rock Jeep Jamboree, Blanding, UT. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

May 30-June 1 10th Pine Barrens Jeep Jamboree, Hammonton, NJ. Information: Jeep Jamboree USA, 530/333-4777,

May 30-June 1 35th Tecate SCORE Baja 500, Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. Information: SCORE International, 818/225-8402,

Nice Briarwood. Too bad it's likely to be stolen, says the NICB

SUVs Make Most-Stolen List
Two SUVs and two pickups made it on the most recent list of the 10 most commonly stolen vehicles, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

Lucky us.The NICB tracked FBI Uniform Crime Reports to compile the data, which show that the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee were the most-stolen trucks in 2001, landing them at No. 5 on the list. Right behind them at No. 6 was the Chevy C/K fullsize pickup, with Ford's F-150 occupying the No. 10 spot. Of the 50 most commonly stolen vehicles in 2001, one-third were SUVs, pickups, or minivans.

Topping the list were the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, and Honda Civic, in that order. So we now have statistics that prove driving a truck is "safer" than three of the most popular imports. In terms of vehicle theft, anyway.

Coolest Reading Places
Chris Collard of Rocklin, California, wrote to tell us he stuck a copy of our favorite 4x4 magazine in his backpack as he left for Africa. "This shot is from on top of the Sossusvlei Sand Dunes, Namibia, in southwestern Africa. At 892 feet from the summit to Dead Vlei, the alkali flat below, it is reported to be one of the tallest in the world."

Rubicon Transfer Case at Advance AdaptersDrooling over parts on the new Wrangler Rubicon? Well, some pieces have hit the aftermarket. Advance Adapters is now carrying the Rubicon's NV2410R transfer case, also known as the Rock-Trac. This chaindriven case features a 4:1 low-range and a fixed rear yoke and is designed as a bolt-in replacement for 23-spline NP231J cases. Contact Advance Adapters, 805/238-7000, for more info.

Environmental & Political Watch
Anti-SUV War Heats Up: On the heels of the "What Would Jesus Drive" and "Buy an SUV/Support Terrorism" campaigns, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that pickups and SUVs aren't safe enough. In a speech given earlier this year, Jeffrey Runge noted an increase in single-vehicle rollover fatalities during 2001 and said that an SUV occupant was three times as likely to die as the result of a rollover than an occupant in a passenger car. He believes if the factories don't step up safety measures in SUVs-like equipping more of them with head-protecting side-curtain airbags-then the government should step in and mandate the equipment.

Right now the side-curtain airbags are available as standard equipment in some SUVs and optional in others, but a spokesperson from Ford said that very few customers ordered the optional bags. Ford would rather have new technologies be driven by consumer demand, not government mandate, she said.

General Motors issued a statement that took issue with how Runge presented his facts. "According to real-world government crash data compiled by the NHTSA, SUVs are two to three times more protective of their occupants in frontal, rear, and side-impact crashes that make up 97.5 percent of all crashes," said Jay Cooney, GM's Director of Safety Communications. "The major reason for fatalities in rollovers, which represent only 2.5 percent of all crashes, is due to a lack of seatbelt use." Citing crash data from 2000, Cooney said 75 percent of the people killed in rollover accidents died as the result of being ejected from the vehicle because they were not belted. "This is exactly why GM has been diligently working with Dr. Runge and the NHTSA on increasing seatbelt usage in this country," Cooney said.

Instead of being the "killer" vehicles Runge and others are claiming, SUVs have made our roads safer, Cooney said. "During [the SUV] sales boom, the nation's fatality rate (based on vehicle miles of travel) dropped by more than 50 percent, to an all-time low."

Detroit Auto Show Roundup, Part 2
The Concept Trucks
These days, concept vehicles aren't the total fantasy vehicles they once were. More often, truck makers disguise future production models as "concepts" to test public response to upcoming designs. So expect to see some form of these trucks hitting the road in the next few years.

Chevy Cheyenne Love it or hate it, the Cheyenne looked (to us, anyway) like what an actual production pickup truck might look like four or five years down the road. While we're not thrilled with its blunt-nose styling, we do like that Chevy is exploring options in the truck's bed. The tailgate can be opened traditionally, or just half-way for loading small cargo or to create a work shelf. Additional access to the bed is via two doors right behind the cab. There are also storage bins in the bed floor and drawers in the bedsides.

Those of you who load heavy gear (like ATVs) into your truck beds will appreciate the fact that the Cheyenne's load floor is just 28 inches off the ground, "significantly lower" than a current 2WD Silverado model, says Chevy. Credit an independent rear suspension for making room to lower the floor.

Dodge Durango RT Hemi Concept Though Dodge is calling this a concept, it also admitted that the truck "provides a strong hint of the next generation Durango that will appear in late 2003 as a '04 model." How strong a hint? Look for "approximately 85 percent" of the concept's exterior design to translate into production.

We can only hope that the 5.7L Hemi V-8 under the hood also makes it into production. Putting a 345-horse Hemi into one of these babies, especially with the concept's full-time 4WD drivetrain, would make it a great pavement pounder. And no slouch off-road, either.

Ford Freestyle FX While Chevy chose to show off a production version of its new Equinox crossover SUV, Ford played it cagey and displayed a concept version of its new Freestyle crossover, which will debut in 2004. How do the two differ? Though Ford won't spill, chances are good the production vehicle won't have the "three-vehicles-in-one" body. The FX can convert from a six-passenger wagon to either a four-passenger sedan or a four-passenger SportTrac-like vehicle with a cargo bed.

What will carry over from concept to reality is the Freestyle's platform, which is not based on a current car or minivan like other crossovers are. Instead, Ford calls it "purpose-built crossover architecture," with a unibody construction, a 3.0L V-6 engine, and CVT transmission.

Toyota FJ Cruiser Concept The FJ Concept is Toyota's attempt to create a "capable and affordable off-roader" aimed at "young buyers with active outdoor lifestyles." Uh huh. I guess we're not young enough. We don't get it. The styling is supposed to be reminiscent of the old FJ-40, with its round headlights, narrow grille, upright windshield, and contrasting roof panel. But it just ain't working for us.

What does sound good, though, are its underpinnings. The FJ Cruiser sits on a modified Tacoma chassis equipped with a long-travel suspension and 33-inch tires. Under the hood is a 3.4L V-6 that puts out 250 hp thanks to a TRD supercharger and TRD after-cat exhaust.

Rollcage Specs Under Development
As the sport of rockcrawling gets more serious every year, one sanctioning body is looking into tightening some of its safety regulations. The Eastern Rock Crawling Championship (ERoCC) Series has commissioned the SFI Foundation to create rollcage design and material specifications to be used in rockcrawling competitions. SFI has set rollcage and other safety standards for many different forms of competition, from dragsters to pulling tractors.

Since rockcrawlers are looking for ways to shave weight off their vehicles, "the proper rollcage design becomes much more critical," said Tim Rettig, a spokesperson for ERoCC. "Our specification will be similar to the NHRA's Driver Pod design, which can fit into many different types of vehicles and is only concerned with the cage that protects the driver compartment. This allows the competitor to do whatever they want in front of, behind, and under the driver pod."

ERoCC says SFI will spend some time studying the forces that rockcrawlers are exposed to, and will then work with the participants and aftermarket manufacturers to create a viable cage specification. ERoCC believes the rollcage spec will become a part of its series in the 2004 season.

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