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May 2011 Firing Order

Posted in Features on May 1, 2011
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It ain't exactly Moab in the scenery department, but the annual North American International Auto Show, held each January in Detroit, is always one of the highlights of our year. It gives us a glimpse at exciting new products, the ability to exchange some industry scuttlebutt with our friends in the business, and the opportunity to gauge the health of the new car and truck market, and to speculate on changes for the coming year.

Amid all the cutting-edge new hybrid and all-electric vehicles on display at this year's show, perhaps the most positive development we noted in Detroit was the re-emergence of a confident attitude-not quite a swagger, perhaps, but an optimistic stride-on the part of U.S automakers. Gone, for the most part, were the gloomy predictions and sullen looks on the faces of the Detroit Three's executives and product planners that we'd noticed for the past two years. It shouldn't come as a complete surprise, given the pronounced uptick in new-car sales the industry has experienced over the past several months. Even light-truck sales have rebounded sharply, with domestic manufacturers leading the way in 2010 with truck sales up more than 20 percent over the previous year. Granted, 2009 was a rotten, terrible, very bad year to be in the car business, but make no mistake-the domestic OEs are making a comeback, and that should be welcome news for all of us.

New truck and SUV designs are generally not trumpeted at Detroit (Chicago has become the gotta-go new-truck show, with the Texas State Fair closing fast), but that didn't stop General Motors from making a splash with a tantalizing new pickup truck this year. Now, it's no great secret that GM (and Ford, to a lesser degree) has tended to shy away in recent years from the off-road enthusiast market in the design and engineering of its four-wheel drives. With their low-hanging valances, plastic skidplates and street-biased gearing, the Silverado/Sierra pickups and Yukon/Denali SUVs, while eminently drivable on the highway, won't make too many people forget the solid-axle K-trucks of yore (or even the '88-'98 models) in the dirt. And GM has dumped two-speed transfer cases altogether from the midsize segment, as the S-Blazer that begat the Trail Blazer in turn has begotten some crossover rigs instead. That's why it was exciting to see the General come strong to the party with its new 3/4-ton Sierra All-Terrain concept-a Serious Trail Truck based off the existing GMT900 chassis, with 35-inch tires, front and rear locking diffs, race-grade shock absorbers, and a host of custom styling cues that set it apart from ordinary Sierra pickups. Will GM build it? It's hard to say for certain, but given Ford's runaway success with the SVT Raptor and the enduring popularity of the Ram Power Wagon, we imagine that the All-Terrain will be the subject of some earnest discussion among GM product planners in the near future. Our verdict: "Build it and buyers will come," and if you turn to page 48, you can look and decide for yourself.

Even the domestic manufacturer that's had the toughest time battling through the recession displayed an upbeat new attitude this year. And why not? Chrysler may still be lagging behind GM and Ford in market share and unit sales, but the company garnered a lot of favorable press at this year's show with its completely revamped interiors and brand-new powerplants. After years of product offerings that often competed against each other, and vehicles that buyers often deemed substandard and bland, it's obvious, post-Detroit, that Chrysler is investing in a big way in all aspects of its products, from more refined chassis tuning to quality interior materials, to smoother-running powertrains and more clearly-delineated marketing strategies. (You can see its new-for-2011 Jeep line-up on page 64 this month.) They've still got a ways to go, but there was no mistaking the new sense of dedication and resolve to succeed among the members of Chrysler's corporate entourage this year. Besides, we'll always root for a company that continues to produce a four-wheel drive that's as accomplished as the Wrangler, and does so unabashedly, with antiquated solid axles and a body on frame.

On the subject of Jeep, it was also in Detroit that we received official confirmation that Chrysler will, at long last and as often rumored, build a Jeep pickup truck off the Wrangler Unlimited platform. When? We don't know for sure, but our best guess is we'll probably see a running prototype within the next 12 months, with an on-sale date scheduled for mid- to late in 2012 for the 2013 model year. We're counting the days until we can whomp one in the dirt-especially if we can get it with a Rubicon package. We suspect a lot of Jeep guys out there are feeling the same exact way.
-Douglas Mccolloch

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