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Car Show Fever

Side View
Jon Thompson | Writer
Posted May 1, 2002

In Which We Go, We See, We Dream, and We Take Pictures

Step By Step

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  • The Los Angeles show debuted the Hummer H2, technical details of which you saw in the April issue of Four Wheeler. On hand to introduce the H2 was none other than Robert Lutz, Vice Chairman of General Motors, who called the H2, “One of the best pieces of design I’ve ever seen, with bold virility and rocklike stability.” Whether that’s reality or hopeful hyperbole is for you to judge. Whatever else the H2 may be, it’s significantly more civilized than the original Hummer H1. It uses running gear lifted from the parts bins that supply the Suburban and HD Silverado production lines, and features an interior that is modern, spacious, and comfortable—not things that can be said about the H1’s interior.

  • Remember the awful Aztek, that stumpy, plastic-clad thing that GM tried to foist off on buyers two years ago? Of course you do. Though it was roundly criticized for its weird styling, it still continues to sell, but Pontiac and GM are attempting to atone for that apparent gaffe by introducing the Pontiac Vibe, which, it is hoped, might appeal to a wider market than the Aztek did/does. Powered by a transverse front-mounted four-cylinder engine, the Vibe is shown here because it features all-wheel drive, which seems to be a direction in which many manufacturers are headed.

  • From a four-wheeler’s perspective, Ford’s Mighty F-350 Tonka concept vehicle (RPM, April ’02) had to be one of the stars of the Detroit show. Rather than the tease we all were given last month, this time around the vehicle was completely revealed. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least because its styling points toward what we’ll be seeing on the next iterations of Ford’s F-Series trucks. A Ford spokesman told the assembled press that the Mighty F-350 Tonka features what they called “tough luxury,” right down to dash switches built to resemble those that control power tools. But it’s also interesting because of some of the technology it employs. Most importantly, it’s powered by the next-generation Navistar Power Stroke Super 600 diesel engine.

  • Our good friends at Jeep introduced the Jeep Compass concept vehicle at the Detroit show. Based on the Jeep Liberty platform, and borrowing from the Jeepster concept introduced in 1998, Compass features steel uniframe construction and a 210hp 3.7L V-6 engine. A spokesman commented, “It is an authentic Jeep vehicle, right down to its seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel arches.” If indeed the Wrangler is beginning to approach the end of its lifespan of Jeep design as we know it, concept vehicles like this one could well be pointing the way toward what any NextWrangler, or any WranglerReplacement, might look like.

  • Ford’s engineers made sure Mighty F-350 Tonka is as packed with technology as it is with style. For instance, they equipped it with something called hydraulic launch assist, which is contained within the system of bottles and tubes you see here. When the Tonka brakes, the system hydraulically stores energy otherwise lost during braking in the bottles. At launch, that energy is sent to the rear driveshaft to help get the vehicle rolling again. When will you see this system, or something like it, in production? Developments of this system could begin showing up within the next two or three years.

  • The Power Stroke Super 600, which powers the Mighty F-350 Tonka concept truck, is a turbocharged 32-valve OHV V-8 beast that produces an estimated 350 hp and 600 lb-ft of torque, thanks in part to a new turbocharging concept called electronic variable-response turbocharging (EVRT). This system employs a set of vanes inside the turbocharger housing that automatically adjust their pitch to optimize airflow within the turbocharger. This engine is mated to an all-new five-speed PowerTorq automatic transmission that features First and Second gears with low ratios that will make it easier to launch a truck that’s loaded with cargo—and also should work well in four-wheeling situations. No word on when this new powertrain might actually make it into production though we suspect it will appear sooner rather than later. For now, Super Duty buyers will have to make do with another new engine announced at the show: the Power Stroke 525, which develops 250 hp and 525 lb-ft of torque. Availability of that engine began in January.

  • Minivan meets SUV: That would be the Chrysler Pacifica, an all-new vehicle scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. next year. Called by company spokesmen, “the next great segment buster,” the Pacifica is targeted at the 25,000-and-up market. It features a low step-in height, three rows of seating, and what Chrysler executives billed as car-like handling. Powered by a 3.5L SOHC 24-valve V-6, Pacifica uses an all-wheel-drive system that can be shifted to front-wheel drive.

  • Look, we know this isn’t a four-wheel-drive vehicle. What it is, though, is an example of how a concept vehicle can become a production vehicle in quick time. Two years ago Chevrolet showed its SSR concept pickup, a modern interpretation of the classic ’50s Chevy pickups. At the Detroit show it displayed this, the production version of the SSR, based on S-10 architecture and equipped with the 5.3L V-8 and the 4L80E transmission, and complete with power fold-down hard top. Expect it to sell in the high $30,000 range.

  • The all-new Honda Pilot, which is somewhat larger than the CR-V, debuted at the Detroit show. Powered by a 3.5L 24-valve, all-aluminum VTEC V-6 engine and five-speed electronically controlled transmission, the Pilot employs an all-wheel-drive system Honda calls Variable Torque Management 4WD, or VTM4. This system uses sophisticated electronic sensing and control mechanisms to continuously distribute torque between the front and rear wheels. An electronically locking rear differential feature is part of the package. Sorry, no two-speed transfer case.

  • Lexus chose the Detroit show to unveil its all-new GX 470 SUV, which is slotted between the Camry-based LX 300 and upscale Land Cruiser clone, the LX 470. It uses the same engine, five-speed transmission, and two-speed transfer case as the RX 470, but is somewhat more compact and somewhat more rugged and singular in appearance. Electronic bells and whistles, including traction control and vehicle skid control, are part of the GX package. Additionally, the GX is available with a towing package that will allow you to pull up to 6,500 pounds. Thankfully, though the front is IFS, at the rear there’s a Toyota corporate solid axle. Expect a price tag somewhere north of $45,000.

  • Though photos of the new Range Rover made the rounds months ago, Detroit was the vehicle’s first public showing. For much more, check page 64 for a driving impression and technical details. Expect this one to sell for something more than $70,000.

  • We know, through the Mighty F-350 Tonka, what Ford’s trucks might look like in the future. And now we know what Dodge trucks might look like as well, because DaimlerChrysler unveiled its M80 concept vehicle at the Detroit show. Check those wheels out—they’re 20-inchers.

  • Mercedes-Benz brought forth a concept vehicle called the Vision GST, those initials standing for Grand Sport Touring. It’s another example of the industry’s apparent shift toward vehicles that combine the attributes of minivans and SUVs, but it’s at least a very high-tech example. A Mercedes-Benz spokesman said that as with the Chrysler Pacifica, the GST is meant as a tool that could be used to define an entirely new market segment. The GST rolls on 22-inch alloy wheels and its wedge-shaped design features two sets of butterfly doors—that is, the fronts are hinged at the front, and the rears are hinged at the rear so that there is no B-pillar. Power comes from a 5.5L Mercedes-AMG V-8 said to produce 360 hp. The vehicle uses all-wheel drive, the air suspension from the fullsized Mercedes-Benz S-class sedans, and interestingly, is equipped with the same electronic braking system as the newly introduced SL500 sports car. This uses a microprocessor to decide just how much braking power should be applied to each wheel.

  • To celebrate its 10 years in production, Hummer brought along its 10th anniversary edition of the H1, in shocking Desert Sunset paint that looked like bronze to us. Special features include, in addition to the paint, a heavy-duty brushguard, fender flares, heated leather seats, a numbered dash plaque, a wood-grained dash and steering wheel, and special decal marking the vehicle as a 10th anniversary special.

  • Isuzu was on hand in Detroit with the Axiom XST, its own expression of the SUV-turned-pickup theme so recently expressed by the Chevy Avalanche and Lincoln Blackwood. It even uses an Avalanche-like Switchgate. To use it, the driver lifts the rear window and folds the Switchgate down to create an extended bed. The five-passenger XST also offers an integrated flip-fold bed extender that further extends the bed’s length. Like a number of import designs, this one was drawn in California, at the design department of Isuzu Motors America. Italdesign California (IDC), a subsidiary of Italy’s famed Italdesign Giugiaro, then digitized the sketches and built a scale model of the design. Once the design was finalized using new body panels from the C-pillars rearward, the IDC team began fabricating the XST using a production Axiom. This concept, powered by a 3.0L turbodiesel V-6, isn’t currently scheduled for production. Not yet, at least.

  • If the Germans can do it, so can the Swedes, as Volvo proved with its XC90, a car-based SUV from a company that has built all-wheel-drive station wagons for some years now. Intended to compete with the likes of the BMW X5, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Lexus RX 300, and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, the XC90 is powered by either turbocharged five-cylinder or V-6 engines, and is the top of Volvo’s Cross Country line. It will be available here in November of this year.

Surely the annual car show is one of automotive America’s great traditions, an annual rite of automotive passage. It’s a yearly opportunity to see the latest concept vehicles from the capacious imaginations of the manufacturers, and also to get first looks at all-new production vehicles that carry the genetic markers of previous concept cars, or that have actually made the perilous journey from concept to production in complete, or almost complete, form.

So we go, we pay our money, we sit in driver’s seats, we slam doors, we peer under hoods, we scope out axles and suspensions, and we begin to scheme on how we might actually bring to fruition the dream that car show attendance always seems to engender: namely, how can I get this vehicle, this one right here, into my own driveway?

There are more car shows in the U.S. than you can shake a torque wrench at, but the heavy hitters are the big four—the Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and New York shows. Of these, the Detroit show, more completely identified as the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), is the crown jewel, and is far and away the most elaborate of the bunch. It would be, right? It’s located in Motor City, America’s engine of automotive commerce. So that, typically, is where most of the news comes from.

Still, the manufacturers like to spread the goods around, saving at least one surprise for each of the shows. The first two of the shows, Los Angeles and Detroit, take place the first and second weeks, respectively, of January. We attended both. What we saw brought both encouragement and consternation. We were encouraged by the sight of three stunning new concept vehicles that are right up a four-wheeler’s alley—one from Ford (see RPM, April ’02) and one each from the Jeep and Dodge divisions of DaimlerChrysler. These vehicles suggest that the companies involved are on track to continue building the vehicles that four-wheeling enthusiasts care about. But we experienced a bit of consternation because of a whole raft of concept vehicles from those companies, and from others, as well, showed much softer edges—crossover vehicles that use all-wheel drive, instead of four-wheel drive, and which seem to be pointing toward a future filled with vehicles that are as much minivan as they are SUV. For sure, that’s the way the manufacturers butter their bread—and we suppose that if they’re going to build the vehicles we want them to build, they’ve got to at least stay in business. And if to do that, they have to build crossover vehicles, well, that’s the price we pay, we suppose.

In any case, what follows is a review of the great and near-great, the vehicles that the world’s producers of motor vehicles will produce to keep them in business, and maybe move them forward.