The Scion xB and xD look pretty great, far better than the re-cycled box-ettes from Japan that they were before. Even better, they're powerful enough to muscle into traffic from a freeway on-ramp and should ride pretty well once they get there.
We've heard some moaning about front-wheel drive, of course, which is the kind of thing you hear from street racers. Rear-wheel drive is a certainly a trend in big sedans, but that's largely because it has the image of performance, while front-wheel drive has the image of utility.
Our friends from SoCal tend to be clueless about the mobility that front-wheel drive offers in winter climates. Rear-wheel drive tends to serve the self-image of those who believe themselves to be heroic drivers capable of sideways motoring - especially a certain class of automotive journalist. In reality, it's only the recent application of sophisticated electronic stability programs that makes rear-wheel drive even remotely practical in terrible weather.
As far as the Scions go, let's not get confused about the reasons people drive such cars. These are not street-racing machines. They are affordable, stylish people-movers, and they allow young people to gather, listen to music, and go places. If you want to talk trends, let's talk about Scion's iPod connectivity, not to mention the optional system that lets you download video and music from a Pioneer web site, burn it to a CD and then display it on an LCD screen.
Rear-wheel drive might be a cool idea in this class, but there are no affordable vehicle platforms. And let's not get confused about the reasons that real people drive real cars. Not every car must be a street racer. That's just the usual myopia you get from too many car journalists.
The real question here is whether it's still cool to drive a Scion now that everyone has one.
Saturn concierge shopping services
Saturn plans to increase its focus on a different kind of shopping experience with two new programs: online chat and at-home test drive.
Announced at the Chicago show, Saturn now provides online chat interaction with customer service reps 24/7. These key-stroking reps are available through Saturn.com to assist browsers with finding information. A pilot program has already been completed, logging more than 70,000 chat sessions.
As the name suggests, the at-home test drive has a dealer bringing a vehicle to the customer, at home or at work, for evaluation. (Participation this resource-demanding service is at the dealers' discretion.) The sales associate provides the car shopper with a 14-point checklist to help them with the road test, including tasks like checking road noise, storage, parking, and (gasp!) fit/finish. Routes are suggested, though customers are also encouraged to run a routine errand for real-life experience.
In tailoring this concierge test drive, the car is prepared with the customers' preferred music. Letting the cars almost sell themselves builds on the Saturn low-pressure showroom tradition, and with the latest product wave, the sales message is stronger than ever.
Wonder if the local dealer carries my preferred European symphonic, beauty/beast metal? I'd enjoy evaluating the fit/finish on an Ion...
Scion's cool, but cooling off
If you're not into big cars, Scion showed two new models at Chicago. The '08 xB, on sale in August, is substantially bigger, inside and out. Its 108-horsepower 1.5-liter four is replaced with a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine, and its box-on-wheels-shape is replaced with a more organic, rounded edge box, designed in Toyota's California studio.
The xD (shown here) replaces the entry-level xA, and it's now on the Yaris platform, with a larger, 1.8-liter four making 128 horsepower. It's on sale in April. Both the xB and xD are offered with five-speed manuals or four-speed automatics, the latter a cost-cutting surprise from an automaker that manages to put five- or six-speed automatics in just about everything else.
Both new models, like the old ones, have loads of standard equipment, including standard a/c, power windows and a 160-watt stereo with iPod connectivity. The only options are transmission and color, and of course Toyota encourages personalization; big wheels, lowered suspension, wild paint jobs and the like. The xB and xD interiors are much cooler, bringing some of the same appeal as the Mini's interior.
But the new models make me wonder whether Scion can sustain its image. Maintaining youthful hipness is tougher than introducing it, especially when you work so hard to be blase about it. The xB has lost some of the wacky, Japanese Domestic Market-style appeal that has made it a darling of the so-called Millennial set.
Sorry but, fuel prices notwithstanding, the big, powerful Pontiac G8 is the future - the two Scions' prospects remain to be seen.
G8: Most important car of the week
Chicago's most important introduction this week was the Pontiac G8 sedan. (See Motor Trend's video.) In fact, it may be more important than GM's Detroit introductions, the Cadillac CTS, Chevy Malibu and Camaro convertible.
It's the G8 that makes the Camaro possible. They're both on the same new rear-drive platform, designed and engineered in Australia at GM's Holden division.
The car is so important because...
a.) It validates the move back to big rear-wheel-drive sedans that Chrysler began with the 2005 LX models.
b.) It provides GM with an affordable rear-drive platform that can be used across most of its divisions. Cadillac's Sigma premium rear-drive platform is too costly.
The Holden rear-drive architecture, formerly known as Zeta, has a MacPherson strut front suspension and a multi-link suspension in the rear. Chief car guy Bob Lutz says it's extremely flexible, able to underpin a wide variety of cars. GM has developed it with 112-inch (Camaro), 115-inch (G8/Holden Commodore) and 119-inch wheelbases. The next-generation Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS replacements could run off that 119-inch wheelbase, although GM claims it hasn't made a decision about what to do with those cars.
The G8 is a performance sedan designed to target the Dodge Charger. The base G8 will come with a 261-horsepower, 3.6-liter twin-cam V-6 and five-speed automatic, aimed at the 3.5-liter V-6 Charger. The G8 GT will have a 362-horse 6.0-liter small block V-8, targeting the Hemi Charger R/T. It will come with the choice of a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual, and - thank the car gods - has a handbrake instead of a pedal-operated emergency brake. Of course, a 600-horse Z06 engine would nicely vanquish the Charger SRT-8, and take on the BMW M5 as well.
Styling is pre-Bangle BMW-esque, nicely updated, and while GM is careful not to make claims about how well the car handles, BMW's 5 Series served as the benchmark for steering and handling.
The 2008 G8 is scheduled to go on sale early next year.
Kia lets the sun shine in
At the last newsworthy press conference of the day, Kia breathed some life into the Chicago show with its light-hearted unveiling of the Kia Rondo SX concept car. The Rondo's new marketing campaign includes a rainbow of singers belting out "Let the Sun Shine In," and that same cheery group made a live appearance on stage this morning.
The Rondo SX concept is based on the all-new Kia Rondo which went on-sale in December 2006. Compared to the standard Rondo, the SX gets more aggressive front and rear fascias, a dramatic new grille and 18-inch cast-alloy wheels with 235/40R18 Michelin Pilot Sport tires. A cold-air intake and free-flowing cat-back exhaust system increase the 2.7-liter V6's power rating to 192 hp.
The Rondo SX's cabin is dressed up to match the sporty exterior.
Kia claims it has no immediate plans to add the SX to the Rondo line-up, but claims instead to be gathering customer feedback.
Toyota says that it asked previous-generation xB owners what their cars lacked, and gave it to them in the new 2008 model. I disagree - from the looks of it, Toyota's R&D department did some research and figured out what made the original xB such a huge success. And then got rid of it.
Okay, that's a bit harsh - but what I (and buyers) loved so much about the xB was its anime-quality toughness at two-thirds scale. Unlike the slow-selling xA, the xB never looked modern, it never looked soft, and it certainly never looked bubbly. The new one tries to look all three of those, and ends up losing all of the original's charm.
But, I digress. It's not all bad. The 2008 xB rides on an all-new platform, and is numerically better in every way: It's twelve inches longer, three inches wider, and rides on a wheelbase that's four inches longer. Its rear discs are two inches larger. It holds eight cubic feet more stuff. And the best news is that the underpowered 1.5-liter four has been replaced by the tC's 158-hp 2.4-liter, solving my biggest complaint about the old model.
The new xB goes on sale late spring and rides on sixteen-inch wheels. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or four-speed manu-matic. There are no options, and all xBs come standard with power everything, loads of safety equipment, and an iPod jack that enables the audio system to display song titles on its display.
So on paper the new xB is better in every way. It's bigger and comes with a 53 percent increase in horsepower. It's too bad that it's met with a similar decrease in coolness.
It's a small world
Some of the stars at this show in America's heartland are actually from outside the U.S., though they are wearing domestic nameplates. GM Motors unveiled the Saturn Astra, a mildly revised version of the Opel Astra that GM makes in Germany and the Pontiac G8, based on a Holden model in Australia.
Undoubtedly watching this closely, new Ford CEO Alan Mulally is pushing Ford to follow GM's lead in leveraging its global vehicles. Mulally has said Ford may bring some models from Europe to the U.S. Ford's President of the America's said Mulally has given management the marching orders for Ford's global operations to share assets and behave like a global company. Also under Mulally, Ford has appointed a product developing champion along the lines of GM's Bob Lutz.
(Image from Allposters.com)
Pathfinder gets more muscle
Given that trucks and large-platform SUVs keep middle America running, it's fitting that most of Nissan's Chicago show announcements had to do with the Japanese automaker's three largest vehicles. The Pathfinder, Armada, and Titan all receive minor changes for 2008, and with the exception of the Pathfinder's newly available V-8, few of those changes are worth crowing about.
Yep, you heard right: up until now, Nissan's Pathfinder wasn't available with a V-8. The Pathfinder's newfound grunt comes from the same 5.6-liter pump found in both the Armada and the Titan; it delivers over 300 hp ('08 outputs have yet to be finalized) and roughly 380 lb-ft of torque.
The Pathfinder's old 266-hp V-6 carries over, though it remains to be seen how dimly the V-6's light will shine when compared with that of its larger-displacement sister. New wheels, trim, available Bluetooth connectivity, a revised navigation system, and Nissan's Music Box in-dash hard drive technology also make an appearance. Front and rear styling-- including hood, grille, bumpers, and liftgate -- are also revised for the upcoming model year.
The Titan pickup doesn't receive any new engine or powertrain components this year, but it does undergo a good chunk of change -- new King Cab and Crew Cab long-wheelbase models, each boasting an extra foot and a half of bed length compared with the standard the standard model, make their debut. (Toyota's My-Truck-is-Bigger-Than-Your-Truck 2008 Tundra no doubt played a role in the Titan's '08 upsizing.)
A new off-road Titan variant dubbed PRO-4X -- featuring custom Rancho shicks, a lower rear axle ratio, two additional skid plates, an electronically locking rear differential, and unique trim -- debuted as well, along with a 350-watt, ten-speaker Rockford Fosgate audio package offering Bluetooth connectivity. Like the Pathfinder, the Titan also recieves Nissan's new corporate front and rear styling motifs.
Like its Titan and Pathfinder siblings, the Armada recieves a comprehensive interior and exterior facelift for 2008, but little else is new. Twenty-inch wheels are available for the first time, and the new interior boasts a much more luxurious feel.
The 2008 Pathfinder, Armada, and Titan are scheduled to go on sale in Spring of 2007.
Saturn's safety orbit
During the Astra unveiling, Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak said, "At Saturn, we have never taken our eye off the ball when it comes to safety."
She was referring to the Astra's roster of safety systems, including stability control, ABS, six air bags, and active head restraints.
However, has Saturn always been on the ball when it comes to safety?
Looking at Consumer Reports data, current Saturn models we have tested post Good to Very Good results in our accident avoidance test. Though, looking at our aggregated crash test data, there are some red flags.
The Saturn Ion is rated only Acceptable in the frontal offset crash test by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). When tested with front and rear head curtain air bags, the Ion received the same rating as without: Poor.
The 2002-2007 Vue faired better in the front test, earning the highest rating of Good. However, in the only side test performed by the IIHS, without side air bags, the Vue was rated Poor.
In the Institute's words: "Measures taken from the [driver] dummy indicate that rib fractures would be likely in a crash of this severity. Serious neck injuries as well as a fracture of the pelvis would also be possible. In addition, loading to the shoulder was excessive." Ouch.
The Vue also tipped-up in the government rollover test.
The Relay minivan scored a Good in the front test. No surprise, really, as the enlarged front end added to the basic GM minivan design for the latest, and last, generation was in direct response to crash test performance. Three separate side tests were conducted by IIHS, representing changing air bag configurations. The results range from Poor to Acceptable.
The newer Aura, Outlook, and Sky have not yet been tested.
We're not sure where Saturn's celestial eye has been focused, but the results speak for themselves. And the message is: don't believe the hype and research cars on your own. Especially when it comes to safety, trust the data, not the hyperbole.
Serious people power
While everyone else was busy paying attention to Ford's renamed 2008 Five Hundred (a car so good they unveiled it twice!) and Toyota's brand-new Highlander, Volkswagen quietly unveiled its 2008 R32. VW's Golf GTI-based, all-wheel-drive hatchback features a 3.2-liter, naturally aspirated, narrow-angle V-6, a standard twin-clutch (DSG) transmission, and more than a few subtle exterior changes.
The R32's power - 250 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque - comes from a version of Volkswagen's famed 15-degree VR6 engine. All that grunt is transferred to the pavement through a modified form of VW's 4Motion all-wheel drive. The best part? At least 75 percent of the VR6's available torque is sent to the back wheels at all times, ensuring both lurid throttle-induced drift possibilities and rear-wheel-drive dynamics.
Although a standard manual transmission isn't offered (and we'll bemoan that fact until the day we die), VW's six-speed DSG box should do an admirable job. Based on our experience with DSG-equipped "ordinary" GTIs, we can say without reservation that Volkswagen's twin-clutch `box is the best two-pedal transmission we've ever seen. Its near-seamless gear change technology allows the R32 to hit 60 mph in just 6.4 seconds.
A whole host of different styling and accessory touches come standard on the R32 as well. A brushed aluminum grille surround, new front and rear bumpers, twin chrome exhausts, R32-specific 18-inch alloys, and unique door handles and mirrors complete the package. Both track and ride height have been altered (wider and lower, respectively), giving the R32 a meaner stance than the standard GTI.
While we love the R32 in concept, we're not exactly sure what to make of it. Volkswagen's 3.6-liter "new-generation" V-6, as fitted to the rest of its current lineup, wouldn't fit in the current GTI's engine bay, and so power changes little from the last-generation (2004) R32. (Incidentally, that car shared the new R32's engine.) Weight increases, and while the rear-biased torque split is a welcome change - giving the R32 more of a rearward torque split than Audi's famed RS4 - we wonder whether the new R32 will be as entertaining to drive as the last one.
In other news, Volkswagen also announced a return to factory-sponsored road racing in North America. Beginning in 2008, VW will offer a healthy contingency program for SCCA club racing on both a regional and national level; cash awards will be handed out based on victory counts, and some level of factory support will reportedly be available in this country. A production-based spec series known as the GTI Cup and featuring identically prepared GTIs was also announced; the series will utilize near-stock production cars, provide an entry-level, low-cost way to get into professional motorsports, and be fully sanctioned by the SCCA. (VW GTI Cup races will be held as support races during SPEED GT events.)
Why Ford wants to be Toyota
The differences couldn't be more evident. Mark Fields announced that Ford Motor Company is renaming the Five Hundred with the old Taurus name at a Chicago Auto Show breakfast. Freestyle becomes Taurus X (for crossover - get it?) and Mercury Montego becomes Sable.
Makes it hard to avoid the cliche, "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." Ford figures the new old names will resonate better with customers who wonder why the company stopped building such a good rental car.
Five Hundred, Montego and Freestyle apparently had better name recognition in their first year on the market, 2005, when Ford sold nearly 220,000 of them. Last year, combined sales dropped 24 percent, to 165,100.
Later that morning, over in the next room, Toyota introduced its new-generation Highlander Hybrid crossover SUV. (See Motor Trend's video) U.S. sales chief Don Esmond noted that the company had sold more than 170,000 hybrids in 2006.
"Hybrid" is a generic name for the gas engine/electric motor power-plants that Toyota has pioneered in the last decade. It's a more successful name for Toyota than Five Hundred/Freestyle/Montego -- or whatever you call them -- is for Ford.
And the renamed, face-lifted Fords will have to do very well to catch Toyota and Lexus hybrids this year. The Japanese automaker expects to sell more than a quarter-million of 'em in '07.
But any success for the Fords ought not to be attributed to marketing. The three-bar grille facelift on the Taurus and Taurus X make them look sleeker than the dowdy Five Hundred and Freestyle. And the new 3.5-liter V-6 provides much needed extra power versus the old 3.0-liter. Also, Ford moved the engines off the front subframe mount, and farther back on the frame, allowing more freedom to tweak the front suspension.
To compete against crossovers like the Taurus X, Toyota offers its 2008 Highlander, due in showrooms in July (The hybrid version launches in September).
The Highlander is three inches wider and nearly four inches longer, with an extra inch of ground clearance and three inches of wheelbase compared to the 2003-07 model. It's better looking, too, like a bigger RAV4, and it gets a new, 270-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6.
It comes with a bevy of new standard safety equipment, including seven airbags. The '08 model is 300 to 400 pounds heavier than the old Highlander, and yet Toyota claims fuel economy will be virtually unchanged (If you count economy using today's EPA testing procedures. A new '08 test will seriously lower every car and truck's official estimated fuel economy.)
Consumers might have trouble remembering the names of Ford's sedans and crossovers, but they have no problem thinking about fuel economy, and equating "hybrid" with Toyota.
Redefining the 'lunch truck'
The Chicago Auto Show traditionally is as much about trucks as cars. Last year, for instance, Toyota unveiled its critically important Tundra here.
Chrysler continued the Chicago truck tradition today by unveiling its revised 2008 Dodge Dakota pickup and its new medium- and heavy-duty pickups for commercial fleets. Chrysler's product development chief Frank Klegon probably spent more time than he needed for this consumer crowd on the details of the commercial trucks, a very specific market that the general audience pays little attention to and understands even less.
Still, Chrysler did what it could with the subject, creating a set with construction equipment and distributing press kits in a simple, black lunch bucket. Lunch was delivered on pallets hauled by a Dakota truck and the side of bagged chips poured from the back of a commercial dump truck.
Taurus name game
Ford announced today that it will revive the Taurus name and apply it to the 2008 version of the Ford Five Hundred and that the revised Mercury Montego will be renamed the Sable. The Ford Freestyle crossover, also freshened for 2008, will become the Ford Taurus X.
During a Chicago Auto Show interview, Ford's President of the Americas Mark Fields admitted Ford made a mistake ditching the Taurus name, which is recognized by 80 percent of consumers. Of the seven million Tauruses that were sold, more than 3.5 million are still on the road today.
Fields said it would take many years and millions of dollars to build new brand names to the level of the Taurus and Sable, with no guaranteed success. Still, there's no guaranteed success in reverting to the classic names either. Will consumers associate the new Taurus with the original trend-setting Taurus of the 1980s -- or will they remember the more recent Taurus, which Ford neglected to keep competitive in the marketplace?
Hooray for Saturn! The domestic "import" brand finally has a compact car to compete with the cream of the compact car crop.
The Saturn Astra, the latest vehicle in Saturn's new product onslaught, will reach North America in the fourth quarter of 2007 and is sure to resonate with consumers. When it is released, consumers won't be able to find a vehicle in Saturn showrooms older than 20 months. How's that for fresh product?
The compact car segment has been on a tear the last couple of years, powered by high gas prices and slick new models offering features previously available only on larger cars. The Astra offers high content, good gas mileage and European styling, because, well, it comes from Europe.
It's a solid new entry into the compact car segment and should stack up well against its Korean and Japanese competition. The snazzy four-door Astra in particular should take a bite out of Mazda's zoom-zoom Mazda3 Wagon sales.
No news yet on what pricing will be like, but I'd expect it to start in the low to mid-teens.
Sweet home Chicago
I have an image for you. Two men in black suits wearing dark sunglasses. Does a certain movie come to mind? No...not "Men in Black." I'm talking the true cult classic, "The Blues Brothers". And the lyrics from their classic "Sweet Home Chicago" jumped to mind as I strolled the windy (and frigid) streets tonight after dinner. (Deep dish pizza at Gino's East.what else?)
"Well, one and one is two.
Six and two is eight.
Come on baby don't ya make me late!
Baby don't you wanna go.
Back to that same old place.
Sweet home Chicago."
It is time for Chicago Auto Show 2007, and, just like in the song, the numbers are at the top of my mind. January's Industry sales numbers were, on average, not inspiring. Take January's results as "average" for the upcoming year, and we're on track for a mildly disappointing 2007.
But the Chicago show always helps put things into perspective. Maybe it's a result of the massive halls of McCormick Place, but this show always reminds me of the size and scope of the U.S. market.
For example, the Ford Five Hundred sedan has been a disappointment since hitting the streets in late 2004. Released in time for self-declared "Year of the Car," it has not caught the imagination or checkbooks of Ford's expected audience. However, a quick glance at last year's numbers shows that almost 85,000 were sold. Over 1,600 per week in 2006. More than 230 per day. And since Ford unveiled the updated Five Hundred (shown here) at the Detroit Auto Show last month, today's rumor is that the venerable name "Taurus" is to be resurrected and hopefully breathe new life into the almost new car.
This will not be the biggest news from this show, but for me, it highlights what the Chicago show represents. It's an all-business affair.
No high-horsepower exotics or high-tech hybrid or high-style concepts will break cover at this show. Instead, we get to glimpse the purchasing power of today's U.S. buyer and how important each and every sale will be in this increasingly competitive and volatile marketplace.
Saturn Astra, Toyota Highlander, Pontiac G8, Scion xB, Nissan Titan, Armada and Pathfinder. None of these Chicago debuts will ignite wild passion, but their builders are counting on each and every one of them to pull finicky buyers into their showroom in 2007 and beyond.
In Sweet Home Chicago, it will be all about the numbers.
Scions to be unveiled in Second Life
For Chicago, Scion is taking the "virtual" show experience concept a step further, into the metaverse. Scion will introduce the second-generation xB and the all-new xD on Thursday, Feb. 8th, to the attending media and remotely, through Second Life, a three-dimensional online world with almost three million registered users.
The first 500 Second Life members who register for this media-only event will be able to participate in the virtual press conference. Scion enthusiasts will be able to view footage from the event on the scion.com site the following day.
Scion is among the first automakers to use the rapidly expanding Second Life realm as a marketing tool, with its own island, called Scion City. Scion has sold over 500 virtual vehicles in SL sincethe launch of Scion City last November. Cost for an xA, xB, or tC is 300 Lindens, the virtual currency. Translation: about $1.20 in the real world, depending on the current exchange rate.
The youth-targeted brand has succeeded by generating buzz through this effort, and numerous other marketing endeavors. However, this seems like a near-miss opportunity to reach Scion enthusiasts, rather than what may be a small number of media who would actually use Second Life to view the press conference.
We have driven cars in Second Life, and, of course, they do not compare to real cars, or even those in console-based video games. However, the online interaction can provide some insights, and the automakers realize that the experience will generate interest and potentially affinity.
Ultimately, we know that the auto show insights you expect, and deserve, require us to see, touch, and experience the vehicles themselves. As the parody site getafirstlife.com conveys, there is nothing better than the real thing.
See you in Chicago
That's it from our All-Star Car Bloggers reporting from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Our next stop will be the 2007 Chicago Auto Show beginning in early February.
We'd like to thank all of our outside contributors... Automobile Magazine, Consumer Reports, Edmunds.com, IntelliChoice.com and Motor Trend.
In the meantime, we'll save this spot for you. Check out the cars and leave a comment or two. We're always happy to hear from you.
(Image from Allposters.com.)
Send out the clowns
Another Detroit Auto Show press preview has come and gone. Three days of overworking, overindulging, and over-exaggerating by the media and factory PR types alike.
The glitzy new-car introductions with their light shows, loud rock-and-roll, third-tier celebrities and tired promises of new design directions are over.
So what's new? Not much. GM's Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid concept is interesting, with its promise of 150 mpg overall and 40-mile range on electric power only. But before you run out to buy stock, keep in mind the necessary batteries haven't been fully developed yet.
The Lexus LF-A and Chevy Camaro convertible are cool, but both are a few years off.
Toyota's Tundra pickup is almost on sale, after an auto show gestation period rivaling that of the Saturn Aura. But it's still just a pickup truck.
Chrysler pointed out, with great fanfare, their all-new minivans can now be had with swiveling seats and a picnic table. Hardly life -hanging stuff, but at least you can recline the seats and sleep in a minivan, even if doing so at its debut is frowned upon.
Maybe the best news this year is that the overall mood at the stands of domestic brands seemed better, with happier suits singing happier songs than we heard in '06. Where the best some company execs could do last year was to say their stuff isn't quite as lame as it used to be, some of the domestics -- particularly GM -- seemed downright upbeat this year.
And that can't be a bad thing, even to an over-tired and overly cynical auto writer.
Shiny, happy fenders
After walking the length and width of the NAIAS show floor at least 50 times over 3 days, what may be the next big trend slowly took shape before my eyes.
What to do? Walk the floor for the 51st time and report the results.
The next big thing? Fender vents. Yes, I know, big, bad versions have graced the fenders of the current Mini Cooper, Buick Lucerne and Land Rover Range Rover the last few years, but the diversity and number of vented fenders is quickly growing.
In order of discovery, I noted that the 2007 Dodge Nitro, Aston Martin V8 Vantage, BMW 6-Series, Maserati Quattroporte, Mini Cooper, Cadillac Escalade, Pontiac Solstice, Jaguar XK8/R, Land Rover LR3 and LR2 were all sporting shiny vents.
And to help prepare for an even shinier future, I give you the 2008 Cadillac CTS, Ford Focus, Five Hundred, and F250/F350 (huge!), Mini Cooper, Buick Enclave, and Jaguar XF (in C-XF guise). Just for fun, check out the concept Jeep Trailhawk and Lincoln MKR for an even longer-range view.
The new Lexus IS-F has a big bold "F" right where the vent might be... maybe a subtle rebuke to this new trend?
So, what to think? I would be fine if all were authentic, but sadly this is not the case. When form follows function, I am proud to be in this industry. But when the 'vent' is nothing more than a bauble tacked to the fender like cheap plastic jewels stuck to a 13 year-old girl's cell phone, I think I am looking at 2007's version of "spinner hubcaps."
The tailgate Olympics
The process is so incredibly smooth, you wonder why more truck makers haven't done this. This is standard on all Tundra models.
Chevrolet offers an "EZ Lift tailgate" option on its new Silverado, designed to help raise the gate when it's down.
I walked around the show floor and did some heavy lifting to find out which tailgates required the most grunt. (I also haven't been to the gym for a few days, so I needed the exercise).
In alphabetical order, they are:
Chevrolet Silverado: The tailgate itself is very heavy but smooth in its motion. It also requires a lot of effort keeping it from slamming down with a crash. A Chevrolet spokesperson said that the EZ Lift was designed to assist raising the gate, not lowering it.
Dodge Ram: A very heavy but well-balanced tailgate.
Ford F-150: This one was moderately heavy, but operated smoothly.
Honda Ridgeline: This tailgate was heavy, stiff, and required the most effort of all.
Nissan Titan: An amazingly light and linear tailgate that is very well damped.
Toyota Tundra: (see Titan, above).
Admittedly, this comparison was less than scientific in approach. And, just for kicks, I tried Ford's new F-250 Super Duty. Nearly busted a gut hauling that one. (Here's a picture of Consumer Reports Senior Engineer Jake Fisher trying out the Super Duty's integrated tailgate step.)
The gold medal for the smoothest and easiest tailgate goes to the Nissan Titan. It's simply a marvel in simple to use engineering. The silver medal goes to the Tundra, and the bronze to the Ford F-150.
PAG's got a couple of hits: Volvo XC60, Jaguar C-XF
Concept cars aren't special not because of what they are - fanciful diversions from the real meat and potatoes of the car biz - but because of what they represent. They represent the future. They represent hope for better technology. Better engineering. Better driving. And I can't get enough.
Thankfully, Ford's Premier Automotive Group - a Euro-centric group of brands that includes Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, and the soon-to-be-sold-off Aston Martin - obliged my desires, as it plopped two big, fat concept cars down on the Cobo Arena floor. And that bit about the future? It could never be so apt as here, since both of the vehicles unveiled accurately previewed models that you and I will be able to buy very, very soon.
First up was the Volvo XC60 concept, a vehicle designed to fill the gaping hole in the Swedish automaker's lineup where a right-sized crossover SUV would fit. The crossover's styling serves as an accurate look at how the company's cars will look in the near future.
Elements such as the trapezoidal grille, angled headlamps, more muscular rear quarters, and spread-out, retro rear, will all wriggle their way through the rest of the company's offerings. The XC60 is powered by a 3.2-liter, 265-hp E-85-capable six and is also equipped with Volvo's new City Safety system.
City Safety is a program that helps prevent XC60 drivers from rear-ending folks at low speeds by monitoring the road ahead; if it detects that the driver isn't stopping quickly enough, the car applies the brakes. It brings to mind Mercedes-Benz's Distronic, but that system requires the cruise control to be activated.
The second and final reveal was easily the best, however. Jaguar debuted the C-XF concept, and, boy howdy, is it a looker.
A concept version of the S-type replacement, the C-XF oozes personality. As Volvo's XC60 does for that company's future cars, the C-XF showcases the design strategy for all Jaguar sedans going forward. Gone are the obviously retro designs with knobs and bumps and dual headlights and (pip-pip, and cheerio!) they've all been tossed in favor of a leaner, more modern language that somehow still manages to hew closely to Jag tradition.
According the Jaguar chief designer Ian Callum, the change was made because the company felt it was high time the British marque reclaimed its place as the world's premier builder of sports sedans, a title it held throughout the 1950s and 60s on the back of models such as the Mark 2 and the series-1 XJ.
I'm not ready to move Jaguar to the front of the line just yet, but with fantastic styling and innovative interior treatments like carbon-fiber pattern leather seating and blowtorch-scorched wood trim, the XF is a great step in the right direction.
New Cadillac CTS
The 2008 CTS is probably the single most important new car Cadillac will launch this decade. This Cadillac has to prove once and for all whether GM's luxury division can truly deliver on the promise of its radical "Art & Science" styling revolution and run wheel to wheel with the likes of Audi, BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz.
In design terms, the new CTS appears a straightforward evolution of the current car. But you only need to walk around the '08 to realize this is probably the most revolutionary Cadillac sedan in decades. And here's why: You can see GM has spent some serious money on this thing. In terms of sheer manufacturing competence, the precise, complex execution of the sheet metal rivals that of BMW.
But it's more than just a panel engineer's masterclass: In the metal the new CTS oozes a character and charisma the somewhat cold and clinical current model lacks. "The idea was to use a little more art and a little less science so the car didn't look so computer generated," says exterior designer John Manoogian. "We wanted the car to look as if the surfaces were all developed by hand."
As with the current CTS, the new car's interior architecture is dramatic, though much more tastefully executed. The interior is dominated by an echo of the raised centerline of the exterior running through the dash and along the sweeping center console. New slim-line front seats mean there's more legroom for back seat passengers, even though the new CTS shares its 113.4 inch wheelbase with the current car. In fact, the new CTS is built off same basic vehicle architecture as the current car, although almost every major component has been changed or upgraded.
Base engine is the 3.6-liter "high feature" V-6, which boasts double overhead camshafts with variable valve timing (VVT). Already used in the current CTS, and fast becoming GM's mainstay V-6, this engine delivers 258 horsepower and 252lb-ft of torque. The big news under the hood, though, is a new 300hp direct injection version of the 3.6 that promises the performance of a V-8, with the gas mileage of a six.
Marqued for death
While at Honda's Accord Coupe press conference this morning, I was struck by the way some car companies stick with names and while others seem to build them up and then kill them.
For example, the Honda Accord and Civic have been around seemingly forever. Granted, most of these iterations were fairly successful cars, save for rampant rusting prevalent on some early 70's models. However, I can't understand why Ford killed the Taurus or Dodge walked away from the Neon, for example.
I realize that both the Taurus and Neon had their ups and downs -- seldom were they standouts in CR's testing -- and the Neon had terminal reliability issues. But still, why not keep the branding going? I mean, Ford sold about a gillion Taurus sedans and wagons. And while it wasn't exactly the most exciting car, lots of people kept coming back to it.
Car companies sometimes have to kill a marque. For example, regardless of the engineering or marketing talent at Ford, there was nothing they could do to resurrect and change the image of the Pinto. And Chevrolet was right in dropping the Vega. (I know this because I learned to drive a manual transmission in a '74 Vega -- some stout clutches GM made back then.) These were truly awful cars.
It just seems to me that car companies make their jobs much harder by constantly reinventing brands and identities. Last year, Lincoln crowned the new Zephyr. Now it's the MKZ (albeit with a new V6 and other assorted changes). What will next year bring? More new names? I guess it keeps the marketing and PR people busy...
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