U.S. makers have been criticized of late for pouring the bulk of their development dollars into high-profit trucks and SUVs while essentially ceding the other half of the market (cars) to increasingly aggressive imports. But Americans are still buying a lot of cars, of all sizes and in nearly all segments, and — finally well set and competitive in trucks — U.S. makers have shifted much of their engineering attention and carefully watched budgets to cars.
|Chrysler gets the 300C sedan (top left) while Dodge gets a Magnum wagon. Both models get a HEMI option.|
At this month’s Detroit North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), Chrysler featured its’05 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum lineups of large, rear-drive sedans and wagons and debuted its innovative ’05 Town and Country and Caravan minivans. Ford uncovered its all-new ’05 Mustang, Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego sedans and Ford Freestyle crossover. General Motors pulled the covers off its eagerly awaited sixth-generation Chevy Corvette, Pontiac’s all-new G6 mid-size sedan, new “Crossover Sport Vans” (CSVs) for Buick and Saturn and a production-intent version of Pontiac’s ’06 Pontiac Solstice sportster.
|The ‘05 Dodge Caravan (pictured above) and Chrysler Town And Country feature and industry-first “Stow and Go” second row seating that folds into the floor.|
On the other hand, DC’s ’05 minivans — though riding on a largelynew platform — look enough like their predecessors that repeat buyers will want to choose a different color so their neighbors will know they got a new one. Their true beauty is inside, where the long-wheelbase models boast more than 15 new features including industry-first “Stow and Go” second-row seats that (like the thirdrow split bench) fold quickly and easily into underfloor boxes for a completely flat floor. Chrysler essentially invented the car-based minivan 20 years ago, has sold some 20 million of them and maintains a segment-leading 38 percent share. Chrysler minivan firsts include the now-ubiquitous fourth door and the power rear liftgate. Now, says COO Wolfgang Bernhardt, “we are about to leapfrog the competition again.”
The transformation from seven seats to two can be done in about 30 seconds with a simple, one-hand operation and without removing the headrests, and their many possible configurations include “Tailgate” and “Limo.” Both second and third-row seats recline, the middle-row chairs adjust four inches fore/aft, and with all seats up, the sub-floor boxes they fold into add 12 cu.ft. of convenient covered storage.
Additional segment firsts include cargo bags in those storage bins, 60/40 split-bench tailgate seating, a third-row easy entry system and NASA-like super high-density (SHD) foam cushion padding.
Ford Motor Company
Highlighted on the splines of Ford’s four ’05 product press kit binders are large words reading, when stacked in proper order, “Year of the Car.” Rearranged, they could also say “Car of the Year.” Optimistic? Maybe not; these are potentially game-changing new products.
|Ford celebrates the Year of the Car with the new Five Hundred (top), Mercury Monterey (above) and Ford Freestyle Crossover (below) as well as an all-new Mustang.|
The Five Hundred and Montego sedans and Freestyle crossover share the same significant powertrains and an all-new 112.9-in.-wheelbase fwd/awd platform. The Ford’s styling paints a conservative family face on a handsome Audiesque shape, while the Montego wears a satin-aluminum Mercury waterfall grille and other marque-specific details.
Both feature fold-down seats in rich and roomy 107-cu.ft. cabins, a cavernous 21-cu.ft. trunk, large (17- or 18-in.) wheels and added allweather capability thanks to available awd borrowed from Volvo. The interiors flaunt “jewel-like detailing,” and the rear seats boast 3.5-in. more legroom than a Rolls Royce Phantom and foot space enough for NBA centers due to airliner- style high-mounted front seats. The only ‘05 engine is Ford’s 200-hp 3.0L DOHC 24-valve Duratec aluminum V-6, teamed with a new 6- speed automatic for fwd and the industry’s first high-volume continuously variable transmission (CVT) with the Volvo-based awd system.
The Freestyle tops this purpose-designed (not minivan-derived) platform with a commodious crossover body. Its defining features are “an impressive new level of interior craftsmanship,” “quick, responsive handling” (due to allindependent suspension and class-leading torsional rigidity), “industry-leading safety technology” and dozens of seating variations for hauling people, cargo or combinations of both. Back-row knee clearance and middle- and rear-row legroom are best-in-class, and the third-row seat folds flat into the floor. Power is from the same 3.0L V- 6, and both fwd and awd versions drive through the (ZF-Batavia) CVT. Mustang celebrates its 40th birthday next April, and while Ford claims 40 percent of today’s U.S. “sports car” market, in reality — since GM’s rival Camaro and Firebird have been discontinued — it owns 100 percent of the “ponycar” market it invented in 1964. The purposedesigned (not cheap sedan-based) new architecture boasts a six-inch longer wheelbase, vastly-improved suspension and weight distribution and a decades-better interior than the aging Mustang it replaces this fall. Brilliantly styled as a “new 1967,” the standard model is powered by a 4.0L SOHC iron-block V-6, the GT by a 4.6L SOHC 24-valve aluminum V-8, both driving their rear wheels through a choice of 5-speed automatic or manual transmission.
Chevrolet is GM’s “foundational” brand, responsible for 56 percent of the company’s U.S. sales, and NAIAS ‘04 marks the start of “a new day for Chevrolet” with its new “An American Revolution” ad campaign and a host of new products. Already bigger than most entire auto companies, Chevy’s goal is 18 percent market share and 3 million annual sales.
The all-new Chevy Cobalt “premium small car” (unveiled at the earlier Los Angeles Auto Show) will be offered in well-equipped, nicelyappointed sedan, coupe, SS and high-performance “tuner” versions and will go head-to-head with any import, says GM North America president Gary Cowger. Its tight, solid Euro-character Delta architecture provides good ride and excellent handling. Its DOHC 16-valve Ecotec four — in 140-hp 2.2L, 170-hp 2.4L and 200+-hp 2.0L supercharged variations — will even be quieter than the import competition, according to vehicle line executive (VLE) Lori Queen. “We’re convinced that Cobalt is the new standard in the small car class,” she asserts. “We’re ready to take on Toyota, Honda, VW, you name it.”
|GM launches a host of new cars in ‘04. The Pontiac G6 ( above left ) is a sporty replacement for the Grand Am. Solstice (above middle) will be Pontiac’s Miata-fighter. Buick Terraza (above right) and Saturn Relay (bottom left) represent two of four GM Crossover Sport Vans. The alpha and omega of Chevrolet’s car assault, the Cavalier-replacing Cobalt (below middle) and venerable Corvette C6 (below right).|
The ‘05 Corvette, Cowger says, has “more power, more passion and more precision than any Corvette in history.” Its new 400-hp LS2 6.0L aluminum V-8 — Corvette’s most powerful standard engine in its 51-year history — propels it to race track lap times close to those of the awesome ’05 Z06 model, according to VLE and chief engineer Dave Hill. “The C-6 is all about raising the bar on the Corvette heritage,” Hill says, “which has been a daunting challenge. It is the most perfect Corvette ever.”
GM’s Pontiac, Buick and Saturn brands each unveiled at least one important new volume product at NAIAS ’04, and Pontiac also debuted a production-intent version of the sensuous Solstice roadster that wowed show-goers as a concept two years ago. To be built on a new “lightweight, agile and affordable” rear-drive Kappa platform, the Ecotec-powered Solstice should reach production during calendar year 2006.
Taking the name of the sleek ‘03 concept, Pontiac’s new volume leader G6 is about the same length as the Grand Am it replaces but sits lower, wider and roomier on 18-in. wheels and a five-in.-longer wheelbase. It will be powered by a choice of 140-hp Ecotec four, 200-hp 3.5L V-6 or 245-hp 3.9L V-6 DOHC multi-valve engines with variable induction and cam phasing through a 4-speed automatic transaxle and (available later) awd. A 6-speed manual GTP performance version will come later this year, followed by a 2+2 coupe and a convertible.
Also uncovered at the ’04 NAIAS, and potentially good news for Saturn and Buick dealers, who have never had minivans, were Saturn’s Relay and Buick’s Terraza “CSVs.” These are essentially updated versions of GM’s aging fwd minivans with bigger wheels, upgraded interiors and (somewhat awkward) SUV-like noses grafted on. We’re not certain how they will be perceived or how successful they might be, but with so many vastly-improved new minivans hitting the market these days (Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Mercury, Dodge, Chrysler and soon-to-come Honda), they seem a stop-gap measure until GM’s all-new minivan/ crossover platform is ready for 2006. A Chevy Uplander and a Pontiac version follow later this year.
That’s what landed from domestics just at Detroit this year. Stay tuned for much more at next month’s Chicago and April’s New York shows and still more toward year’s end. Even in a so-called “year of the car,” the relentless onslaught of interesting, excellent and important new products show no sign of slowing. What’s tough for the makers is terrific for potential buyers.