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Windy City Showcase

The world’s automakers save a few surprizes for the Chicago Auto Show.

Covering Chicago’s enormous Auto Show is a welcome treat after enduring the thundering herd of 6,000-some media trampling Detroit’s Cobo Hall over three days of North American International Auto Show Media Days! NAIAS is hugely significant for the sheer number of its new-vehicle and concept introductions, and just about everyone who’s anyone in the auto biz is probably there. But in Chicago’s massive McCormick Place, just south of town and west of Lake Michigan, the several hundred media attendees have room to move about freely and can count on finding seats at every press event over the day and a half of intros. BMW used the opening breakfast to share the startling news that its “premium small car” MINI is now (according to one survey) the U.S.’ third best-known brand, after Apple and Google and ahead of, amazingly, Coca Cola. Also that both its V-12-powered 760i luxury flagship sedan and a limited-edition MINI celebrating the 40th anniversary of the original Austin Mini’s victory in the famed 1964 Monte Carlo Rally would be introduced at Chicago.

 Solara convertible made its debut in Chicago.


Hyundai enters the midsize SUV segment with the Tucson.

The new Dodge Dakota pickup looks Ram tough.

The Mercury Montego shares underpinnings with the Ford Five-Hundred.

The Kia Mojave pickup uses the Sorento SUV chassis.
Mazda Ibuki
Jaguar XKRS
Chevrolet Uplander
Toyota rolled out its ’04 Solara convertible, due in dealerships this March. Its power soft top folds nearly flush in ten seconds, its 3.3L VVT-I V-6 generates 225 hp, and its 5- speed sequential automatic transaxle operates through a gated shifter for manumatic shifting.

Toyota then followed with its far more significant next-generation Tacoma mid-size pickup … at least the sportiest version of it. Toyota’s ’05 Tacoma X-Runner crouches low on un-truck-like 45-series 18-in. V-rated tires, with its wrap-around ground effects flowing smoothly from its rockers up into flared fenders and back down into more ground effects front and rear. Naturally aspirated, its 4.0L V-6 makes 240 hp; with an available supercharger, closer to 300. Toyota says the boosted XRunner sprints from zero to 60 mph in less than six seconds and develops 0.9 g of cornering grip, more than the rival Japanese sports car used as a benchmark. More importantly, the whole family of new Tacomas arrive this summer, more powerful and larger than before in every dimension with substantially more people, cargo and towing capacity.

Hyundai unveiled its ’05 Tucson compact SUV to take on Toyota’s RAV-4, Honda’s CR-V, Saturn’s View, et al. Available engines will include a base 2.0L four, a mid-range 2.7L V6 and a later-arriving 3.5L V-6, all with available allwheel drive.

General Motors’ press conference ignored the Chicago debuts of its ’05 Chevy Uplander and Pontiac Montana SV6 big-nosed minivans (their Buick Terraza and Saturn Relay brethren bowed a month earlier in Detroit) and GMC’s Envoy Denali luxury SUV to focus on the hugely important ’05 Buick LaCrosse mid-size sedan. It replaces both Century and Regal, which together account for more than half of Buick’s sales, this fall; and when Bob Lutz arrived in late ’01, he ordered the program delayed several months for interior and exterior makeovers.

At first look, that delay seemed well worthwhile. LaCrosse’s smoothly sculpted hood and flanks, Jag-like quad headlamps, Mercedes/ Lexus-like taillamps and finely honed, “quiettuned” interior were well received. Built at GM’s Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, plant, it will offer a choice of GM’s venerable 200-hp 3800 OHV V-6 (one of the first V-6s to earn a Federal ULEV emissions rating) or the same 240-hp 3.6L V-6 that powers Cadillac’s highly regarded CTS sedan.

DCX yanked the cover off its new “mid-size” pickup, the ’05 Dodge Dakota, which stretches the class definition another few inches in every dimension over the ’04 Dakota. “The segment’s “biggest, coolest, most powerful and most capable” entry, it will offer both its only standard V- 6 (a 3.7L) and its only optional V-8 (a 4.7L) along with class-leading GCW (11,500 lb.), tow (7,000 lb.) rating and, Dodge says, NVH. It looks like a slightly scaled-down Ram, and we’ll wager, it’ll soon get the 5.7L HEMI V-8 in a special performance version.

At the mid-day Chicago Economic Club lunch, Ford CEO William Clay Ford asserted that the American auto industry is still the “engine that drives the U.S. economy … and, unlike the transplants, the money we earn in this country stays in this country.” He pointed out that Ford spends more per car on health care (about $700) than it does on steel. “That is the No. 1 issue on my mind today,” Ford said, “and it’s a serious disincentive for investment in this country.”

Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Div. introduced its high-tech ’05 Montego mid-size sedan, one of the most significant of 11 new products it will launch in the next four years. Sharing a Volvoderived platform with the Ford 500 sedan and Freestyle Crossover, the Chicago-built Montego will feature a 200-hp 3.0L V-6 with a 6-speed automatic driving its front wheels or a CVT driving all four wheels under its surprisingly spacious and well-appointed cabin.

Nissan debuted a roomy crew cab version of its Detroit-introduced ’05 Frontier (mini- Titan) mid-size pickup and its ’05 Altima compact car, which hit dealerships in February with a fresh face and a nicely upgraded interior. Mazda, on the 15th anniversary of the Chicago introduction of its very successful Miata sports car, rolled out a small roadster concept called Ibuki, which it called a “styling and engineering exercise,” not the next-generation Miata. Okay, but it just might be a preview of the next Miata’s updated look and a few of its features.

Jumping on the suddenly popular mid-size pickup hay wagon, Korea’s Kia showed a concept truck called Mojave, designed “specifically for America’s adventuresome 20-somethings.” While its exterior is fairly conventional, its “progressive” interior, with back seats that scoot forward to extend the bed into the cabin, was designed with “tech-savvy Gen Yers” in mind. With ambitious expansion plans for U.S. car sales, Kia admits it has no available facility to build this truck, but says it would dearly love to if could find a way.

Subaru debuted its updated ’05 Outback crossover wagon, slightly longer and with “both SUV and car characteristics” enhanced and improved for 2005. Jaguar showed a racerinspired 200-mph XK-RS street roadster concept, with its 5.0L V-8 engine supercharged and “amplified” to 550 hp by Jag’s Michiganbased Rocketsports Racing factory team.

And Volvo introduced both a “2004.5” S40 sedan with a new, patented frontal impact absorbing structure it calls Volvo Intelligent Vehicle Architecture (VIVA) and its all-new 2005 V50 sport wagon, the latter offering a choice of 168-hp 2.4L or 218-hp turbocharged 2.5L 5-cylinder engines. Both engines can be teamed with available electronically controlled AWD.

Finally, as if Chicago’s gigantic February auto show really needed more room, its organizers announced an expansion from the current 840,000 sq.ft. to a mind-boggling 1.2 million sq.ft., all on one level in two adjoining buildings for 2005. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.

Volvo V50
 Dodge Durango
Buick LaCrosse 3
 Pontiac Montana SV6
Volvo S40
 Subaru Outback

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