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Steve and Thom Wrap up 2008 Chicago Auto and Share Their Insights and Opinions


  • SEE ALSO: Complete Press Page Coverage 2008 Chicago Auto Show
    By Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell
    Photos By Steve Purdy
    Detroit Bureau

    As usual the early February weather in Chicago was humbling. Cold winds, wet snow and the Super Tuesday primary elections dominated the news as we began our immersion in the 100th Chicago Auto Show. Not the 100th anniversary. That was a few years ago. Factor in the lack of auto shows during WWII, and two shows in 1937 and . . . well, some one did the math to confirm this to be the 100th. We’ll take them at their word.

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    Compared to the Detroit show a few weeks ago Chicago is a breeze to cover. Well organized, relaxed and spacious, Chicago hosts about a third the activity in about three times the space. McCormick Place is a magnificent venue for an auto show. Lots to see, do and report on, for us dedicated auto scribes.

    Steve: GM’s Troy Clark opened the show with a pep talk over breakfast about energy solutions and GM’s plans to build cars people want to buy, within the continued pursuit of 5 types of green technologies, allowing buyers to choose which suits their needs best. From current gasoline electric hybrids, to plug-ins, to hydrogen fuel cells GM wants the leadership role. In fact, 100 fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox crossovers will soon be in the hands of potential customers for real world testing, Clark revealed.

    Clark’s big news of the day was an announcement that GM’s partnership with Illinois-based Coskata, revealed at the Detroit show in January, will have its first commercial cellulosic ethanol plant up and running later this year, demonstrating that ethanol can be made more efficiently from non-grain, often waste product, sources. Bravo. Clark hinted they could even use old tires as fodder.

    Thom: Cellulosic ethanol is a genuinely significant breakthrough, if and when it begins production in commercial quantity. As most Americans know, we have a waste disposal problem of epic proportions, and the ability to convert much of the landfill waste stream into useful fuel is mind-bendingly important. Stacks of tires; fuel. Old baby diapers, paper towels, paper and plastic bags; fuel. Industrial waste—cardboard, plastic, sawdust—becomes fuel. If it were not for GM backing the technology I would be more skeptical. This promises to be a paradigm shifter.

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    Steve: Over at the GM display Sue Wilson, vehicle line manager, brought her husband and four kids along to introduce the new Chevy Traverse, a large crossover sharing the Lambda platform with the phenomenally successful Buick Enclave and less sought after Saturn Outlook and GMC Acadia. With distinctively Chevy styling and an unmistakable kinship to the aforementioned siblings, I found it very attractive in a simple Chevy kind of way. A direct-injected, 281-hp V6, 6-speed automatic, 4,500- pound towing capacity, and room for up to 8 adults makes it plenty competent - at dealers later this year. Let’s see if they can price it right. Traverse will be built initially in Spring Hill with overflow production assigned to Lansing if demand is great enough.

    Thom: This was my favorite production vehicle. The styling is spot on, with a pinched “fast” D-pillar area for sporty styling and a bold Malibu-like nose. However, eight adults? Uhhh, maybe ethnically pure Orientals?


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    Acura introduced their next generation RL line of luxury performance sedans - to be at dealers in a few months - with new 300-hp engine, “more distinctive styling” and lots of upgrades in technology. Chassis and engine controls as well as entertainment, connectivity and navigation all see improvements. Standard on all RLs are this new 3.7-liter engine, all-wheel drive, Bose sound system, Bluetooth compatibility and plenty more. Dick Colliver, distinguished, white-haired, executive VP of sales guarantees, “you won’t mistake it for anything else on the road.” I’m not so sure it’s that distinctive.

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    Front page news came from The New Chrysler with the official reveal of the production-ready Dodge Challenger slated to be making new owners drool later this spring. Presented in “HEMI Orange” and SRT8 livery this neo-classic muscle car has all the credentials to both honor the original 1970 Challenger upon which it is based and elbow its way into the modern muscle car game. Wisely, I think, Dodge is launching Challenger initially in the high performance version with tamer ones to come later. In fact, the first 6,400 Challenger SRT8s will come with a numbered dash plaque to proclaim exclusivity. Pricing is pegged at about 38-grand and will include the 6-1-liter V8, 425-hp, 0-to-60 acceleration of less than 5 seconds, rear-wheel drive of course, 170-mph top speed, 20-inch Z-rated tires, functional hood scoops, rectangular dual exhaust outlets, and 0.9 Gs on the skid pad. I must say, the political incorrectness of this vehicle is refreshing.

    Thom: Another good reason for launching with the top-of-line models is proof of concept. Face it, the motor-heads are the ones who will buy this vehicle and they want every pony Chrysler can provide stuffed through the cold air intake. Once those 6,400 are sold, and I hope every single one goes in the first 90 days, it will surely be a harder sell.

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    Steve: Our friend Keith Price, VW’s PR manager for product and technology, and Stefan Jacoby CEO of the VW Group, divulged Volkswagen’s plan to go from a niche marketer to a major player - 800,000 units/year in US by 2018. First step is the new Routan minivan, essentially a rebadged Chrysler minivan. The undramatic but comfortable styling and sort of awkward shape did nothing for me, but some knowledgeable observers liked it. Many particularly liked the characteristically VW nose. Inside, it is certainly as handy and functional as anything in its class and exhibited a distinctive VW style along with very nice materials. This preproduction unit was presented in black, which did nothing to make it more attractive and made it impossible to photograph. Prices will start under 25-grand and will be at dealers this fall.

    Thom: Call me contrary, but I thought front end styling was particularly VW-ish and the interiors appropriate to the brand. I’d actually have preferred the boxier Chrysler Town and Country rear as it seems to promise more capacity and strength than the sleek rear of Routan.

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    Steve: Suzuki provided some fun with the introduction of their new mid size pickup, a first for them. Why now for a Suzuki pickup? Well, it seems lots of people own Suzuki motorcycles and other toys and would like to haul them around in a truck with their favorite vehicular emblem. So Suzuki got together with Nissan to make a version of the latter’s trusty truck. The Suzuki will be called Equator. Gene Brown, Suzuki VP of marketing and PR, insists that this mid size, crew cab, 4X4 is the heart of the market. With a towing capacity of 6,500 pounds and 281 pound-feet of torque, you’ll be able to haul a big boat in addition to your little quads.

    Thom: The mid-sized pickup market has held steady for the past 5-8 years and steeply declined in the last two. Monthly payments for a 1500-sized truck are only about $30 per month more; which would you buy? Suzuki is betting on brand loyalty and affiliation. With modest sales goals they might make it, and the Nissan F-Alpha platform under “their” truck is worthy.

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    Steve: An entertaining press conference at Ford introduced a charming small commercial van called Transit Connect built in Turkey. Apparently on a car platform the van is 6’8” high and boasts 143 cubic-feet of cargo area inside. Also at Ford the new F-150 is being enhanced with more office-on-the-road technology including a system that can tell a contractor if all his tools are in the bed or not. Fleet tracking, Internet accessibility, Bluetooth, in-dash computer with 2-gigs of memory, available printer, a retractable cable-lock system for tools, the recently introduced SYNC system of voice-activated communications and entertainment systems make the F150 perhaps the smartest pickup out there.

    Thom: Ford is doing more with the combination of in-vehicle electronics/navigation/communication/location called telematics than anyone else is. It surely is a product differentiator. Like the hit SYNC technology, Ford Works Solutions incorporates Microsoft Auto (a subset of Windows) to make the computer stuff work. I’ve seen twenty-something’s choose a Focus just to get SYNC. They are very satisfied with the vehicle and SYNC. Giving contractors and small fleets the telematics they need could spark another move to Ford.

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    Steve: One of the few wild concept vehicles at the show was the way cool unibody GMC Denali XT Hybrid Concept. The huge 23-inch wheels, exaggerated wheel arches, low roofline, meaty body with short pickup bed and Tarzan-like stance make this an eye catcher – just what a concept vehicle is supposed to do, of course. Two-mode hybrid propulsion system is combined with E-85 compatibility for the first time. A 50-percent improvement in fuel economy is boldly claimed. The brash and dramatic red, black and chrome interior design hints at the new Camaro style, just with more mass and expansive lines. Good thing this is just a concept truck since the bed with no wheel well intrusions is a half inch short of being able to accommodate 4X8-foot materials.

    Thom: Let’s put on our wizard’s caps for a moment. Mid and full-sized trucks are not just a personal use statement; they’re the lifeblood of American tradesmen. And they must improve fuel economy in the very near future. The best way is lighter vehicles incorporating advanced (and more expensive) engines. Hey, this sounds like a solution!

    Steve: After introduction of the strikingly content-rich V8, rear-wheel drive luxury sedan called Genesis at the Detroit show Hyundai presented the new, 4th-generation, ’09 bread-and-butter Sonata. With over a million Sonatas sold, this mid-size sedan is built in Montgomery, Alabama where a new factory is now under construction to build engines.

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    Hyundai’s concept called i-Blue, a mid-sized CUV, is on a new platform designed to accommodate fuel cell powertrains. Hyundai continues to surprise us with products that challenge many segment leaders in content and price.

    Thom: I chatted with the Hyundai folks and admitted that the Sonata introduction failed to raise my resting heart rate – until I thought about “similar price, more features, more power, and better fuel economy in a better-looking shape.” For lots of buyers looking for above average value, Sonata could be IT! Plus, the performance oriented new Elantra five-door Touring with stability control, sport suspension and sport steering is a just-right addition to sporty family touring cars.

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    Steve: At BMW my heart began to throb. Glowing in the corner was a 1972 BMW 2002 Tii in orange. BMW used to call that color “Colorado.” Enthusiasts will remember this as the sporty little two-door from the late 60s and early 70s that propelled the German automaker into phenomenal successes in ensuing decades. The only new car I ever bought, and one of the most fun cars I ever owned, was a 1970 BMW 2002 in that same color. Sharing that space with the old Tii was a Concept Tii with carbon fiber hood, a customized version of the small, sporty 1-Series, successor in philosophy to the 2002. BMW also showed the new M3 and hosted Bobby Rahal, owner of the team going American LeMans racing with BMW. Other great news from BMW is that there will be diesels available for X5 and 3-Series.

    Thom: Anyone think BMW won’t produce the Concept Tii as a club racer variant of the M3? I’ve just driven the M3 at Laguna Seca Raceway and it is incredibly forgiving for all its 414 horsepower. Changing the mass and lowering the center of gravity even further should offer 50-500 selects an even more thrilling daily driver and track racer—and I’d bet it would run $100,000.

    Steve: MotorWeek, the popular, long-running PBS car show, revealed their surprise Best of the Year Driver’s Choice Award winner, gleaned from dozens of vehicular categories. And the winner is: the ’08 Scion xB, larger, more powerful and way more sophisticated than its predecessor. This urban hauler maintains the fun, economy and functionality of the original with more of everything. Other than the polarizing looks of this innovative vehicle it is hard to fault it. I’d love one in my garage.

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    Porsche, conspicuously absent from the Detroit show, hosted breakfast in Chicago to reveal the “best handling SUV in the world,” they insist - the new Cayenne GTS. Porsche’s best selling vehicle (50% of total US sales) cranks it up a notch with a new normally-aspirated, 405-horsepower V8 that will motivate the GTS to a zero-to-60mph time less than 6 seconds. Active suspension, 21-inch wheels, sport seats and special colors lead the features list. It can be had with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed Tiptronic. Let’s take that on a rally project sometime.

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    Mitsubishi, still struggling to reestablish itself in the tough US market, bragged about this being the 20th year of production in the Normal, IL plant where they have built 3 million vehicles over that time. They also showed the new Galant, Galant Sport and Ralliart. But more thrillingly, we saw the ’09 Eclipse and Eclipse Spyder. Standard on the ’09 Eclipse line is Active Stability Control, HID head lamps and dual exhaust along with updated good looks. The V6 model boasts 264 horsepower and comes with a 6-speed stick. The blindingly fast EVO was recently freshened with 290 horsepower, 4-wheel drive and all kinds of chassis dynamic controls.

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    Surprise of the show for me was tucked into a corner. I nearly missed it. Two sexy little roadsters with a distinctively German flair sat nose to tail in an unadorned display. This second generation (I seemed to have missed the first) of the YES! Roadster uses an Audi drivetrain – 3.2-liter V6 mounted midship, beginning at 255-hp and going up to 355-hp. I don’t know of any other vehicle in recent years that has taken pride in having more overhang front and rear but it sure doesn’t suffer visually from that. Featuring an aluminum space frame, sophisticated double wish bone suspension and great looks the YES! is fully homologated for the US and on sale soon with base price from $78,000 to well over a hundred grand.

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    Certainly, the flashiest reveal and the most dramatic vehicle was one we’ll not see in Detroit. I refer to the monster-of-a-truck from International, their beautiful new class-8 semi tractor, the LoneStar. Makes me want to go to truck driving school and get behind the wheel for a cross-country run. This is a truck with some real style, an “aspirational” truck, they call it. It came bursting through the dark with smoke and flashing lights, just like a flashy car reveal. Beside it sat a ’37 restored/hot rodded International D-series pickup from which many of the styling queues were taken. A luxurious new sleeper design was presented as well.

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    The Chicago Auto Show is rife with other displays to see beyond what we’ve talked about here. Jeep and Dodge take visitors on a pair of indoor hills set up to demonstrate climbing and descending capabilities. The Chicago-area Volo Museum has a display of historic cars from every decade. The Chicago Auto Show folks have prepared, with the help of Michigan’s Red Barn Museum, a selection of cars that would have been in the first shows of the early 1900s. The US Army displayed tanks, APCs, and other specialized vehicles to use as recruiting tools. The Sports Car Club of America brought race cars of all kinds. And plenty of other displays are scattered about the expansive halls of McCormick Place to entertain car lovers.

    Steve Purdy and Thom Cannell, All Rights Reserved