Chicago Auto Show: Detroit Is Still Big

U.S. automakers dominate this week's Chicago Auto Show, with an emphasis on trucks, SUVs, and vans

If the string of international auto shows between September and April were dog shows, this week's Chicago Auto Show would be known as the competition of the working dogs—retrievers, herders, hunters, and pack dogs. For automakers, it's the place to show trucks, sport-utility vehicles, and vans.

Detroit's Big Three, especially General Motors (GM) are dominating this year's show. GM is showing two pickup trucks, including one hybrid, and a crossover SUV it hopes will lift its most valuable brand, Chevrolet.

GM's Lineup

The Chevy Traverse (shown here) is based on the same successful engineering platform as the Buick Enclave, the GMC Acadia, and the Saturn Outlook. All three of GM's full-size crossovers have been selling briskly and drawing almost universal praise from reviewers. It's a quirk of GM management's thinking, though, that makes Chevrolet, its highest-volume brand and the division that literally makes or breaks GM, the last brand to get its version of the hot SUV. This model replaces the Chevy Trailblazer, which will soon go out of production.

GM has been sharpening its vehicle design in recent years as it tries to convince the public to forget its two-box sedans from the '80s and '90s. This week, GM will show a new idea for a performance sedan with green credentials. The GMC Denali XT hybrid is a muscular, rear-drive, car-based, concept sedan. Oddly, GM has no plans to introduce a real car in the GMC truck brand. But this sedan with a pickup bed, created to test public opinion, is the basis for the new Pontiac G8 sedan and the forthcoming Chevrolet Camaro. It's also the first time GM has mated its two-mode hybrid system with an E85 ethanol-capable engine. Warrack Leach, the Denali XT's lead designer, described it as a pickup for guys who pine for "a truck with badness but don't necessarily need a truck every day."

The Denali XT's new 4.9-liter version of GM's V8 features fuel injection and active fuel management, which, when mated with the two-mode hybrid system and E85 ethanol capability, delivers a 50% increase in fuel economy over similar small pickup trucks.

GM is also debuting a GMC Sierra hybrid pickup, which the company says will boost fuel economy of the normal Sierra by 25% overall and by 40% in the city. Hummer will debut the Hummer H3t pickup derived from its H3 SUV, which does not come in a hybrid version.

Ford's Design Moves

Ford Motor (F) is arguably making the boldest design statement at the show with the Transit Connect van. This successful commercial truck is already selling well in Europe. Ford is exporting it to the U.S. in 2009 in hopes of attracting new buyers, as well as commercial and retail customers soon to be up for grabs when Ford discontinues sales of the compact Ranger pickup. The Transit Connect is a tall minivan designed to be outfitted with front seats and cargo room, or as a five-seater.

Ford thinks buyers for the distinctly European-style boxy van, smaller than a Ford Econoline van, will be small businesses—florists, bakeries, stereo and computer installers, and the like. But since the automaker found that, over time, more than 50% of European sales were to personal-use buyers, the company sees that potential in the U.S. as well. "We have heard from our dealers and our customers that the market is looking for a rugged, fuel-efficient commercial vehicle that's neither van nor truck, but has attributes of both," says Ford Americas President Mark Fields.

Ford already has discontinued production of its Freestar minivan. And the Ranger small pickup will soon go out of production. The Transit Connect, which gets 19 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway with a four-speed gasoline engine, could attract the commercial customers of both of those vehicles, as well as some would-be full-size van buyers. The van is made in Turkey, but Ford says its plan calls for the vehicle to be profitable even with a weak U.S. dollar. Pricing will be set in 2009 when it goes on sale.

Suzuki's Pickup and VW's Van

Suzuki (SZKMF) always seems like the little company that could, and it's going to try to pick up a few more buyers by offering its first-ever small pickup truck. It is being built for Suzuki at the Nissan (NSANY) plant in Tennessee and is based on Nissan's Frontier pickup. It's poor timing for Suzuki, since Frontier sales have been sliding along with the rest of the small pickup category. Mitsubishi (MMTOF) has been selling its own version of the Dodge Dakota and few buyers have noticed.

Back in 2000, when Volkswagen (VLKAY) showed a concept for a Microbus at the Detroit Auto Show, the same crowd that oohed and ahhed over the New Beetle in the 1990s got excited, cleaned their Grateful Dead vinyl records and unfolded their tie-dyed T-shirts. But deemed by VW too expensive to make, that van did not come to pass. Instead, VW will show a van called the Routan, which it developed by starting with a Chrysler Town & Country minivan. That's not such a bad start, considering it's the best-selling minivan in the U.S. It shows up in dealerships in early 2009.

The seven-passenger minivan is 197 inches long and is intended to be "splendidly adapted" to U.S. minivan drivers' needs in terms of space and functionality, VW says. Don't look for the stow-and-go seating or the retractable table found in the new Town & Country.

Not all the news in Chicago is about trucks. Honda Motor's (HMC) Acura division will be showing a new version of its RL flagship sedan with more trunk and rear-seat legroom than the current version. And Chrysler will show the production version of the Dodge Challenger muscle car. Opinions are divided over whether the reprise of the Challenger, built on the same engineering platform as the once-popular Chrysler 300C, looks too much like a knockoff of the iconic 1960s model. The automaker hopes eventually to sell 50,000 Challengers a year.

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