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From the Field

Steve Parker has been reporting on the automobile industry for many years. He writes for such publications as Alaska Airlines inflight magazine. He's also provided articles in the past for and continues to do so. This is the first in a series of pieces over the next few weeks. This one looks at what's new in the car biz! Thanks Steve!

By Steve Parker

There are some all-new vehicles hitting America’s showrooms for the coming season which have not been seen for quite a few years now: Cars.

That’s right, it appears that the Reign of the Truck may very well be over as crossovers, sedans, coupes and yes, even station wagons will hit the road for 2005 as it appears Americans may have finally had their fill of “light trucks”, including pickups, minivans and SUVs.

They’ve accounted for about 53% of all new vehicle sales the past couple of years. But new fuel-saving, cost-conscious, safety-concerned buyers are moving buyers into the good ol’ automobile (though Lincoln, for some reason, will again try a pickup model in 2005 or 2006, hard on the heels of their sales-disaster Blackwood “luxury pickup”, which sold fewer than 1,000 units).

Some of the new engines, admittedly, are not all that fuel-stingy, though even the most powerful V8s manage mileage which could only be dreamed about 20 years ago in a muscular car. However, fuel saving technologies like cylinder deactivation (which turn a V8 into a V4 at cruising speeds) and gas-electric hybrids mean more than a few moves in the right direction.

We’ll hit some of the highlights of the coming sales season and maybe even beyond.

Sports and sporty-type cars always hold the most interest. Called “halo cars”, because they cast a nice halo over a manufacturer’s lineup to bring buyers into showrooms, there are some truly exciting all-new racy models for 2005.

There was a lot of discussion as to why Chevrolet chose not to celebrate the Corvette’s 50th birthday in 2003 with an all-new model.

The answer was that it simply wasn’t ready for market, and General Motors has learned it is better to follow Orson Welles’ adage from the old Paul Masson wine commercials, which might go something like, “We will sell no car before its time.” Chevrolet knows that the days of “shoving cars down customers’ throats” or knowingly bringing out cars with problems and letting the dealers fix them if a buyer complains are way, way over.

The 2005 Corvette now seems more than ready for market. Smaller (and lower) in almost every dimension than the fifth generation ‘Vette it replaces, the C6 Corvette packs a 6 liter 400 horsepower, 400 pound foot of torque engine under its fiberglass hood (yes, still fiberglass after all these years). The car which magazines are calling the best sports car in the world for the money (under $45,000), the under-3,200 pound car can run from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds, at least according to Chevy. And it is the first Corvette in some years without hidden headlights, sporting three projection headlamps on each side of the front end, giving the car an all-new hot look as it approaches.

While the ‘Vette was arguably the first real American sports car (if you don’t count the Mercer, which history buffs will appreciate) when it debuted with its straight-6 engine, which was quickly replaced with a V8, the Ford Mustang created its own automotive category, that of the “pony car”.

Sporty, yet without the rough handling, poor mileage and tight steering of a real sports car, Mustang has become everyperson’s sporty car. Mustang still sells at least 40,000 units every year no matter how old the particular year’s model might have been. This gold mine for Ford truly is all-new for 2005, the first time since 1979 the company can make rightfully that claim.

Retaining the styling cues of the original 1964 ½ car which debuted at the New York World’s Fair, the car which sold a million models faster than any other in history hits 2005 with a 4.6 liter 300 horsepower V8 engine available in a convertible for under $30,000. Now that’s some attractive pricing, as car dealers like to say.

Mustang is now also larger in almost measurement (opposite of Corvette) making for a more comfortable interior and smoother ride (adding inches to the wheelbase usually does that).

If GM and Ford have their sports/sporty cars, add one to the list for DaimlerChrysler as well (that name was so much easier to type before Daimler bought Chrysler, so I’ll use the DCX shorthand), called Charger.

With that great name from the ‘60s, DCX had better bring out a winner, and it looks like they’re offering a real alternative to their American competition. Due out in Spring of 2005 and labeled a 2006 model, Charger is a large sedan using the new LX platform, similar to the Magnum wagon (we’re listing Charger with our sporty cars because of its styling and power, but it would easily fit our sedan class, too).

Expect to see the same lineup of V6 and V8 engines available on Charger as Magnum (including the 340 horsepower 5.7 liter Hemi), along with rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. More than just a Dodge version of the Chrysler 300, the Mopar boys promise a distinctive look that will do the Charger name proud.

If the DCX folks can build cars as good-looking and power-oriented as Charger, Magnum and 300, there’s still some spark left in the company since Prowler/PT Cruiser/Viper co-creator Bob Lutz left Chrysler and moved from DCX in Highland Park to GM in Detroit.

Two import sports cars have caught our attention, world’s apart in pricing, performance and place of manufacture, and both are important.

From Stuttgart, Porsche utilizes a design which first debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in 1963 with their new 911. Liquid-cooling, introduced in 911’s most recent version, remains in the box-shaped engine. The base 911 now provides 320-horsepower out of its 3.6 liter powerplant. At just a tick over 3,000 pounds, Porsche says this under-$70,000 911 will achieve 180 miles per hour and go from 0 to 60 in 4.8 seconds (which may be slower than a Corvette for a lot more cash).

Porsche now uses the same basic front end styling on their 911, Boxster and even the all-wheel drive Cayenne SUV, so the company is saving money wherever it can.

From Japan comes the Scion tC. Developed by what was at first a semi-secret group of engineers, stylists and lifestyle experts based at Toyota headquarters in southern California called “Genesis”, Scion’s three models are aimed squarely at the under-40 audience which Toyota has never been able to claim as their own in any large numbers.

tC couldn’t be any more different from the 911. Larger than the Celica, it comes with a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine pumping out 160 horsepower That’s not much for the league we’ve been discussing, but the car would make a great “first sporty car” with its fully-equipped price of under-$20,000.

I drove the 5-speed stick tC, and think car would be better equipped with the engine available in the Corolla XRS, a four-banger which produces 170 horses but redlines at near 9,000 rpm (tC’s engine hits the line at a tick over 6 grand). That engine would give tC the launch power it sorely needs. Folks in the “tuner” market will probably swap some of those engines into their tC’s, as they already do by taking Acura engines and stuffing them into their Civics.

Cadillac, traditional king of the big sedans, is, like DCX, revamping their entire line-up of cars over the next few years, switching from front- to rear-wheel and all-wheel drive cars, and making V8 engines more available.

An important Cadillac model is the 2005 STS. Dropping the Seville name, which has been a Caddy mainstay since 1976, this is the first all-new replacement of Seville since it was available with the fabulous 4.6 liter Northstar engine beginning in 1993.

Available with rear- or all-wheel drive, STS is one of the 8th all-new Cadillacs since 2001, the third domestic car built on GM’s new Sigma platform, which the company uses worldwide.

STS is shorter than the Seville it replaces, yet still holds five American-size adults easily, helping them in and out of the car with four wide and long doors.

Northstar produces 320 horsepower in the STS, just enough power to get the 3,900 pound car moving from 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds (according to Cadillac).

For reasons we can’t understand, Cadillac will also offer a 255 horse 3.6 liter V6 (though not on the AWD model). Who would spend all that money to put a STS in their garage and then have to tell Harry next door that it “only” has a V6? I think, only half-jokingly, that the V6 STS might find its way to the daily rental market.

Cadillac tells us the V6 base car will be priced under $41,000, which means full pricing for the AWD V8 model should easily pass the 50K mark.

Most of you already have seen, driven or even bought a 2005 Chrysler 300. The car is a far cry from the front-drive V6 LH sedans which kept Chrysler successful through the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Those of you who purchased one of the 300C performance models, well, you should have waited. We’ll tell you why.

One of the most exciting, powerful and interesting cars to come from this country in several years, 300 styling, with its flat and massive front end, closely evokes the Chrysler “letter cars” of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Buyers can choose under-hood performance that’s a throwback to the days of 29 cent a gallon high-test, too.

Three models are offered: base with a 190-hp V6; Touring with a 250-hp V6; and the high-performance 300C, with that 340 horsepower V8 bearing Chrysler's Hemi badge.

The V8 features the Multi-Displacement System, which deactivates four cylinders in idle and cruise conditions to save fuel. AWD is available on Touring and 300C models.

Why should early 300C buyers have kept their wallets in their pockets and pocketbooks? Here’s why: Announced this past August at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, which has become a hotbed of new-car announcements for the automakers, DCX unveiled an all-new 6.1 liter Hemi which adds 85 horses to the engine’s output, bringing the horsepower in the newly-named 300C SRT8 to 425. SRT8 arrives in showrooms in Spring, 2005. Start selling your current 300C tomorrow.

In our “all-new” class are a couple of very important models from Ford. Ford has depended on cars like the most recent Mustang and the Taurus and Focus for too many years. Ford now says they have a total of five all-new cars entering the market in the next 2 to 3 years, good news for customers, and maybe even better for stockholders.

Ford seems to have taken a lesson from Acura, in that their all-new flagship which will eventually replace the Taurus remains a V6, front-wheel drive car, dubbed the Five Hundred (another grand old name resurrected for a new generation of buyers).

This is Ford’s new family sedan, and the company needs sales of 350,000 to 400,000 annually to keep up with competitors Toyota Camry and Honda Accord as one of the nation’s best-selling cars. Taurus has traditionally been the third-best selling car in America behind those import competitors.

Five Hundred, built on the Volvo S80 platform (Ford owns Volvo), starts at under-$23,000, can be ordered with all-wheel drive ($1,700 extra). Ford says it is larger inside in every measurement than the Taurus. The car’s 24-valve 3 liter 203 horsepower V6 might have some trouble propelling the car with authority, especially in the heavier-by-300 pounds-or-so AWD model.

There is some hope Ford might bring out a Five Hundred performance version (remember the SHO Taurus, with its Yamaha-built engine?) if they sense demand. Insiders say Ford is considering making a Five Hundred all-wheel drive model with a V8 and turning it into a new Lincoln Town Car.

The other do-or-die Ford “car” is actually a crossover. Called Freestyle (nice name), is a 7-passenger vehicle, with that all-important third row of seats, aimed right the Toyota Highlander and the Honda Pilot (and all the rest of the midsize crossovers, that is, cars built on truck-like platforms).

All Freestyles are powered by a 3.0-liter V6 engine which produces 200 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. It’s the same basic engine found in the Five Hundred. Freestyle is built on the same Volvo platform as the Five Hundred, but its interior is a gigantic carnival of storage spaces, folding seats, and whiz-bang gizmos to keep all the kids happy, even those over 40.

Freestyle prices range from $25,000 to $31,000 for the all-wheel drive topline model.

Freestyle and Five Hundred also share a standard five-speed automatic transmission, or a Continuously Variable Transmission which saves about 10% in the fuel mileage department, but also does away with the “shift” feel of a traditional transmission. Be warned: Early CVTs tended to be noisy at highway speeds.

Another all-new model which only folks traveling to Japan have seen is the Honda Fit. It will be completely redesigned and equipped for the US market, but Fit is a good name for a car which may be able to, well, “fit” just about anyplace.

With some consumers telling Honda that Civic pricing is getting a little too high for first-time buyers, Honda sees the smaller-than-Civic Fit as their first all-new, low-priced car in many years. Look for the Fit (or something like it) available from Honda towards the end of 2005 as a 2006 model.

It will also be a welcome and brand-new entry for the tuner market, price-wise buyers and mileage-watchers. With BMW’s Mini currently the smallest car sold in America, Honda’s Fit might take the crown from that popular and fun German/UK collaboration. Mercedes’ small, fun and sporty A-class won’t be sold in the US until an all-new, larger model built in Brazil is finalized.

Honda will also introduce a new hybrid for the 2005 model year, a gas-electric Accord. With the current Accord the best-selling car in America, a hybrid version, which will look exactly like the current car to the non-expert eye, should prove a hot-seller (there is currently a 6 - 7 month wait for the Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid of the moment). Honda will drop their two-seat Insight hybrid, so the current hybrid Civic and new hybrid Accord will share showroom space.

Another important hybrid is already out from Ford Motor Company. Their Escape midsize SUV shares a hybrid system licensed to the company by Toyota. But the company says they will build only 25,000 of this model as they learn more about hybrids, which is a disappointment to “green” consumers.

Some of that sales demand can be picked up at the end of 2004 with the 2005 Toyota RX400H, a hybrid version of the company’s best-selling SUV, the RX350. The truck’s Toyota twin, the Highlander, gets the gas-electric hybrid powerplant later in 2005, as the company pursues an atypical marketing plan, introducing the higher-priced, luxury version of a vehicle before premiering the one aimed at the mass audience.

Finally, forgive us, some important new trucks.

Dodge’s all-new Dakota remains a midsize pickup available with a V8 engine that turns the truck into a rocket ship. Unveiled at this past winter’s Chicago Auto Show, the always-popular Dakota hits showrooms later this fall as a 2005 model.

Chevrolet is coming out with an unashamed copy of the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Called HHR (for High Heritage Roof), the small crossover will use a 140-horsepower Ecotec engine. HHR will be positioned price-wise higher than the PT Cruiser (whose designer, Brian Nesbitt, now at Chevy, had more than a small hand in its styling). To picture HHR in your mind, think 1949 Chevy pickup. HHR joins SSR as a limited-run, highly-styled truck from Chevrolet.

From Japan, Nissan is reworking their entire line of midsize trucks including Pathfinder, Xterra and Frontier. All these trucks have been sales winners, but have grown long in the tooth and need more than a facelift. Look for all-new versions of these great nameplates rolled out throughout 2005, and made in the USA.

Land Rover has a new attempt at success in North America. The LR3 replaces the Discovery as the company’s midsize, lower-priced truck, equipped with parent Range Rover’s go-anywhere four-wheel drive and V8 power. LR3 might not be its final name when it’s on-sale in 2005.

Range Rover owner, Ford, is demanding a hit in this market or they might just shut Solihull (their single UK factory), which would prove a loss of one of the world’s automotive icons. But, unless the company’s quality improves, we’d get over it.

Last, and maybe least, General Motors will introduce the Hummer H2 SUT (sport utility truck). A Hummer H2 with a pickup bed instead of seats in the back, SUT is only a bit lighter than the enclosed truck. It still managed only 13 miles per gallon in town and on the road on average when we’ve driven them. Bigger news from Hummer is the 2006 introduction of the H3, a Hummer-like vehicle built on a much smaller (and lighter) GM pickup frame.

From Scion tC to the Hummer SUT, vehicles have become like the weather in Michigan. If you don’t like a car or truck, just have some patience and there will be something entirely new!

About the Author

Steve Parker, who is based in Palm Springs, appears in ALASKA's inflight magazine monthly. He's been writing for them for almost 3 years.. Visit him at