CHICAGO — Somebody put testosterone in the Chicago River. It's the only plausible explanation for the muscle on display at the Chicago Auto Show.
The vehicles that dominate the floor are those designed to travel — whenever necessary — in a straight line. From Point A to Point B. Over hill and dale. Hell-bent for leather.
DaimlerChrysler sets the tone early by literally crashing its own party. President Dieter Zetsche startles journalists by barreling through a banquet hall wall in the new '02 Dodge Ram 1500. When the dust settles, he eschews a Spartan sushi entrée, declaring: “This isn't what a Ram driver eats!”
And with a snap of his fingers, servers arrive with steak and potatoes and long necks galore.
In the first two pages of a news release describing the redesigned pickup — scheduled to roll off assembly lines in early summer — the word “bold” appears six times, “boldest” is used twice and “brawny,” once (for details, see p.118). These claims, however, not only suit this in-your-face vehicle — which offers a choice of two next-generation Magnum engines — it applies to the entire show.
Toyota Motor Corp. picks up the theme with its RSC concept car. Short for “Rugged Sport Coupe,” it suggests a cut-to-the-chase demeanor with its compact profile and a no-nonsense face that scowls like an angry bullhead.
“Traditionally, sports cars are influenced by high-performance on-track motor sports,” says Kevin Hunter, vice president of design at CALTY Design Research, Toyota's creative center in Newport Beach, CA. “For the RSC concept, we looked at one of the world's most popular off-track racing formats for inspiration. Toyota's long history in the World Rally Championships, along with the aggressive, rugged appeal of its race cars with a young audience, made for an ideal conceptual direction.”
One by one, the wraps come off yet another macho machine. Such as Pontiac's REV concept, the product of breeding a rally car with a sport/utility vehicle (SUV). The offspring, says General Motors Corp. Vice President of Design Wayne K. Cherry, is a vehicle with “go-anywhere attitude.” And to accomplish this, it features an adjustable suspension system that can — “when the going gets rough” — raise the vehicle two inches.
“Inspired by the flexibility and performance of rally cars, REV is equally at home on trails and asphalt,” says Phil Zak, brand character chief designer for Pontiac. Such remarks are certainly coded messages suggesting to Transportation Secretary Spencer Abraham that the nation's infrastructure is hurtin', because the Australian Outback doesn't have enough trails to keep this show's vehicles busy.
Even venerable Porsche is answering the call of the wild. “To stay independent, we have to be bigger,” says Frederick J. Schwab, director of Porsche's sales arm. “To grow we have to increase sales. All market studies show we can do that through building and selling an SUV.” The Cayenne, which was not shown, will go into production early next year, Mr. Schwab says.
Are such products gender-exclusive? Not according to Susan Frissell, publisher of Women With Wheels. “I think that women look for very much the same things that men look for. Particularly with the SUVs and the pickup trucks,” she says, noting 40% of women buyers favor trucks.
“I'm not sure women don't drive them to make a certain statement. I think one of the statements is a feeling of power. And I don't know if that's so much making a statement as the way it makes them feel.” Of women and the long-standing association with trucks and maledom, Ms. Frissell adds: “Obviously, it's not bothering them too much.”
Saturn straddles the fence with two variations of its compact SUV, the VUE. One's for the great outdoors and one's for the concrete jungle. Saturn's vice president of sales, service and marketing calls them “lifestyle vehicles.” These VUE concepts represent what customers can do with customization, says Jill Lajdziak.
“Customization is an important factor among automotive buyers in today's marketplace,” she says. “In fact, specialty accessories and appearance products alone represent the largest growth segment of aftermarket products, with sales more than doubling from $1.8 billion to nearly $4 billion in the past decade.
“The ability to customize a vehicle is especially important in the entry vehicle segment and among younger buyers with active lifestyles,” she adds. The “outdoor” VUE features a front brush bar, 16-in. wheels with all-terrain tires, utilitarian roof rack and interior amenities that include a rubberized cargo area and a plug-in handheld GPS unit. Similar retail installed accessories will be available when the base VUE hits showrooms later this year, Ms. Lajdziak says. Price: About $20,000.
VUE's citified cousin sports 18-in. wheels, performance tires and suspension modifications that lower the vehicle approximately two inches. It also has stylized front and rear fascias, an integrated spoiler and a three-panel sunroof.
There are, however, exhibitors who buck the rough-and-ready reputation in favor of more traditional driving excitement. None moreso than Hyundai with its HCD6 mid-engine roadster concept. Though there are no production plans, and therefore no price tag, the Korean automaker nonetheless calls it “the affordable exotic.”
Its most striking features are a longitudinally positioned roll bar and a deeply sculpted side air intake system. “The entire side of the car serves as ducting to the engine,” says the project's senior designer, Dragan Vukadinovc. “This design also improves aerodynamics by taking normally turbulent wheel well air, smoothing it out and using it for engine cooling.”
But Mercury wins the prize for courage. Instead of catering to those who want to get away from it all, Mercury is appealing to individualists who are “a little bit more urban … have a little more style,” says Ben Gibert, the brand's first-ever director dedicated to product development.
Mercury customers, he claims, are those who say: “My life is, I go to Broadway. … I spend my life in the city. My recreation is in the city. It's a different kind of person. I'm not running away from my life. I'm finding peace within my life.” Hence two stylized Cougars, the Zn and C2, both of which come standard with 6-CD changers.
Add to that the 300-hp Marauder, unveiled in Chicago. “Mercury Marauder doesn't take a lot of explaining,” Mr. Gibert says. “It's fast, it's black and looks cool.”