NAIAS '96: everybody's got an SUV

If you can say SUV, you can sum up this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's easier these days to name which automakers aren't promoting some sort of new sport/utility vehicle. Almost everyone and their brother is jostling for elbow space in a segment already clogged with a SUV aimed at every demographic imaginable.Topping the list of "new" SUVs at the record-breaking Detroit

If you can say SUV, you can sum up this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It's easier these days to name which automakers aren't promoting some sort of new sport/utility vehicle. Almost everyone and their brother is jostling for elbow space in a segment already clogged with a SUV aimed at every demographic imaginable.

Topping the list of "new" SUVs at the record-breaking Detroit show was doubtless the Mercedes-Benz AG AA (All Activity) Vision, the subject of unending speculation. The Benz boys yanked the sheet off the AA Vision concept after an excruciatingly long press conference, and stunned the audience by announcing the off-roader will be priced, when launched in the U.S. in the fall of '97, in the mid-$30,000 range.

Most believe that in 20 months' time Mercedes will recant with a more realistic -- and Mercedes-like -- price for the AAV. Certainly V-8 equipped models (initially, AAV is to be fitted with a V-6) can be expected to cost demonstrably more, and few take seriously current price proclamations, considering Mercedes says the AAV will have standard front-passenger side air bags to supplement its dual dash-mounted balloons, full-time all-wheel drive with traction control, ABS and countless other costly items.

Ford Motor Co. answers with the Mercury Mountaineer, its own V-8 toting SUV. Keith Magee, vice president and general manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Div., says "We expect to reach a whole new market with the Mountaineer."

Although the Mountaineer is nothing more than a rebadged Ford Explorer, it's distinguished by a Mercury grille, running boards, color-keyed body side moldings with Mercury badging, unique rear bumper, a Mountaineer logo emblazoned on the seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lamps and a unique luggage rack.

In an effort to attract women buyers, Mercury will tout the Mountaineer's safety features, including dual air bags and ABS.

The Mountaineer has one powertrain, a 4.9L V-8 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. It's available in a 4x2 or 4x4. The all-wheel-drive setup is the full-time Control-Trac system, which doesn't require engagement by the driver. The transfer gear box delivers 65% of engine power to the rear and 35% to the front axle.

General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile Div. finally gets a new Bravada. It features some Aurora-like interior styling cues and will come fully loaded, including the SmartTrak all-wheel-drive system.

Oldsmobile officials say they would like to put the Aurora V-8 into the Bravada -- currently offered with a 4.3L V-6 -- to help distinguish the SUV from others in GM's lineup, but the corporation "hasn't found a way to do that yet."

As if the SUV market wasn't crowded enough, tiny Subaru of America Inc. (SOA) may launch itself directly into the fray with its Streega concept vehicle. The Streega is based on the Legacy/impreza platform (Subaru already has a fine SUV wannabe in the Legacy Outback wagon); the concept is fitted with a turbocharged 2L 4-cyl. rated at 250 hp. While there is no official U.S. launch date for the Streega, Subaru officials say the U.S. version, code-named 79-V, will go on sale shortly after 1996.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. unveils its all-new 1996 4Runner SUV. It boasts an all-new design, engine, chassis and interior and exterior styling. The '96 is the first 4Runner to date that does not share either a chassis or sheetmetal with Toyota's compact pickup. 4Runner's rear doors have been changed from a two-piece tailgate to a one-piece lift-up configuration, giving the vehicle the only rear-liftgate on the market with a power window.

The '96 Detroit show's production offerings were -- depending on your perspective -- either dull or dashing.

Judging by the traffic, it's a fair guess that most of the more than 723,000 visitors to this 8th international show in Detroit were lured by the panache of Chrysler Corp.'s Prowler, which gets the award for the longest-running "official" unofficial vehicle program of recent memory. The company hopes to boost the sagging Plymouth image with Prowler -- which may happen, provided that those closing in on AARP membership are the main targets. Opinions by the under-50 press corps ranged from "somewhat silly" to 'spiffy'

Power is provided by the 3.5L V-6 fitted in the LH lineup, while the interior is strictly a parts-bin spectacular. At least the extensive use of aluminum in the Prowler's bodywork and chassis should translate to an entertaining power-to-weight ratio.

The automaker doesn't plan to sell an abundance of the $35,000 sports cars when they hit dealer showrooms next spring: Initial annual production volumes are planned at 3,000 -- little more than one car for each of Plymouth's 2,932 dealers.

There are mixed reviews, too, for GM's all-new range of midsize sedans: Pontiac Grand Prix, Chevrolet Malibu, Oldsmobile Intrigue and Buick Century. Critics say the new cars are still too bland and don't enjoy enough visual distinction between makes. But others find them to be much more substantial in appearance -- particularly the Olds and Pontiac variety (see feature, p.38).

GM's other big production sheet-pull comes for Catera (see WAW -- Dec. '95, p]05), the new "small" Cadillac that's really an Opel and doesn't go on sale for close to a year, so everyone is sure to be bombarded with plenty of redundant info in the coming months.

Buick, meanwhile, finally finds some curved sheetmetal to tack onto the strong selling LeSabre, while the Park Avenue and Ultra get complete makeovers to the G-body chassis that's proved so wonderful for the Olds Aurora and Buick Riviera.

Ford trots out the 1997 Escort/Tracer line, a stopgap until the Escort "world car' is ready in 1999. It's an agreeable enough design, notable for its above-average, cheery interior and larger, 110-hp engine across the board. The new Escort/tracer will come only as 2-door or 4-door models, the hatch being deemed not worth the effort anymore.

The Japanese once again keep a low profile in Detroit, the only significant production-car launch being the U.S.-built Acura CL from Honda Motor Co. Ltd. The car is positioned between the sporty Integra Acura line achor and the mid-luxury TL sedan.

The standard CL uses the 2.2L 4-cyl. engine from the Accord, while its staid coupe sheetmetal harks to a 2-door version of the similarly stolid TL sedan. Things get more interesting with the addition in September of an all-aluminum 3L V-6 to the CL line.

BMW AG wows winter-weary Detroit with its first real look at the Z3 roadster, while Volkswagen AG appears quite proud to introduce its direct-injection turbodiesel (TDI) 1.9L 4-cyl. to the U.S. The super-frugal TDI (49 mpg) is initially available only in the Passat and only with manual transmissions. Golf and Jetta will be fitted with TDI by sometime spring, says VW, and automatic transmission/tdi mating will occur for '97.

The Detroit show's concept cars are a mixedbunch.

Although Ford Motor Co.'s new, all-aluminum 6L DOHC V-12 has shown up wearing the badge of another marque -- Aston Martin -- the engine was featured prominently in Ford's headline concept car, the Indigo, a 2-seat roadster Ford terms "an Indy car for the street."

Ford says the 6L's tuning in the Indigo is good for "more than" 435 hp at 6,100 rpm and 405 ft.-lbs. (549 Nm) of torque, combining for a 0-to-60 mph (0-to-97 km/h) time of 3.9 seconds.

Ford mumbles that Indigo teaches engineers who work with advanced new material applications -- the car's body panels are constructed of a hybrid carbon fiber/fiberglass/nomex honeycombed material -- but most onlookers deem the car a bit futile.

Same for the Lincoln Sentinel, said to be an example of Ford's new design philosophy. In truth, the full-size, rear-drive concept car looks like something the Ford gang cobbled together in Jac Nasser's carport the night before the show.

Ford appears more confident of its Synergy 2010 concept vehicle, a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) that a Ford insider tells WAW "is a strong look at the direction in which our Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) development is heading."

Synergy 2010 carries a IL direct-injection diesel engine as its primary energy source. It generates electric power to drive individual wheel motors at all four wheels, while a front-mounted flywheel system recovers energy from the car's regenerative braking system and stores excess electricity developed by the onboard diesel.

At 2,200 lbs. (1,000 kg), the 6-seat, all-aluminum unibody Synergy is nearly 50% more aerodynamic than a typical Taurus -- and enjoys more truck capacity.

Not to be left out, Chrysler Corp. pulls the wraps off its stunningly styled Intrepid ESX, also an HEV. Despite the low roofline and curvaceous flanks, Chrysler says the ESX has as much interior space as a current production Intrepid.

The ESX's power in generated by a 75-hp, 1.8L 3-cyl. turbodiesel engine. Drive is apportioned by two electric motors at the rear wheels, which Chrysler says can deliver a combined 200 hp. The ESX mimics Ford's Synergy by employing an aluminum unibody, but Chrysler uses lead-acid batteries, as opposed to Ford's flywheel. That means the ESX weighs considerably more: 2,880 lbs. (1,307 kg).

Chrysler also draws general raves for the bold and swoopy LHX, a barely disguised idea of what the next-generation LH cars might look like. The LHX's wheelbase is a whopping 124 ins. (315 cm) and the car travels on monstrous 19-in. tires at the front and 20-inchers at the rear.

GM, in a curious play, displays no concept cars.

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