2009 Chicago Auto ShowPosted on February 13th, 2009
Niche Automakers Making Small Big
By Nina Russin
At a time when small is returning to favor, niche automakers are following in their footsteps. Nowhere was this more apparent than the recent Chicago Auto Show media preview, where manufacturers shared their plans for weathering the current economic storm.
While most of the car companies are licking their wounds after a brutal drop in sales last year, Subaru celebrated a gain in market share.
Thanks to the successful launch of its Forester sport-utility vehicle, the Japanese automaker experienced a twenty-two percent increase in market share. Subaru set sales records for the Forester, Impreza and Legacy last year, giving the company its largest presence in the US market since 1982.
Subaru will unveil the fourth-generation Legacy later this year.
Buy back program inspires consumer confidence
Hyundai, the Korean automaker that many considered an upstart just a decade back, also fared well last year. In addition to continue its value-pricing strategy and ten-year warranty, Hyundai partnered with EFG, a Canadian company, to create the Hyundai Assurance Program.
Hyundai will buy back cars from any new Hyundai owner who loses his or her job.
In a keynote speech to the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Hyundai Motors America CEO, John Krafcik said that the buy back program was an example of “thinking unconventionally” in what he described as revolutionary times.
Later that morning, Hyundai unveiled the Genesis coupe: a sporty partner to the highly successful sedan.
The coupe comes with a choice of a turbocharged four-cylinder or naturally-aspirated V-6 engine. The four-cylinder version, equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, averages thirty miles-per-gallon on the highway. Pricing starts at $22,000.
Track models of the Genesis coupe appeal to weekend racing enthusiasts with upgraded wheels and tires, Brembo brakes and a track-tuned suspension. The track models come with xenon headlamps and a rear spoiler: pricing for the four cylinder starts at $26,750; the six cylinder begins at $29,500.
A R-Spec Genesis coupe incorporates many of the performance features of the track models at a lower starting price, by paring away some of their standard comfort and convenience features.
The coupe rolls into dealerships this month.
New Kia compact sedan
Hyundai’s sister company, Kia, introduced a new compact sedan that replaces the Spectra, and competes against the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda3.
The Forte carries forth Spectra’s sporty styling and handling, with technology upgrades such as Bluetooth compatibility, satellite radio, MP3 and iPod compatibility. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags, active front head restraints, and side mirrors with integrated turn signals. The Forte goes on sale this summer, to be followed by a yet undisclosed model. Could a five-door Forte be in the Kia skunkworks?
The Forte is the first Kia being produced at the manufacturer’s new assembly plant in West Point Georgia. Kia plans to build half of its American market cars at the Georgia plant by 2013.
Suzuki stays strong
Suzuki retail sales were stable last year, thanks to its wide base of automobile, motorcycle and marine customers. The 2009 Equator pickup appeals to those customers by providing an affordable means for towing and hauling.
The Equator comes in extended and crew cab configurations. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags and electronic stability control. The Equator tows up to 6500 pounds.
A RMZ4 off-road model adds skid plates and Bilstein shocks.
An integrated cargo bed system makes it easier to customize the Equator for hauling bikes and other large items.
Active lifestyles cubed
The pint-sized Nissan cube is the latest in a series of box-shaped lifestyle cars that began with the Honda Element and Scion xB. The 2009 cube shares the automaker’s B platform with the Rogue.
Power comes from a 122-horsepower four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission. Its small footprint gives the cube great fuel economy: thirty miles-per-gallon on the highway.
A refrigerator-style rear door makes the cube’s tall cargo bay easy to load. Rear passengers sit slightly higher than the driver and front passenger for a better view of the road.
Despite its small size, the cube can comfortably fit four adult men inside: a few of my colleagues hopped into a display car at the preview just to make sure.
Available technology upgrades include keyless ignition, a Bluetooth hand-free phone system, satellite radio and a Rockford Fosgate audio system with iPod interface.
There are four trim levels, ranging from the base 1.8 cube to the edgy-looking 1.8 Krom. The Krom comes with standard antilock braking, six airbags and exclusive exterior trim, including sixteen-inch wheels, a rear roof spoiler, a special grille and front fascia.
Happy birthday Miata MX-5
Mazda introduced the first Mazda Miata at the 1989 Chicago Auto show, and has used Chicago as a launch point for several subsequent generations. At this year’s show, Mazda celebrated twenty years of MX-5 by breaking out the sushi, and a few bottles of Kirin to go with it.
Since introducing the 1990 model, Mazda has sold 900,000 Miatas globally, proving that there is a market for affordable, two-seat roadsters.
The Miata isn’t the first small car that Mazda took a big risk on. Two decades prior to its introduction Mazda bought the rights to the Wankel rotary engine: a fledgling idea that became the basis for the highly successful RX-8 sports car.
A refreshed Mazda MX-5 rolls out for the 2010 model year.
Electric Ford Transit Connect
At last year’s Chicago Auto Show, Ford unveiled the Transit Connect: a compact commercial truck designed to compete against longer, less fuel efficient vehicles. The Transit connect has a small enough wheelbase to produce a thirty-five foot turning radius, and a big enough interior to hold a six-foot ladder.
Fuel economy on the gas-powered version averages twenty miles-per-gallon in the city and twenty-four on the highway. Pricing starts at $21,475.
This year, the battery electric Transit Connect DEV rolls out for fleet customers, offering businesses an environmentally-friendly alternative to the gasoline version.
Ford also unveiled its new Taurus SHO EcoBoost, building on the popularity of the original model. The new SHO will be a sleeper performance car, just like its predecessors, but with much better fuel economy. A 3.5-liter V6 engine produces 365 horsepower and 350 foot-pounds of torque, but averages twenty-five miles per gallon on the highway.
Steering-wheel mounted paddle controls let the driver manually select gears for the six-speed automatic transmission. Standard all-wheel drive improves the SHO’s wet weather handling.
The new SHO incorporates many recent safety innovations as standard equipment, including Volvo’s blind spot information system with traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control. Pricing for the SHO starts at $37,995.
Green tires boost fuel economy
Bridgestone’s new Ecopia EP100 tires have thirty percent less rolling resistance than conventional treads with no sacrifice in wet weather traction. Bridgestone experts claim that the tires can increase a vehicle’s fuel economy by 4.2%
The tires come in fourteen-to-sixteen inch sizes, and are intended as a summer replacement tire for hybrid sedans.
Show and show biz cars
Despite their ongoing financial struggles, General Motors and Chrysler put their best faces forward: General Motors with show cars used in the Dreamworks Transformer movies, and Chrysler with the new Dodge heavy duty Ram pickups.
The Chevrolet Beat concept car goes into production as the Spark, with forty mile-per-gallon fuel economy on the highway. The upcoming Chevrolet Cruze which replaces the Cobalt will have similar fuel economy gains.
The 2010 Dodge Ram heavy duty model now comes in a crew cab model, with a choice of 5.7-liter hemi or 6.7-liter Cummins diesel engines. The heavy duty Ram tows up to 18,500 pounds.
Meanwhile, the light-duty Ram goes green, with a two-mode hybrid model rolling out next year, and diesel availability the year after.
The Chicago Auto Show, now in its one hundred first year, is one of the most heavily attended auto shows in the country. Despite the bleak economic forecast, the Chicago Auto Trade Association which sponsors the show continues to see the event as “strong and viable.”
The show opens to the public this weekend and runs through February 22.
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