New York: Newer Show, Newer Cars

While New York’s car show is still viewed
as a “dealer show”, like Chicago or Los Angeles, and not a “manufacturer
show”, like Geneva or Detroit, the show has grown over the past five years, and is
potentially the next “North American International Auto Show.” If not for
Geneva, this would have been the most exciting show thus far in 1999 — not because the
vehicles displayed were particularly impressive, but because there were so many new ones:
eleven global introductions, eight North American debuts and three regional introductions.

GM’s EXTENDED FAMILY. GM debuted concepts
of its two largest SUVs, GMC’s Yukon and Chevrolet’s Suburban, and used the occasion to
state that suspensions cannot be re-engineered in a year to be adapted from a pickup to a
large SUV. The statement was obviously aimed at the upcoming Ford Excursion, the mega-SUV
coming out only a year after the introduction of the new F-Series Super Duty it is based
on. Incidentally, the Excursion is the first Ford Motor product to be named after a poem
by William Wordsworth. (Perhaps appropriately, Wordsworth’s Excursion is very, very long
and rather dull.)

The press kit for the Suburban displayed a
garage door on the cover, using the tag line “Coming to a Garage Near You”
presumably to remind everyone that the Chevy will fit in a garage the Ford won’t. The
concepts of the two SUVs broke no new stylistic ground; in design, both models took mere
babysteps away from their predecessors. However, a new traction assist system and
auto-adjusting “Auto Ride” shocks position them as the modern interpretation of
the traditional station wagon, not as domesticated pickup trucks.

Oldsmobile introduced the new Aurora for
2001 as “the first car of the new millennium”, and will power it with a choice
of a 3.5L DOHC V6 or 4.0L DOHC V8. The styling was described as “evolutionary”,
and inspired both mild praise and faint damns. Perhaps the most significant thing about
the new Aurora is the fact that it finally has a (tiny) Oldsmobile badge on the car’s
exterior. (Look at the passenger side taillight.)

After ten years of selling one model,
Saturn introduced its mid-sized entry. Called the L-Series (for “Large?”) the
new model looks like a larger version of the current S-Series, (“Small?”) with
not much to differentiate the two. The new sedan and wagon will be built in Saturn’s
“second plant” in Wilmington DE (which currently builds Chevrolet Malibus). The
new vehicles carry Saturn’s trademark polymer door panels and front fenders, while the
rear quarter panels are made of steel.

ANOTHER SUV? The L-Series (LS1 and LW1
models) standard engine is the first U.S. application of GM’s L850 engine, a 2.2L 137hp
powerplant. LS2 and LW2 models will get the 3.0L 182hp V6, which is related to the engines
offered in the Saab 9-5, the Cadillac Catera, and a few Europe-only models. Automatic
transmissions are optional on the LS1, standard on all other models. Once again, Saturn
announced its intention to introduce an SUV in the 2002 model year. (Incidentally,
Porsche, which debuted the Carrera 4 at New York, stated that it was planning an SUV too,
for the 2002 model year, with a worldwide target volume of 30,000.)

Pontiac introduced a facelifted Sunfire and
brought out the new G-body Bonneville previously shown at Chicago, but beyond the
boy-racer looks of the littlest Pontiac and the techno-look of the Bonneville, the brand
showed nothing new.

Buick focused its attention on the
“Century 2000”, which will have special trim and badging as well as 175hp to
differentiate it from ordinary Centuries. The Buick division plans to expand from the
current four-model lineup to six models soon. The two extra models are likely to come off
its two recent concepts, the radically-styled Signia station wagon and the Cielo folding
hard-top convertible.

New York also saw the American debut of the
two-seat Opel Speedster, a re-badged Lotus Elise, to gauge press and consumer interest
before GM re-re-badges it as a Saab or Pontiac. Discussing the international luxury
market, GM’s president mentioned that Cadillac is being aimed at the global market and is
intended for export sales. For that market, Cadillac believes that a small luxury car is
necessary, but does not have one, and is not presently planning to have one. Nevertheless,
he said, Cadillac has a “very ambitious future product plan.”

Saab announced the sporty version of the
9-3. Touted as the most powerful Saab car ever built, the 9-3 Viggen coupe (named for
Saab’s jet fighter) is powered by the 2.3L 225hp engine last seen in the 9000 Aero. The
Viggen will be in very limited production and only offered as a coupe for 1999. A
convertible version, also on display, will follow for the 2000 model year. As often as
they have heard it, the automotive press is still excited when a vehicle manufacturer
states that it plans to introduce a new model every six months. So Isuzu announced that it
will introduce a new model every six months, and displayed one concept car, a full
convertible version of the Vehi-Cross. Named VX-O2, the car was a new hybrid, combining a
traditional speedster (cut-down windshield and two seats) with a truck.

THE GROWING FORD FAMILY. Ford put the
MY2000 Taurus on display for the first time. Except for its doors, the new model (and its
Mercury Sable sibling) shares no body panels with the 1999 model, but it is certainly no
radical departure. The most notable changes are that the interior ovalization has been
severely curtailed, interior space has been increased, especially in the rear seats, and
the trunk is enlarged to handle 1.2 cubic feet more luggage. (A Ford spokesman said the
new vehicle’s features responded to customer complaints about the lack of interior storage
areas, proudly adding: “We now have leadership in map pockets.”)

The new Taurus/Sable also adds several
safety features. An improved restraint system takes into consideration crash factors and
occupant positions with a new “Advanced Restraint System” that includes sensors
for crash severity, seatbelt use, and seat position. Dual-stage air bags and seat belt
pretensioners are being acclaimed as the first in a family sedan under $20,000. (Side air
bags are still optional.) As with all the 2000 model year Ford products sold in the United
States and Canada, the Taurus also features a cable-operated trunk release, with a
glow-in-the-dark cord inside the trunk, presumably to prevent carjacker kidnappings.

Other improvements include more power and
more convenience items. The Taurus now offers 153hp on the base OHV engine and 200hp on
the Duratec DOHC, and becomes the first car to adopt the Lincoln Navigator’s
power-adjustable pedals.

Aston Martin brought out the DB7 Vantage, a
high-performance coupe (the convertible Vantage Volante was shown later) powered by the
first production application of Ford’s 6.0L DOHC V12 Duratec-based engine. Producing about
420hp, the Vantage has a few components in common with the more pedestrian (and much
higher volume) Taurus DOHC V6 and the Contour V6.

Volvo, the newest member of the Ford
family, celebrated the fact that its top-of-the-line S80, a new entry in the
performance/safety niche, outsold the Cadillac Seville and Lincoln Continental in
February. S40 and V40 models will go on sale in the U.S. later this year, and the company
plans to break the 200,000-unit barrier soon.

Mazda plans to triple sales of its MPV
minivan with the 2000 model, which is larger than short-wheelbase minivans and smaller
than long-wheelbase models. It offers all the new “price-of-entry” features:
dual sliding doors, dual front airbags, seating for seven, and optional side airbags.
Taking cues from the new Odyssey, the MPV has a rear seat that folds into the floor at the
rear, and middle row bucket seats that can slide together to form a bench. The rear seat
also flips over for tailgate parties, and the middle row seats slide and recline. Storage
is abundant, with drawers under the front seats and a “laptop-sized” glovebox. A
few items have been added to separate it from the crowd of “me-too” minivans,
including roll-down windows in the sliding doors and a stereo CD player with an in-dash
6-disc changer. The new vehicle does not share a platform (“in the traditional
sense” explained a spokesman) with any other Ford or Mazda product, but is based on,
and shares a number of major components with the 626. One major component it doesn’t share
with the Mazda sedan is the 2.5L V6 engine, which it shares with the Ford Contour.

DaimlerChrysler MEMORIES. Since
DaimlerChrysler introduced all its new Mercedes products at Geneva, and had nothing new
from Chrysler to show, it decided instead to celebrate its 75th anniversary while the New
York Auto Show celebrated its 99th. The two vehicles it did show were the retro PT
Cruiser, and the more-retro-than-retro Chrysler 6, first shown as a concept in 1924. The
celebration included a re-enactment of the 1924 Show, which in fact wouldn’t accept the
Chrysler 6 for display because its rules prohibited anything but production models.

GERMAN CAMPAIGNS. BMW‘s presentation of its
redesigned Z3 roadster and the all-new 323Ci/328Ci coupes sniped at the competition
without specifically calling it by name, saluting its Z3 as the world’s top-selling
roadster, and a better value than its German competition: starting at $28,990, the new
3-Series coupes will under-cut the ones that come from Stuttgart.

Speaking of price, BMW’s American-spec M5
and X5 were also announced with their prices. The six-cylinder X5 (offered with a
shift-your-own transmission as well as the obligatory autobox) will start under $40,000,
while the eight-cylinder (no manual offered) starts under $50,000. The M5, self-proclaimed
“world’s fastest sedan,” will list under $70,000.

Since Audi has come a long way in the past
ten years, its North American introductions generated a lot of excitement at New York.
First, the A4 series gained a third engine with the announcement of the S4 model and its
250hp 2.7L twin-turbo V6 engine. The A6 lineup added a top-of-the-line 4.2L DOHC 40-valve
V8 (same as in the A8), and goes on sale in the fall, and — to bridge the gap between the
new 300hp 4.2L V8 and the 200hp 2.8L V6 — Audi will offer the 2.7L twin-turbo V6. The new
turbocharged A6 will be offered with 5-speed automatic or 6-speed manual (to fight the BMW
manuals) when the model goes on sale this fall.

Audi also announced a schedule for the new
TT introductions. The 1.8T TT, a sporty coupe reminiscent of the 1950s Porsche, will go on
sale in May, followed by the quattro version in the fall. In the spring of 2000, the
high-output TT and the Spyder version will be introduced to the U.S.

ASIAN DREAMS. Last summer, when Nissan
showed the Z concept to analyst and reporters, the reaction was so positive that the
company decided it needed to build the car, and apparently believes that if Nissan builds
it, buyers will come. At the New York show, Nissan’s CEO sat on the stage with rows of
corn stalks to illustrate the company’s “Field of Dreams” and announce that
Nissan will in fact build a new Z. (Unfortunately, the car will not introduced at the New
York car show for another three years.) Nissan also showed the Nissan Tino production car
for public reaction. A vertical wagon, or tall wagon/minivan, the Tino hopes to take sales
away from the Opel Zafira and the Renault Scenic.

Infiniti DIVISION. Based on the new Nissan
Maxima, the new Infiniti I30 took styling cues from the Q45 and proportioned them down to
its smaller body. By re-plumbing the exhaust, Nissan claims to have found 37 more
horsepower, raising the horsepower of the VQ engine to 227, with 217 ft-lbs of torque.
Infiniti executives did not announce an introduction date for the next generation Q45, but
they did show a full-scale mockup; the styling suggests Mercedes-Benz S-Class, C-Class and
Jaguar. The new Q will again have a 4.5L engine, with something in excess of 300hp. The
next generation G20 will have “the most powerful 4-cylinder in its class” and
the choice of an automatic or 6-speed manual transmission.

Mitsubishi uncovered for the first time its
new Eclipse sporty coupe and a facelifted Montero Sport. The Eclipse is (thankfully) much
better looking than the spy photos indicated. Under the hood, the turbo four-cylinder and
the Chrysler-built non-turbo 2.0L DOHC engine have been replaced by the 3.0L V6 and 2.4L
four-cylinder from the Galant (upon which much of the car is based). The Montero Sport,
also slightly redesigned, drops the four-cylinder and stick-shift in favor of the base
3.0L V6.

Subaru showed the new Legacy GT sedan and
wagon at the New York show, having featured the Legacy-based Outback sedan and wagon
(which outsells the more basic Legacy models by huge margins in the United States) at
Detroit. While the Legacy cars are poor relations, they gain from a multi-link rear
suspension.

KIA noted that it is now the eighth largest
import franchise, with a (dual) dealer network of over 500 outlets, and was delighted when
its Sportage surprised everyone by outselling the Toyota RAV4 in January. Its entire
lineup is expected to finish the first quarter with sales in excess of 27,000 units. The
first new product from Kia will be the 2000 Sedona minivan, which will not be powered by
the Rover/Kia 2.5L V6, as announced before Kia’s sale to Hyundai, but will be powered by
the Hyundai 3.5L V6.

The next Kia introduction, for everybody
who wondered if there was room below the Sephia, will be positioned (and priced — by
$1000) below the Sephia, and will probably be an evolution of the former Ford Aspire —
powered by a Hyundai 1.5L DOHC engine.

Kia also introduced the KMS-4 concept
coupe. The carefully finished concept sported proportions not much different than the
former Lotus (now Kia) Elan roadster. The KMS-4 has seating for four, a very wide stance,
and surprising (it is a Kia, after all) good looks.

YET ANOTHER SUV. As Daewoo introduced its
three models to the New York press, the company bragged that it is the top-selling brand
in twelve countries! When asked if Daewoo would bring an SUV to this country, the Daewoo
spokesperson explained that the Korando (a two-door SUV originally designed by Ssangyong)
is being readied for introduction next year.