Sunday, November 27, 2005

What's on the way - Chrysler

In the past few days, we've taken a look at the steps being taken (i.e. new product) that the domestic manufacturers are going to put on the market in the next year. These are important products, of which their success will help decide how much buffer that the makers will have to deal with their legacy costs (healthcare as well as huge pension liabilities). Also, every successful product helps add revenue that can then be invested into further great and desirable cars and trucks.

We started out with GM, which has quite a product salvo on the way in 2006. We followed this with Ford, which does not have quite the plethora of product on the way over the next 12 months - though they are coming off of a product blitz was taken mainly in 2005.

Now, we are going to take a look at the remaining member of the 'Big 3', though some now consider DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group as a foreign manufacturer, their legacy issues are similar enough to Ford and GM to be counted with them.

Chrysler Group is arguably in the best shape of the 3 - they also are slated to have one of the most impressive, both in number and excitement/buzz-worthy-ness sets of launches in 2006. Let's take a look:

If you've already read my GM and Ford then you might already know what I'm about to say...yep, Chrysler Group has some new truck based and car based SUV's on the way. Also, there are, more than from their cross-town rivals, some cars due as well.

2007 Dodge NitroFirst of all, are some new variants of current SUV's. Dodge will be flying in the face of previous Chrysler convention and will be getting a version of a Jeep vehicle. Based on the Jeep Liberty, only stretched in this iteration, is the Dodge Nitro. This vehicle gets the same powertrain choices as the Jeep with the obvious exception of the CRD Diesel that the Liberty gets. This is a good addition for Dodge, as they have only had the Durango for quite some time in a market where some brands have almost half a dozen SUV offerings. Also, expect a hybrid version of the Durango this year as well. Both of these should arrive in the fall.

Since we're discussion is worthwhile to mention that Dodge is not only getting a variant of another brand's SUV, they are also donating their Durango chassis to Chrysler for use in the new Chrysler Aspen. Expect this vehicle to debut in the summer with unique styling as well as an upgraded and more luxurious interior.

That isn't the only news for the Durango as rumor has it that the 6.1l hemi will get dropped into the vehicle this fall in a Durango SRT-8.

That would be plenty of SUV news to keep Chrysler's buzz buzzing, but that's not all. Over at Jeep, there is a rumored addition of a Commander SRT-8 with the 6.1l hemi in the fall. Also, the new Wrangler is expected to go on sale sometime during the next year. That most Jeep-like of Jeeps would be big news, but that's not all. For the first time ever, the Wrangler will be available in 2 body-styles. The traditional 2-door we all know and love, but also a 4-door. This seems to make the Liberty redundant, but with Jeep's recent decision that not everything they build needs to be 'trail rated', they may be planning to make the Liberty more of an on-road SUV and make the 4-door Wrangler take the spiritual place of the old Jeep Cherokee and go head-to-head with the other hard-off-roaders like the Nissan XTerra and the upcoming Toyota FJ Cruiser.

That's not all the Jeep news, but we'll get back to that in a minute.

A slightly harder to believe rumor is that SRT may be working their magic again on the Ram pickup, only this time providing us with a cheaper alternative to the Viper-powered SRT-10 Ram...this time with the 6.1l Hemi in an SRT-8 Ram. Expect this one in the spring and maybe with a non-SRT badge.

Chrysler Airflite conceptThe big news outside the truck/SUV side of the Chrysler Group house is in both the small and mid-sized cars - which have been fairly invisible in the marketplace as of late. Chrysler and Dodge will be getting brand-new mid-sized cars to compete against the Chevy Malibu, Pontiac G6, Saturn Aura, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. Dodge Avenger conceptThe Dodge version should bring back the Avenger nameplate while the Chrysler may keep the Sebring name (though with Chrysler's recent trend to bring back classic names - may be a different name altogether). Styling on these should be something similar to the Chrysler Airflite and Dodge Avenger concepts (shown). Interestingly, these cars are based on a new platform co-developed with former partner Mitsubishi. This is a highly flexible chassis - as will become clear below.

The real news at Chrysler Group is also on this Mitsubishi/Chrysler chassis. This platform is not only used for mid-sized vehicles like the ones we just talked about, but also works very well for smaller vehicles as well. Mitsu will be using this for the next Lancer, Evo 10, and the Outlander small cross-over SUV.

Dodge CaliberDodge will get a couple small entries on this chassis to replace the Neon and SRT-4. The first example of this is the upcoming Dodge Caliber that will bow in the spring. Basically a small front-drive, four-cylinder, cross-over/wagon in the vein of the Pontiac Vibe. This vehicle will be powered by the new family of 4-cylinder engines that Chrysler has co-developed with Mitsubishi and Hyundai in 2.0l and 2.4l variants.

In the fall, expect a 2.4l turbo version of the Caliber, likely called either the SRT-4 or the SRT-4 Caliber, perhaps with all-wheel drive, to replace the previous SRT-4 based on the Neon. Expect a more refined high-po small-car than the last SRT-4 (for good or bad) and aggressive styling and a hood scoop like the rest of the Dodge SRT line.

Now, remember how I mentioned earlier that we weren't done with Jeep news? Also remember how I mentioned that Jeep was no longer committed to trail-rated Jeeps across the line? Well, if this makes you cringe, you may want to move on to some other site...

Jeep Patriot conceptIn the fall, Jeep will release two different versions of this new co-developed chassis - one for more traditional Jeep fans, and one to bring others into the fold. On the traditional front, is the Jeep Patriot. This is a traditionally styled Jeep that looks quite a bit like a 7/8ths scale Jeep Cherokee. Expect this one to be trail-rated with very Jeep like interior styling and off-road manners.

Jeep Compass Rallye conceptOn the other hand is a version of this same chassis that will make Jeep traditionalists cry, cuss, and whatever else folks do when they think the world is coming to an end. The Jeep Compass is a lower riding cross-over, possibly available in front-drive in addition to all-wheel drive, and aimed at attracting a new breed of 'urban' Jeep buyers who don't care if their Jeep can tackle the Rubicon. The concept was called the Compass Rallaye and is aimed at the Rally racing fans. Expect the production version to be a bit less low-riding, but a sport model might look quite a bit like this.

Well, that brings to an end our 2006 preview of what the 'Big 3' have up their sleeves. It's shaping up to be a busy year and will hopefully buy all of the companies time to get their legacy issues behind them.

Next up...the Asian manufacturers.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What's on the way - Ford

Previously, we took a look at what GM has coming in the next year and how, hopefully, it will buy GM enough time with great product for them to get their problems solved with healthcare and a shaky supply chain (can you say Delphi?).

Unfortunately, GM isn't the only company with these sorts of problems. Ford is on equally awful footing with problems with their Visteon supplier spin-off as well as their own legacy costs with healthcare coverage for their workers and pension liabilities.

The best way out of this problem is with great product. What does Ford have coming that might help them out of their mess?

Like GM, Ford is focusing mainly on their SUV business - logically so given the high margins that they make on that part of the market. Recently, the new F-150 and later the Lincoln Mark LT (basically a dressed-up F-150 Supercrew) were unveiled. In 2006, this new platform will filter into the full-sized SUV market with an all-new Expedition as well as a Suburban competitor and Excursion replacement possibly called the Ford Everest. Also, Lincoln will get an all-new Navigator on this chassis as well.

Expect a high-output 5.4l V-8, independent rear suspension, and interiors showing Ford's new focus on high-quality and attractive environments as key features of these beasts.

Additionally, Ford will replace the F-250/350 vehicles with versions based on the brand new chassis that debuted under the F-150 in 2004. Styling is expected to be even more in-your-face, in the vein of the Ford Tonka show truck from a few years back. Also, in keeping with Ford's interior plans, expect much higher levels of fit, finish, and quality.

Expect all these full-sized trucks and SUV's to go on sale late in 2006.

After a one year hiatus, Ford will be re-introducing the Explorer Sport Trac in the spring. Based on the recently revised Explorer the Sport Trac will also, for the first time, be available with the same 4.6l V-8 also available in the Explorer. Styling, as before, is inspired from its Explorer big-brother - even down to the faux VW Jetta chrome grill that extends down into the bumper.

Just like GM, Ford is also planning a salvo of mid-sized, crossover SUV's. These will share a chassis with Ford's current favorite platform - that of the Mazda 6. Ford will get a version tentatively called 'Edge', with styling similar to that of the new Ford Fusion, and Lincoln will get a version that they plan to call Aviator... Yes, I know. Lincoln already sells a version of the Ford Explorer/ Mercury Mountaineer that they call Aviator. However, sales have not been as robust as Ford had hoped. They will be discontinuing the current Aviator and replacing it with this car-based, more luxurious and car-like SUV. Lincoln hopes to compete better with the Cadillac SRX and Lexus RX series with this crossover.

Before you think that Ford is even more truck-centric than GM during their 2006 roll-outs...there is a little flash to be expected as well.

In the summer of 2006, expect SVT, Ford's performance arm, to release the supercharged version of the Ford Mustang - the Shelby GT500. Styling is quite similar to the Mustang GT concept car that previewed the Mustang, showing that Ford got the message with the highly positive reaction to the concept car. The GT500 was announced early in 2005 as a concept car (pictured) called the Ford Shelby Cobra GT500 - an obvious mouth-full and Ford has seen fit to drop the 'Cobra' part of the name, but will keep the Cobra, snake-head badges inside and out if not the Cobra name.

With a supercharged 5.4l V-8 similar in design to that in the Ford GT supercar, the GT500 is expected to pack over 450hp and challenge Corvettes and Vipers in performance - unfortunately for Corvette money (over $40k, at least). Expect this to feed the major car magazine comparison test industry for several months during the middle of the year.

One brand hasn't been mentioned up to this point. Mercury. Unfortunately, after a fairly steady stream of product (though mostly mildly restyled Fords) Mercury will be receiving no new product in 2006 - or at least that is how it looks right now. Maybe we'll get a surprise.

This doesn't look like as exciting a year for Ford as 2006 will be for GM, but that is tempered by the fact that Ford did release quite a few new products in 2005. Hopefully this will be enough to keep their momentum.

Next up...Chrysler group...

Thursday, November 24, 2005

What's on the way - GM

It's really no secret that GM, the industry's current favorite whipping boy, Ford, and to a much lesser extent Chrysler are at all time lows for market share. They have nasty labor problems ranging from awful healthcare and pension liabilities that account for as much as $1500 per car.

GM has announced the closing or scaling down of many plants. Delphi's recent bankruptcy has GM scared to death of a UAW strike or other disruption of their supply of parts. Ford has been forced to bring back in large chunks of Visteon and I'm sure that they are worried about their supply chain as well.

At this stage, however, no amount of cuts is going to repair this situation. The only thing that will be able to best buy the time needed to re-negotiate contracts and deal with the other structural problems is great product with exceptional quality and an outstanding buying experience.

It has started to become clear from recent JD Power and other quality surveys that the quality divide has all but disappeared. Since we don't know much about future plans to reform or nudge the dealer body toward better buying experiences we can only hope that they are working on that end. That leaves us with great product.

GM, in an effort to nudge the public perception in the positive direction, have given some hints of products that we'll be seeing in the next year or so. Some time ago, GM even brought much of the first-tier press (of which, unfortunately, I am not) together to see the upcoming product.

Here are some of the things we know are on the way:

Cadillac Escalade interiorGMT 900 - These are the next generation of big SUVs and trucks that GM builds. This includes the Chevrolet Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, and Avalanche; GMC Sierra, Yukon, Yukon XL, and Denali; and the Cadillac Escalade, Escalade ESV, and the Escalade EXT. They have shown publicly the Tahoe, Yukon, Denali, and the Escalade. Of note are much higher levels of fit and finish, incredibly high quality interiors, a completely unique interior for the Cadillac version (finally) as well as promises of class leading power _and_ fuel economy. Also, these should be some of the first vehicles to feature GM's new full-hybrid technology, improving economy even further (and possibly insulating them even more from fuel price increases). These look like they could - if fuel prices stay at current levels - really improve GM's bottom line and buy them time to invest in other products.

Expect the Tahoe, Yukon and Denali, as well as the Escalade in the first quarter of 2006 as 2007 models. Suburban and Avalanche, Yukon XL, and Escalade EXT and ESV should appear before summer 2006. The Silverado and Sierra should be out in the fall as 2008 models.

However much GM counts on them, they are not putting all their eggs in the full-sized truck basket. They, admittedly, are a late convert to the cross-over market with practically no great entries to speak of (Saturn VUE, Chevy Equinox, Pontiac Torrent all on the Theta chassis; Buick Rendezvous and the late Pontiac Aztek on the mini-van U-platform; and the Pontiac Vibe on the Toyota Corolla/Matrix platform). They are promising to roll out truly competitive entries into this new, hot end of the market.

Buick Centieme conceptLambda - After years of work, the chassis that will bring with it the replacement for the Buick Rendezvous is ready to go in 2006. This time, they are expected to be much more than simply redone mini-vans with faux truck styling. Expected in mid-to-late 2006 are the Buick Enclave - expected to share lots of styling details with the Centieme concept from 2003 (shown); the GMC Acadia and the Saturn Outlook. All are expected to feature 3-row seating, modern and efficient powertrains including the possible use of the 6-speed automatic GM has been co-developing with Ford. Also expect these to have class-leading interiors and styling much better than what has been expected from GM in days gone by. Expect the Outlook and Acadia in 4Q 2006 as 2007 models and the Enclave in early 2007 as a 2008.

Now, we've covered the SUV side of the spectrum where it appears that GM is finally shoring up dated product and finally arriving at the party in markets they didn't really compete in before. Now, what else do they have up their sleeves?

Saturn AuraGM has a world class mid-sized sedan chassis in the form of the Epsilon. Currently its best form is taken by the Saab 9-3 sports sedan and SportCombi (a wagon by any other name). On the mainstream side - we got the Chevy Malibu. What would you say to a 250hp, 6-speed automatic, painfully stylish sedan straight out of the Opel styling studio? Now, picture a no-haggle price and friendly dealer body...yep...this baby's coming to us from our friends at...are you sitting down?...Saturn.

Hitting the market in mid-2006, the Saturn Aura will bring all the great promise of the Epsilon chassis with sporty handling, great styling (inside and out), as well as GM's wonderful 3.6l DOHC V-6 that currently is only found in Cadillacs and high-end Buicks. This one, in 4-cylinder as well as v-6 flavors could finally be the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord competitors that the Big-3 have, to date, been unwilling to build.

Well, that is all fine and good. But how much buzz can you really generate in the market with cross-over SUV's and matter how good they might be? It would be nice if GM had products that might get people to sit up and take notice.

What they really need is a stylish, inexpensive to build, rear-drive, sports car. How about 2? GM didn't have any chassis that would work for this class of car before Kappa. This chassis was developed purely at the request of Bob Lutz, GM's global product czar. He wanted an inexpensive, splashy sports car to get people to see GM's actual engineering ability.

Saturn Sky
In September of this year, Pontiac brought out the Solstice roadster (still ramping up to full production). In 1Q of 2006, Saturn will bring us the Sky roadster. Significant is that these cars have completely unique bodywork and interiors. The Solstice is built to hit a $20k starting price. Sky is built to be more up-market and, as such, has a much richer interior and more modern styling. Expect in fall of 2006 for Solstice and Sky to also get turbo power with as much as 240hp. These promise to get people and the media's attention.

2006 looks to be an exciting year for GM. These are only the new products. Rumors abound of GM upgrading interiors, etc on other models during 2006 as well.

Obviously, GM is racing with the clock to get their house in order before all their liabilities catch up. I, for one, am hoping they win that race.

Next up, Ford's 2006 plans...

Update - during my research for my Ford post, I found a few other significant releases from GM for 2006. Cadillac will be bringing us a brand new CTS with more elegant styling inside and out in the fall. SRX will get a new, upgraded interior, and the XLR-v supercharged roadster will also debut; Saturn will be launching a mild-hybrid (10% fuel economy improvement) version of the VUE in a new sub-brand called 'Green Line' (get it? Red Line is performance, Green Line is eco-friendly); and Pontiac should finally be bringing to market the G6 convertible, with retractible hard-top. All-in-all, still an exciting year for GM.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Woo hoo! First look at the Dodge Challenger (concept) has a great pair of spy photos of the Dodge Challenger concept car during what appears to be a photo shoot. Take a look here.

Dodge has also put out a sketch of the car in preparation for its autoshow debut either at LA or Detroit.

This is the first peak at Dodge's answer to the new Mustang. The car is expected to be based on the next generation of rear-wheel drive cars from Chrysler (the LY chassis) that will also serve as the basis for the next Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger and Magnum. Unfortunately, this also means that this car won't appear in showrooms until 2008 at the earliest as a 2009 model.

However, just imagine this car with a 6.1 Hemi in SRT trim. Ooooo, I want one!

GM to close several plants

It looks like GM is finally doing some things to get its North American over-capacity under control. This plan is expected to save GM $7 billion by the end of 2006. The plan includes closing several final assembly plants as well as several parts manufacturing plants.

Say what you will, but a significant portion of GM's (as well as Chrysler's and Ford's) production (and subsequent incentives) is driven, not by demand in the market, but by a financial need to keep the UAW workers working rather than paying a large portion of their salaries even if a plant is idle. It is cheaper to put thousands in incentives on the product than to idle the workers and get no revenue for their pay.

Closing some plants permanently is going to be quite painful both to the workers, salaried and union, but with current moves to make plants more flexible (able to build more than one model or platform, and make it much easier to keep plants at 100% of their capacity) - this should ultimately be a good thing for GM and definitely for the future of the remaining plants, workers, and the company.

The plants that are closing, what they currently build, and when they are scheduled to shut their doors per this plan are:

  • Oklahoma City. 7-seat versions of Buick Rainier, Chevy Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, and Isuzu Ascender. It will close in early 2006. Production will likely shift to Moraine, Ohio - which currently builds the 5-seat variants.
  • Lansing Craft Centre in Lansing, Mich. Chevy SSR. It will close in mid-2006. This may spell the end for the hot-rod, retro, convertible pickup.
  • The Doraville, Ga. Buick Terraza, Chevy Uplander, Pontiac Montana SV6, and Saturn Relay. It will close in 2008. Production is expected to shift to a plant currently under construction in Delta Township, outside Lansing, MI.
  • The Oshawa, Ontario, car plant No. 2 will close in 2008. It builds the Buick LaCrosse and Pontiac Grand Prix. Replacements for these cars will likely be build in Oshawa plant #1 or another GM plant.

GM will close these stamping and powertrain plants:

  • The Lansing, Mich., stamping plant will be closed in 2006.
  • The Pittsburgh stamping plant will be closed in 2007.
  • The St. Catharines, Ontario, Street West powertrain parts plant will be closed in 2008.
  • The Flint North plant in Flint, Mich., which builds the 3.8-liter V-6 engine, will close in 2008.

GM also will reduce production at these facilities:

  • Line No. 1 of the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., will be shut down at the end of next year. This line builds the Saturn ION, its replacement will be build alongside the Chevy Cobalt at the Lordstown, Ohio plant.
  • The third shift at the Oshawa, Ontario, car plant No. 1 will be dropped in the middle of next year. This plant builds the Chevy Impala and Monte Carlo.
  • The third shift at the Moraine, Ohio, truck plant will be cut in 2006. Moraine builds the Buick Rainier, Chevy Trailblazer, GMC Envoy, Isuzu Ascender (once production ends in Oklahoma City, and the Saab 9-7.

Good luck GM. Let's hope your upcoming product makes this the last time you need to scale back like this.