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Story by Robert S. Schultz

The Chicago Auto Show may not be first on the annual schedule of automotive extravaganzas. But don’t even suggest it is the “second city” of shows. In square footage alone—1.3 million—it is the largest show in North America. And though Detroit presents the majority of premieres each year, Chicago scores its share of noteworthy debuts. As a mighty winter storm pelted McCormick Place with rain, sleet, snow and the city’s trademark breezes, we visited the auto makers’ press events, among them the much-anticipated coming-out party for the Dodge Challenger.

Dodge Lays Down the Challenge

So was Dodge blowing smoke with the new Challenger after all? Yes, but not to worry. This was the special effects kind, swirling about the Dodge display just prior to the introduction of the production version of the reborn muscle car. Perhaps it was meant to evoke smoking tires and burnouts, a fitting setup. When the wrap finally came off, the Challenger SRT8 proved to be true to form. But for a few details (B-pillar, segmented taillights, grille, side reflectors), it is a faithful execution of the concept that first appeared in 2006.

Whew—sighs of relief everywhere? Not really. The outcome was hardly in doubt. The Dodge boys gave us their word on the integrity of the production model. And teaser photos have been circulating for a couple of weeks. If you’re into the reincarnation of muscle cars, the best surprise is no surprise, it seems.

Leading up to the introduction, new Chrysler Co-President and Vice Chairman Jim Press demonstrated that he’s a quick study at mastering the performance car vocabulary, a skill he didn’t need much at Toyota. He punctuated his speech with all the code words: reinventing one of America’s legendary performance machines; instant classic; legend. Kipp Owen, Director, Street and Racing Technology Engineering, pushed the right buttons, too. “The 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8 is the ultimate modern muscle car—built by gearheads for gearheads,” he said.

And just to add an extra measure of street cred, Dodge enlisted the Teutuls—Paul Sr. and Paul Jr.—of American Chopper fame. Riding onto the stage in black and silver versions, they gave the Challenger thumbs up.

Amidst all of these carefully managed non-surprises, there were at least several revelations. One was the interior, especially the dash, which we hadn’t had a really good look at in any of the teaser images. Sadly, a letdown. Large expanses of black plastic, some faux carbon fiber appliqué, and what looked like a parts bin shift knob. None of it having a very quality feel. Apparently, the Challenger’s details were locked in before the recent crash program to improve the state of interior design at Chrysler. And whatever happened to the neat metallic shifter? A car of this caliber deserves better.

The instrument cluster does incorporate one trick feature: a Performance Page readout that can clock 0-60 times, 1/4-mile times and other data in real time. Not that Challenger drivers, being the good citizens that they are, would ever think of flexing their cars’ muscles and failing to obey all posted speed limits.

And speaking of performance, there was a pleasant surprise. According to Press, the Challenger SRT8 will power its way to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, and reach the 1/4 mile in about 13 seconds. These are slightly better numbers than projected (and printed in the press guide—hmm), and place the Challenger atop its category (a category of two, for the time being). Braking, with Brembo four-piston calipers all around, is impressive for a two-ton car: 60-0 in 110 feet. Chrysler claims a 0-60-0 time of 16.5 seconds.

So it’s a horse race again. The Ford Mustang has run wild since the Camaro and Firebird disappeared into the sunset. But the Challenger is at the gate, and the revived Camaro is in full gallop toward production a year from now. Each muscle machine boasts its staunch loyalists, who’d rather be seen in Kia Rios than their arch rivals at the local drive-in on Saturday night. So there’s a built-in, though finite, market for all three. Are the new pony cars relying solely on boomer wealth and nostalgia, which eventually will run dry (just ask Harley-Davidson)? Or will they inspire a new generation of performance car enthusiasts?

One thing is certain: enjoy this latest golden age while you can. Carpe diem. With a 35 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandated by 2020, change is in the wind. CAFE diem, if you will.

VW Introduces the Touran, a Minivan By Any Other Name

Chrysler wasn’t the only manufacturer hoping to work a little nostalgic magic. VW began the introduction of its new Touran minivan by affectionately recalling VW vans of yore and making a connection with today. The Touran may haul people and stuff, but that’s where the resemblance to anything painted with a peace symbol and psychedelic colors ends. Produced in conjunction with Chrysler in Canada (a partnership formed during the Daimler Chrysler era), the Touran is like nothing else VW has ever offered in the U.S. By VW’s own admission, teaming with the van expert of all time enables it to ramp up in a market segment much quicker than going it alone.

The basic body is immediately recognizable as a Chrysler minivan, with a VW grille grafted onto the front. It’s a face only a soccer mom could love. To be fair, the Touran is handsome enough, and will likely be chosen more for its convenience and utility than its looks. Features like a power rear tail gate, pushbutton-controlled third row seat, and multi-screen DVD players are aimed squarely at the American market. The interior is thoroughly VW, with top quality design and materials. The power trains, likewise, will be VW-specific, as will the handling.

Is the Touran the right vehicle, at the wrong time? The minivan market is in decline, and the segment doesn’t lack for other choices. Yet VW’s “best of both worlds” angle, i.e., European sensibilities combined with American practicalities, may win over families who need a minivan but want to think outside the box. Just maybe this VW of minivans, especially priced at $25,000, will overcome the soccer mom stigma.

New Strategy, New Slogan

Equally as important as the Touran is the strategy behind it. VW used the Chicago press preview as the occasion to reveal its new corporate direction. An aggressive approach, it calls for sales of 800,000 VWs in the U.S. by 2018. In other words, VW wants to move beyond being a niche player to becoming a mass marketer again. It promised a broader vehicle range, spanning volume models (new compact and mid-size sedans, new CUV), emotional vehicles (GTI, Eos, New Beetle), and premium vehicles (Toureg and Passat CC).

Of course, a new corporate strategy can mean only one thing: a new ad campaign. Lately, VW has been changing ad campaigns about as often as it changes the name of the Golf, er, Rabbit. The new brand positioning will “convey the message about a friendly and accessible brand of German engineering and innovation,” according to Stefan Jacoby, President and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America. And the new advertising theme is (cue drum roll) . . . Das Auto, The Car. Where are the focus groups when you need them, ja?

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Chevrolet Traverses New Territory

If minivan sales are feeling a wind chill these days, blame the crossover. CUVs couldn’t be hotter; they’re the new must-have for every car brand. Strutting newfound marketing savvy, Chevrolet introduced its version—the 2009 Traverse—in Chicago. It’s a smartly styled vehicle, building on the resurgence of GM design seen in the Chevy Malibu.

Based on the Lambda platform (along with sibling Buick Enclave), the Traverse isn’t a small vehicle (200 in. overall length). But tightly articulated creases and folds keep everything in proportion. The kick-up of the side rear window is particularly sporty. And the pointed liftgate window is quite elegant. Headlights and taillights both curve smoothly onto the body sides, and the new signature Chevy grille shows a friendly face.

The interior also picks up on Malibu detailing, although in more angular fashion to echo the Traverse’s exterior lines. Look closely at the dash and you’ll see dual teardrop shaped pods that house the main instruments. Seem vaguely familiar? Guess if you’re going to imitate, might as well crib from the best.

The Traverse is a credible entry in what is becoming a crowded segment. Unlike some cross-dressing SUVs, it looks the part of a proper crossover, both helping to define the category and give it some needed panache.

After two days of press previews, the Chicago Auto Show opened to the public Friday, Feb. 8. It’s not Detroit. It’s not trying to be. It’s its own thing. Big. Big enough for a 1/2-mile indoor track. Big enough to hang a Corvette from the rafters and make it seem it seem like a Matchbox toy. Big enough to contain one’s passion for cars.

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Zerin Dube

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