Chicago 2011: Darth Vader's Foil, The GS Button and the Latest Saab Story

Welcome to the we’re-almost-out-of-the-global-economic-crisis reality of the automobile industry.

Two years ago, government bailouts and bankruptcy challenged the industry’s ability to produce excellence across the globe. With General Motors and Chrysler emerging as changed entities, others had fielded setbacks of their own. Toyota’s handling of unintended acceleration claims and niggling quality issues began to topple the giant from Japan. Even Honda was caught in the recall mix, but lost ground to Nissan in a twist of interesting fate.

The game has now shifted to Ford, Hyundai and Kia. Ford’s refusal to take government loans made it stronger. The product mix in North America alone helped build some confidence in a company most analysts predicted would lose footing before GM and Chrysler stateside. Hyundai and Kia began to create automobiles consumers love – and build them on a level once enjoyed by Toyota, Nissan and Honda. Now, demand for Hyundai’s popular models created some scenarios between manufacturing sites in the USA and the Republic of Korea.

Today, the Chicago Auto Show set the stage for this new reality. As the industry returns to growth, there are still storylines being played out on the floor of McCormick Place. Here’s what went down…

VOLKSWAGEN BUILDS A CAMRY KILLER: You’ve seen the commercial: A young boy dressed up as Darth Vader trying to inflict The Force upon anything and everything around the house. His father drives up in a 2012 Volkswagen Passat as his son runs towards it – all in his Darth Vader play suit. As the child inflicts The Force upon the Passat – the remote start turns on. Good ol’ dad gave his son a startling moment he’ll never forget.

The truth is that Volkswagen’s own Force has other Empires to defeat. To be built in a brand new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the new Passat went on an Australian diet similar to the original Holden Commodore in 1978 – they took a European sedan and enlarged the width to accommodate North American consumers. The result is a large, comfortable cabin for five adults, wrapped in an inoffensive skin touting some key VW details.

Under the hood is VW’s trifecta of powerplants: the 2.5litre five-cylinder, the 3.6litre six-cylinder and the TDI. Sure, Hybrids are efficient, cleaner and now more accessible than diesel. But, wait! VW’s TDI doesn’t need extra batteries or a motor to be efficient and clean! In this market segment – this is an important point to make!

I came away from the 2012 Passat with a sense that Volkswagen has listened to what the mainstream wants in this country. Not to deflect from previous successes (Rabbit/Golf, Jetta, Scirocco, all-white Cabriolets), but in the most competitive market in this country, you need something that is different, but executed well and priced right. If the quality is superb, VW will prevail.

2012 Buick Verano

THE REBIRTH OF BUICK CONTINUES: On the first press day, I was given a very deep tour of both the Buick Regal and Verano since they are now on my radar to review. Keep in mind that these are two completely different automobiles with inputs from Opel, GM Shanghai and at the Renaissance Center. However, there are clear indications that Buick’s new design language inside and out will be ripe for its continued rebirth.

The Regal has been somewhat of an enigma. Sure, I sat in one – but I have been hankering for a drive in one. The reason is simple – it wants to be driven. Later this year, Regal buyers will have four engines to choose from: The standard ECOTEC 2.4, the turbocharged 2.0, the mild-hybrid eAssist system connected to the ECOTEC 2.4 and a dialed-in, all-bets-are-off version of the 2.0 turbo mill. The latter shows up in the GS – Buick’s version of the Opel Insignia OPC and Vauxhall Insignia VXR.

When enthusiasts heard that the GS was added to the Regal lineup, they were hoping for the Holden-Saab turbocharged 2.8litre V6 to show up underneath the hood. Instead, the 2.0litre turbo is dropped – but with 255 horses on tap, 35 more than the regular 2.0 turbo. Granted, maximum power would be awesome, but when you step inside the GS, you will be greeted with Buick’s version of James May’s favorite setting on the VXR: The GS Button. Think of it as GM’s version of the AMG or M setting – where everything on the car is tightened up ready to make a few other cars cry.

Then, there’s the Verano. Buick wanted a premium small sedan, but without having to compromise its size. It had to be that was an entry to what Buick was all about. Thinking about the past, the Verano is far from the Skyhawks of the mid-to-late 1970s. This is a premium blend for those who cannot justify buying a mere top-of-the-range smaller sedan. The Verano only gets the ECOTEC 2.4 and the 220HP Turbo 2.0, both premium motors for this class. How this will win is in the traditional Buick consumer, If they can get over the fact that the Verano is smaller and better than their old Century, joined by a huge number of young upscale families who would buy nothing but American, the Verano will be a good entry point for Buick.

2011 Saab 9-4x 3

DEBUNKING THE SAAB STORY: A business student knows that when a company has to retool itself towards a comeback, everything is affected. When a manufacturing plant shuts down for this reason, suppliers also need to retool. In the end, everyone is back to work and products will come down the line to their consumers. This is exactly what happened to Saab when it went through two transactions to find a willing buyer to get Trollhattan back on line. Under Spyker, the result is the 9-5 sedan – a fine big saloon that needs more than enough attention. It needs consumers willing to spend the money on a fine product.

Enter the Mexican-built Saab 9-4x. As its stands, this is the final GM-developed product for the newly independent Saab…or, at least, I heard it was. The 9-4x was co-developed with the Cadillac SRX as the Opel Antara was to be pulled back to the rest of the world from Saturn. GM intended the 9-4x to be as Saab as possible while sharing components with the rest of GM – Old and New. Saab’s familiar 2.8litre turbocharged V6 drives all four wheels through its XWD system. Inside are some modern and familiar Saab cues that lends itself to a nice cargo space, but some cramped space in the second row when it’s an all-adult trip.

What will make the 9-4x worth looking at is Saab’s embracing the crossover as one of their products to begin with. They could easily say “well, we inherited it from GM, so we’ll have to do…” Instead, the Saab people I spoke to were glad to be able to have another new vehicle to sell alongside the brand new 9-5, the upcoming 9-5 Kombi (wagon) and the 9-3 series. However, at its price point, it is going up against a lot of stiff competition worldwide. It will come down to not only selling it to the Saab faithful, but to new customers looking to differentiate from the norm.

On a final note: The new Saab 9-5, equipped with 2.0litre turbo engine, can run on both regular gas and E85 corn juice. I’ve been touting E85 lately despite the criticisms of lower fuel economy and the lack of fueling stations for the domestically produced alternative.

These are just few of many stories to be told over the next several posts from Chicago. Keep your eyes out on more featuring Ralph Gilles kissing a car and my first ride in a Chevrolet Volt.

All photos by Randy Stern

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