The Chicago Auto Show starts next week, and while the Second City plays second fiddle to Detroit in terms of product announcements, there's still plenty of auto news to go around.
This includes the introduction of an electric Ford Transit Connect, slated to hit the streets later this year. Now, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf have been getting most of the EV buzz, but Ford had been testing a fleet of electric Transit Connects in the United Kingdom for a while, via a partnership with a British company called Smith Electric Vehicles. And while Ford now has a new partner working on a new battery electric drivetrain for the U.S. version, you can be sure the knowledge gained during the Smith deal will be put to good use in the North American market.
The electric Transit Connect will first be available to commercial customers, with a focus on those in urban locations. The vehicle is expected to have a range of 70-80 miles and be rechargeable using both 110- and 220-volt outlets. Notably, the Transit Connect EV will have a 1,700-lb. payload, making it a perfect choice as a delivery vehicle.
Following the heels of the refreshed Lincoln MKX, introduced at the Detroit show, the Blue Oval will bring out an equally freshened Ford Edge in Chicago. Some minor facelifting has been done to make the new Edge's grille fit in better with the current Ford look, but the big story here is under the hood.
The 2011 Edge is expected to offer a 2-liter, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine that produces about the same power numbers as the vehicle's current 3.5-liter V6, but also improves fuel efficiency by 20 percent. For comparison's sake, the current Edge, only available with that V6, goes 18/25/20 on the EPA's city/highway/combined mileage rankings; the similarly sized GMC Terrain, which offers a four-cylinder engine, can achieve 22/32/26.
A 20 percent boost to the Edge's efficiency would come out to about 22/30/24, not quite up to the Terrain's level, but the Ford would also bring a serious power advantage over the GMC, even the six-cylinder model. The Edge has been a good performer for Ford, and its distinctive wide-body styling definitely sets it apart from the rest of the crossover crowd, but relatively poor mileage has had its effect on sales, making the EcoBoost engine a welcome addition to the lineup.
Jeep will be working the increased-efficiency angle at Chicago as well, but without quite the same results. The company is scheduled to introduce the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee at the show and, as the first big post-bankruptcy reveal from Chrysler, it's sure to get plenty of attention.
Early images of the Grand Cherokee show a vehicle that will certainly live up to its positioning as the most premium-level Jeep. The exterior, although a bit bland for my tastes, could be considered subtle and sophisticated by some, and the interior looks to be loaded with luxury touches. More importantly, the 2011 Grand Cherokee will continue to offer the kind of off-road capability one expects in a Jeep; in fact, two pre-production models showed up at the recent Jeep Jamboree to take on the Rubicon Trail, and from the pictures I've seen it was mission: accomplished.
But here's the problem: This could be the best, most luxurious 4X4 ever built, but you have to wonder how many sales it will find in today's marketplace. The Grand Cherokee will be getting an advanced new V6 from Chrysler, and it will be good for about an 8 percent increase in efficiency. The current-generation V6 model with all-wheel-drive goes 15/20/17, so the new one should be good for about 16/22/18; that's right about the same as an AWD Chevrolet Traverse.
It's certainly an accomplishment for Jeep to coax essentially the same fuel economy out of its Trail Rated Grand Cherokee as Chevy gets from its big soft-roader, but neither of these vehicles are likely to show up among the top-10 bestseller lists any time soon.
In addition, the Blue Oval will soon be launching the new unibody Ford Explorer, effectively moving the vehicle into the crossover ranks. The Ford won't be able to compete with the Jeep off the road, but I expect the new Explorer to leverage some of the EcoBoost good news for segment-leading fuel efficiency, and that, plus the "Explorer" name, could end up stealing some sales from the Jeep.
Another automaker hoping for a great reception in Chicago is Honda, which is slated to unveil the 2011 Honda Odyssey minivan at the show. The redesigned Odyssey has suddenly become a crucial launch for Honda, which has had its share of troubles lately. The Honda Fit was struck by a big recall, the Honda CR-Z concept unveiled at Detroit was considered a disappointment and the Honda Insight hasn't lived up to its sales expectations.
With the minivan segment expected (by me) to grow this year, and the new Toyota Sienna stuck under that company's cloud of gloom, the Odyssey has a nice window of opportunity here, especially if it retains some of the excitement around the Honda SkyDeck concept. The SkyDeck showed up at last year's Tokyo Motor Show to much acclaim, featuring a decidedly car-like silhouette '” along with front scissor doors '” in a package that offers full minivan functionality.
The door treatment will undoubtedly be left to the Lamborghinis, but if enough of the concept's other features make it into production, the vehicle could be enough to start Honda off on a new Odyssey toward success.