Though the Grand Cherokee and Liberty were introduced, the biggest surprise of the show was in the Mopar Speedshop display, pictured below. This display is part of a larger effort to enhance the Mopar brand, bringing it up to the level of recognition enjoyed by TRD (Toyota Race Development) and, in the long run, to Motorcraft and Delco.
The surprise was not the display itself, which, like the Jeeps, had been anticipated for some time. Nor was it the heavily modified rally Neon (an actual rally car used in racing, not a concept) pictured above - that's a separate rally light group on the hood, by the way. It was the presence of two Plymouths. Yes, they were both from the 1970s, but they were Plymouths. Those who have been following Chrysler marketing and executive statements for the past few years will find that as astonishing as the revelation that the word "Mercedes" was never uttered or seen in the Jeep presentation or press materials, even though the V6 Grand Cherokee uses a Mercedes automatic transmission.
Pictured above/right is the Six Shooter 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, which uses an actual 'Cuda convertible's body welded to a 1998 Dodge Viper ACR chassis and engine. Built by Time Machines, Inc., of Hudson, Florida, the Vipercuda not only uses a Viper drivetrain (modified with various hopup gear including a Paxton supercharger), but actually has a Viper interior. Only the exterior is 1970 Plymouth. Note the hockey-stick graphics on the back - V-10 is printed where "HEMI" would have been. The hood is up to show the Viper V-10 powerplant. It's an interesting vehicle but we can see some vintage car lovers shuddering.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the display sits a bright red Plymouth Satellite in its GTX form.
Romeo Furio's 1972 Plymouth GTX-R is a real Plymouth GTX upgraded along the lines of the Viper GTS-R. Using a Mopar Performance 500 cubic inch short block and Stage 6 aluminum heads with Weber manifolds and fuel injection, and many suspension upgrades, this should be one very quick car.
Also on display was the Dodge Rumble Bee pickup, apparently an option package which we've heard about but still have no real details on.
The Chrysler 300 looks far better in person than in photos, despite the Iaccoca-era perfectly-straight sills. Visibility is surprisingly good from the interior, with the single problem being the same as with the 300 - a large rear pillar.
Despite cloth seats and primitive-cupholders, the base Chrysler 300 seems to outclass most vehicles in its range. The interior is indeed quite spacious, with surprisingly easy entry into the back seat - easier, indeed, than the front seat, where you must stand back a little from the door (just as you did with the 300M).
The interior appointments are elegant, with gauge pointers not quite so expensive as those on the 300M, but still conveying a sense of luxury. The fine lettering and bright chrome trim brings a fine, dignified aura without overdoing it - and that's just on the base model. The styling gets more attractive as we get more used to it - and as our expectations of cab forward fade away, and are replaced by memories of early Valiants.
Proving that the 300 is not simply a previous-generation E-Class is the front suspension, which looks remarkably similar to that of the 300M.
We noted that AutoStick is being replaced by a new electronic gearshift in both the LX series and in the Grand Cherokee. The new system does not yet have a trademarked name (lots of people will be disappointed if it is named Charger). This shifter avoids some of the awkwardness of an AutoStick by acting only temporarily; you control the gears until you reach cruising speed, or come to a stop, as it was explained to us. The idea is that you will use it when you want to override the transmission temporarily. This avoids the embarassing "oops, I left it in AutoStick" high-revving that some have experienced coming away from a stoplight. The shifter does not have different Drive and Override positions; to override, you push the shifter left or right.
As expected, Chrysler introduced the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the revised Liberty, which includes a more-differentiated Renegade model as well as a diesel option. The diesel was very quiet - quieter, in fact, than the 3.7 liter V6.
The Grand Cherokee is far more elegant from the side than it would seem in the photos, and looks better from side or back than the current model. The front still takes getting used to, though it's not so bad in 3/4 view. The chrome trim works well.
Jeep reps pointed to better off-road capabilities - the independent front suspension was designed by Jeep for Jeep (Eric Ridenour emphasized the Jeep origin of the suspension. Mercedes was never mentioned even though they supply the V6 transmission.) There has been a 10% increase in suspension travel, an improvement in articulation, and, perhaps most important, far faster reactions by the electronically controlled clutches than with the past pumps. In addition to reacting with 45 degrees of a wheel turn, the new system operates whether the accelerator is pressed or not - unlike the current pump-operated Varilock system.
Both Joe Eberhardt, speaking with a mild German accent, and Eric Ridenour expressed pride in the Jeep name and brand. They did not introduce the new models until several older vehicles, from the original Army Jeep through to the previous Grand Cherokee, had run over the dirt course. They also showed images of a number of past Jeeps on the monitor, one from an AMC brochure - with the logo still showing.
Camp Jeep is in a large area to the side of the main auto show, with an off-road course that looks quite imposing - including steep dirt hills. Smaller people will have their own miniature play area, with miniature Jeeps, while adults are driven across the track by professional drivers. This is a very nice and welcome addition - kids of a certain age will probably be bored to death by the show and will love to play here for as long as they can.
Also on display in the Jeep course are the Jeep Rescue concept and a variety of Jeep vehicles from the past, including a World War II military vehicle, bright red Jeepster roadster in fine condition, the original Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, and a brand-new condition Jeep CJ-7.
We were rather surprised by the Jeep Rescue; you really would not know it was based on the Ram unless someone had told you. It looks much more like an extended-wheelbase Wrangler. This is probably the best-styled Jeep aside from the Wrangler itself, and despite the tilted-inward grille which seems to be inevitable on current Jeeps.
The rest of the auto show was interesting as well, with GM, Ford, and Asian automakers vying for the ugliest concept cars, Bentley showing house-priced cars that resemble the 300 from the front and Jaguars from the side, the exciting new Chevy Cobalt on a rotating stand, the SSR roadster finally where you can see and touch it, and more. But if you decide to attend, be sure to take mass transit - local parking lots have raised their prices to $30 (a flat fee for five minutes to the whole day) for the duration of the show!
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