Detroit — A quick trip to the Motor City last week offered a view of what’s new at two of America’s largely revitalized domestic carmakers — and some glimpses of what both Ford and Chrysler are doing to keep up that momentum.
In a few words: Sell more trucks.
Sales of pickup trucks, long the major driver for the heartland brands, are slowly coming back to pre-meltdown/gas spike levels, and both companies are opting to build on their successes. They’ve also tried to be a bit more innovative in the style and technology available for their trucks, and the results are certainly impressive.
Ford, which announced a 41 percent growth in national sales of the F-150 (not to mention a 22 percent increase in the Denver sales region alone), used its Dearborn facility as the spot to debut the new F-150 Tremor, a new take on the old-school sport truck (think the SVT Lightning).
Powered by the now ubiquitous 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine, the Tremor gets 365 horsepower and some hot looks for those more interested in drag racing than hauling sheetrock.
While we’re hoping to have a new F-150 for a real trial in Colorado, the Dearborn day did allow a chance to give the F-150’s 4x4 system (and its hill-descent control) a run on some hills and over an awful field of boulders — emerging without a scratch.
Out at Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds, we also got to see what the Ram brand is doing to diversify its lineup and continue to move more of that metal. The event offered the debut of a much-anticipated, light-duty diesel engine option — a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel (complete with modern exhaust scrubbing technology) providing 240 horsepower and a trailer-hauling, pass-blasting 420 lb.-ft. of torque, for a $2,850 premium.
For technology, Chrysler debuted a new front-wheel-drive 4x4 system with a rear axle disconnect — allowing better fuel economy, but still allowing instantaneous 4x4 power when needed — as well as a new nine-speed automatic transmission. And those who want Charger SRT-styled power under the hood of their truck will also be able to get a new 6.4-liter Hemi V8, making 410 horsepower, but programmed to deactivate half of its cylinders to save gas while cruising.
Chrysler also tossed us the keys to everything in its lineup, demonstrating the fearsome off-road power of the giant Ram trucks, the painstaking prowess of the improved Grand Cherokee (the diesel-powered version of which is coming very soon) and even a fun, Bob the Builder-styled lap or two around the test track in a massive 5500 Chassis Cab dump truck.
The Detroit trip’s major highlights also occupied the exact opposite ends of the spectrum. Ford let us drive the absolutely silent Fusion Energi, its new, full-size plug-in, gas-electric hybrid. It’s good for 21 miles in full electric mode, and seems designed a little more for people who like messing around with the apps on their smartphone (the MyFordMobile technology is a little geek-a-rific) than actually driving — though it’s a pleasant, albeit noiseless, experience. There’s also an Energi version of the CMAX, regular hybrid editions of both the Fusion and CMAX, as well as the all-electric Focus, as part of Ford’s family of automobiles.
Counter that with some long-awaited seat time in the all-new SRT Viper. On a very safe and happily deserted autocross course, I got a chance to see what the obscenely loud, low and stupid-fast 2013 Viper will do. Turns out that the 640-horsepower, 8-4-liter V10-powered supercar is about as fearsome as advertised; despite gigantic race tires and the new-for-2013 addition of stability control, I figured out that it’s not very hard to get the Viper sideways. And given that the car can do 206 miles per hour, it’s a machine best left to the pros (like driver Tommy Kendall, who took the assembled media reps on stomach-churning hot laps).
Things were a little more sedate in two other, slightly more down-to-earth models — the new Ford Fiesta (yes, they dangled a Fiesta ST racer in front of us but we didn’t get to drive it) and the new, larger Fiat 500L. The Fiesta sports an Aston Martin-inspired horizontal grille, a la the new Fusion, and will soon be available with a new, super-efficient 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine. The big Fiat is indeed more passenger-friendly than the standard model, with the Abarth’s 160-horsepower engine making for a less buzzy experience.