While "experts" and "insiders" want us to believe there's only gloom and doom on the horizon, which means more conservative and dull designs and technology from the auto industry, it seems more vehicles than ever are ready to shake things up. We've just driven two, have questions about a third, and see a whole bunch more coming down the chute.
Let's start with the most impressive of the group--the Chevy Hybrid 2 Mode. Hybrid technology is definitely on the rise, but no one should be fooled into thinking this is the magic bullet. Unlike the case of the relatively low-volume (can you say ugly?) Toyota Prius, GM's strategy of using a full-size high-volume player that doesn't take a compromise ding in towing or hauling is a much more impressive and practical strategy. While taking hits for not being the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the road, the new 2 Mode system will have more growing pains as it rolls out to other vehicle platforms (for now Chevy and GMC, but later Cadillac and Hummer). Still the most impressive application of the system may be yet to come, in hybrids with more efficient and powerful diesel engines. Good electric motors and a strong I-4 or V6 diesel could make things interesting, and why not use the system on existing big diesels? Will this technology save the large SUV and keep GM from future mistakes? Of course not, but it's a good indication it's trying to stay on the right track. Now if Ford and Dodge can recover after taking their lumps, we might have a high-tech powertrain cage match on our hands before 2010.
As to our Jeep spy shot, some may think we've lost our marbles, misidentifying the SUV as a pickup, but our sources tell us Jeep is working to supply at least two foreign military contracts seeking pickup-truck-like capability from the Wrangler Unlimited chassis. The business case seems simple, but we doubt the U.S. market will ever see a Jeep pickup again. We like the heritage angle of a Jeep truck (we're always captivated by a well-kept J10 and J20 truck). But here in the real world of highly competitive markets and a steeply slumping compact and midsize truck segment (even full-sizers are hit hard right now), there's little hope of a truck like this selling more than 20,000 or 25,000 units at best. Of all manufacturers, Jeep should know just because you can build it, doesn't mean you should build it. Yet there might be a silver lining here. This is exactly the type of situation where smaller companies can step in and create more small-volume solutions for Jeep buyers who want their six-foot bed on a Rubicon Unlimited chassis. That's why we think the Jeep pickup truck is a great idea for the aftermarket, but a bad idea for the brand. Now if Jeep wants to build a 3/4-ton diesel pickup truck designed to flat-tow a trail-rig CJ or a rally-prepped Compass, we might whistle a different tune.
There's nothing forced, undersized, or artificial with the MXT. It's about as unapologetic as it gets. Expectations were sky high when we heard our test-unit International MXT was headed to the office. We knew we wouldn't have the 24-foot-long, eight-foot-high monster truck for long, so we immediately lined up a couple photographers (one in a studio, another at an off-road park) to make sure we had the shots for the story. Unfortunately, right about the time I was expecting a package with the MXT studio photography, I received this phone message: "Hello, Mark. A funny thing happened on the drive back from the MXT shoot..." Some wires had come loose inside the engine compartment and fallen into the path of the huge cooling fan, sending small pieces of hard plastic shrapnel into the radiator and throughout. By the next morning, there was a puddle of radiator fluid on the ground, and the MXT was undriveable. International was kind enough to come get the rig and fix it. A week later, our MXT was back, and we were able to get strong action photography at a local off-road park. Everywhere we drove the truck, from the heart of Hollywood to the desolate outskirts of Los Angeles, people flailed their arms, yelling questions like, "What is that?!" and "Where can I get one?!" and "How much?" Our guess is there'll be a few of these on some popular TV shows and they'll make their way into the hands of a few discriminating celebrities. The good news for us is there's a stunningly rugged truck underneath. While this is International's smallest vehicle to date, we'd still love to see the company try something even smaller, like the Ford F-450 Super Duty.
Sometimes a game-changer can be a dominating big brute that muscles everyone else out of the way. Sometimes it can be an inconspicuous addition that sends long-lasting ripples throughout an entire lineup, and even an industry. Find out more by turning the page.