2010 Ram Power Wagon

For some folks, Dodge’s Power Wagon represents the Ultimate Truck.  This is a vehicle whose name is a veteran of several wars and has conquered some of the least hospitable terrain on earth, and it’s not about to let down its predecessors.  Of course, that’s just the name, and it’s gracing an all-new truck underneath.  Can the new Power Wagon live up to its legacy?

As with past versions, the Power Wagon is available only on the sturdier chassis of the heavy-duty Ram.  The Power Wagon as we know it today has existed quietly since 2005, as the toughest off-roader in Dodge’s stable.  A modified suspension, locking differentials, underbody armor and of course a winch mounted behind the front bumper all ensure that this truck is ready for serious off-road action.

It graduates to the third-generation Ram platform for 2010, and picks up a bit more distinction.  The Power Wagon is available as a Crew Cab model with a 6’4″ cargo box.  A distinctive yet tasteful graphics package brings to mind the Power Wagons of the 1970s, with a blacked-out hood and red-lined POWER WAGON lettering emblazoned on the tailgate and just under the hood scallops that set the heavy-duty Rams apart from the lesser half-ton trucks.  The integrated 12,000-pound Warn winch rides behind the front bumper, and the Power Wagon features some of the most extensive underbody armor to be found on any factory-built truck, with hefty skid plates and a metal cage protecting all of the Power Wagon’s vitals.  This is a mean truck.  It might use that winch to help yank a stuck truck out of the mud…or it might just calmly watch it die.

On the inside, the Power Wagon shares appointments with the Ram 1500, including handsome carlike soft-touch surfaces on the dash and elegant full stitching.  The seats are comfortable enough for all-day driving, and there are dozens of cubbies for gear, including under-floor storage in front of the rear seats that can stow drinks and ice.  An available backup camera in the tailgate is also helpful for negotiating tough off-road obstacles.  Don’t let the soft materials and high-tech tricks fool you, though; the Power Wagon is a serious piece of equipment.

Only one powertrain is offered:  the HEMI 5.7 liter V8.  Tweaked for 2010, the HEMI features variable valve timing, and Dodge’s engineers have improved both output and fuel economy.  In the Power Wagon, this engine produces 383 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque.  It’s backed up by a five-speed automatic transmission.  Unfortunately, the massive torque of the Cummins turbodiesel can’t be had in the Power Wagon, as the longer engine interferes with the mounting of the winch.  That’s a shame; a diesel, six-speed manual Power Wagon would be a hellacious thing indeed.  The HEMI’s instant power is well-suited to off-road duty, however.  That’s a good thing, considering the standard four-wheel drive.  Though the front and rear locking differentials are engaged electronically, the four-wheel drive is controlled by a lever rather than a push-button, reminding you that the Power Wagon is a Serious Truck in the old-school sense of the word.

On pavement, the Power Wagon rides like a truck, in a good way.  Bilstein shocks provide a compliant ride that’s stiffer than that of the standard Ram 2500.  An electronically disconnecting swaybar improves suspension articulation, reducing the body twist and toss that are common to large pickup trucks on uneven trails.  For drivers who like a truck to feel sturdy and firm, the ride is perfect; it’s not bouncy over small bumps, but there’s not a hint of float in it as well.  Off-road, this translates to a suspension that’ll keep the driver informed of what’s going on underneath, even when it’s out of sight.  Walking the Power Wagon around obstacles is easy, even with limited visibility.

Driving this truck off-road is an experience.  Where off-roaders like the Jeep Wrangler and Land Rover LR3 are all about finesse in the rough stuff, the Power Wagon is as un-subtle as it gets.  This is a punch-it-and-hang-on off-roader, bred for tackling muddy bogs and slippery hills with gusto.  A combination of grippy 32-inch BF Goodrich tires, an ultra-low 4.56 axle ratio and Bilstein shocks allow for a level of point-and-shoot hill climbing that’s unheard of in a stock Wrangler.  The Power Wagon positively churns through hostile terrain, the HEMI singing a song of unembarrassed horsepower, yet the steering remains responsive even with all three differentials locked up.  More than once, it looked like the truck would be powering into the woods with a bootfull of opposite lock dialed in, and at the last moment the Power Wagon would hook up and turn just the right way in a slow-motion four wheel drift.  This is not to say that the Power Wagon can’t “Tread Lightly,” of course.  Healthy approach and departure angles, articulation and breakover angle combined with a controllable throttle mean that it can creep with ease.  But when the situation requires power, that’s where this truck shines.

The Power Wagon is a truck that knows its purpose in the market, and it’s got nothing to do with fashion or trends.  When asked how Ford’s hot-rod off-road pickup the SVT Raptor compared to the Power Wagon, one Dodge representative said that the Raptor was a nice truck, but that the Power Wagon “will be around long after it’s gone.”  For a hard-working tough truck like this one, longevity just might be the biggest achievement of all.  Of course, that durability and toughness doesn’t come cheap:  pricing starts at $45,780.

Specifications:  All specs are for the 2010 Ram 2500 Power Wagon.
Length:  237.4 in.
Width:  79.1 in.
Height:     78.4 in.
Wheelbase:  148.9 in.
Curb weight:   6398 lb.
Towing capacity:   10,450 lb.
Payload: 2400 lb.
Base price:  $45,780
Engine:   5.7 liter OHV V8
Drivetrain:  five-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive
Horsepower:  383 @ 5600
Torque:  400 @ 4000

2010 North American International Auto Show: Part 1

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Feeling torn about the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS to its friends) in Detroit? You’re not the only one. Is the Motor City relevant these days, or not? We-ell, it’s kind of hard to say. Yes, Ford and GM still call the place home, but other manufacturers have been deserting the region like the proverbial rodents from a burning ship, and the annual auto show’s getting the same treatment. There are political factors at work, too, but at the heart of the matter all it means is that there aren’t as many cars, and that’s a sad thing. Last year’s no-shows, including Porsche, Nissan/Infiniti, Mitsubishi and Suzuki , were absent from the show floor again this year.

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Don’t consign Detroit to irrelevance just yet. Though it’s decreased in size compared to previous years, the NAIAS still carries its share of world introductions and shiny new sheet metal. Beleaguered Big Three members GM and Chrysler were somewhat subdued, but an aggressively optimistic Ford announced plans to expand its existing Michigan plants and bring new jobs to the area along with the introduction of the 2012 Focus subcompact. Mercedes, Honda and Audi also brought drama to the show floor.

Coming off of a universally dismal 2009 and following the rapidly growing Los Angeles Auto Show, Detroit’s floor was noticeably shy of brand-new concept cars, and many of the 2010 debutantes on display had already been unveiled in Los Angeles. But hey, I wasn’t in Los Angeles, so this is the first time I’ve laid eyes on many of these vehicles in the metal.

For easier reading, this event is split into four parts, of which this is #1.  #2 features new production vehicles introduced in Detroit, #3’s got new concepts introduced in Detroit, and #4 is all about production vehicles and concepts introduced elsewhere that I saw for the first time in Detroit.

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And, as an added bonus, some scribbles from the margins of my notebook:

Ford has rolled out a new infotainment system called MyFord Touch or MyLincoln Touch, depending on which vehicle it comes in.  The peanut gallery quickly renamed it “Touch My Lincoln,” and a round of jokes about explaining inappropriate touching to your car ensued.

Ford’s also doing the “global” thing again, merging platforms between its various international arms.  Of course, the brand’s done this quite a few times before, and every time it chickens out just as things are getting interesting.  Hopefully it’ll take this time.

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Kia had a strange little robot (actually, a person in a tiny robot suit).  Not entirely sure why.  It wandered the show floor for a while before making an appearance on the stand next to the new Sorento.  It was considerably less horrifying than the human-sized hamster (from Kia’s latest round of ads) at the wheel of the Soul.  Seriously:  realistic, man-sized hamsters?  Not kawaii.  Not kawaii at all.

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Mercedes gave us a thing in a glass that looked like a parfait, but was actually lamb, mashed potatoes and gravy.  That’s right, it’s lunch…in a cup!  It wasn’t as unappetizing as it sounds; quite the opposite, in fact.

Honda introduced a successor to the much-loved CR-X of a couple decades ago.  It’s named the CR-Z.  Photographer Lexie Arnold pointed out that this was probably because they couldn’t call it the CR-Y with a straight face.

Toyota politely asked the assembled journalists to be careful when taking a closer look at the FT-CH concept, whose paint was still wet!

Unintentional  Star Wars references abounded; Kia’s robot was only the start.  The Hyundai Blue-Will hybrid concept has a device called a “thermal generator,” which led to a round of “he’s holding a thermal detonator!” jokes.  And the highly artistic sculpture Mercedes unveiled to tease the styling of its future coupe lineup looks suspiciously like someone froze a CL-Class in carbonite.

BMW always manages to make its presentations so boring that I miss something exciting and don’t even realize it until after the show when looking through the press materials.  That would be why the 2011 Z4 SDrive35is isn’t in my wrap-up, and we didn’t get any pictures of it.  Feh.  Anyway, for the record it’s a sexy 335-horsepower roadster that looks good in red.

Honda spent some time interviewing random people (on video) about “the future of transportation,” which, when you talk to the visionaries, sounds like it’s going to be pretty damn horrible as I don’t really want a maglev-equipped electric car-pod that’s linked into a central mapping system and can serve me coffee while it’s taking me right where I want to go without my having to drive it at all.  I happen to like the act of driving, guys.  Your future doesn’t seem to have any room for sunny-day curvy-road drives in old convertibles, and that’s very sad.  Also, every time Orson Scott Card opens his mouth, about anything, he pisses me off.  Fascinating.

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On the Bentley stand, the large video screen showed a montage of the craftsmanship that went into the new Mulsanne sedan.  At one point, it shows a side-on view of all the wood veneers and leather samples that go into the car, but at a glance this image looks like stacks of money.  “The new Mulsanne is made of money!” photographer Andrew Duthie joked.  “We use twenty-dollar bills as sound deadening inside the door panels!”  The video also contributed more unintentional comedy when we watched it in concert with the bombastic sound effects that accompanied BMW’s press conference.

Cadillac’s XTS Platinum concept car looks like it eats people.  It looks like it would be the kind of monster that grabs you and shakes you to death, and then eats you.  Not sure what this means.

GMC introduced its show vehicle by saying it “takes GMC in a direction that it’s never gone before.”  “Like what?” I asked, considering the truck manufacturer’s history.  “Is it a car?”  As it turns out, the GMC Granite concept is basically a car.

Mercedes’ beautiful SLS AMG is officially our favorite exoticar, but careful observation shows that three out of five people who get into it cream their heads on the gullwing doors as they get out.  Be sure to exit the SLS AMG as you would a helicopter–bent at the waist until you’re clear.

NAIAS 2010 Part 2: New production cars

In no particular order, here are the new cars introduced in Detroit:
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2011 Ford Focus: The current Focus has taken a lot of flak for being a bit, well, half-assed.  With a fantastic Focus on sale in Europe, there’s been a lot of questioning Ford’s decision to keep the U.S. version on a capable but outdated platform, with an indifferent design and limited body styles.  That all changes in early 2011 when a more grown-up Focus arrives, this time shared between the United States and Europe.  Powered by a 155-horsepower 2.0 liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine hooked up to a dual-clutch six-speed transmission, the Focus features a laundry list of high-technology options including standard stability control, Active Park Assist, pushbutton start, a backup camera and the all-new MyFord driver-information system, which is a real-world version of the LCD touch-screen infotainment interface that’s been appearing on concept cars for the last five or six years.  MyFord uses cell-phone type buttons and an improved voice interface to work with Ford’s Sync system as well as a pair of configurable LCD screens to display a wide range of info.  On the performance front, understeer-reducing Dynamic Cornering Control and new electronic power steering suggest that the next Focus will build upon the fun-to-drive elements of the current car.  There’s also a full-electric version set to debut shortly after the new car’s launch.

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2011 GMC Acadia Denali: GMC also showed the production version of the high-luxury Denali version of the new Acadia crossover, which looks very much like you’d expect an “Acadia Denali” to look, if you’re familiar with the Denali versions of GMC’s Yukon and Sierra.  If you’re picturing a chrome honeycomb grille, monochrome body paneling, fender flares, mahogany wood and leather on the interior and all of the luxury options available for the Denali in one package, you’ve pretty much got it.

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2011 Buick Regal: Buick stopped selling the Regal here a while back, but you might not know that the nameplate continued to be sold in China.  For 2011, it’s coming back.  Riding a European Opel Insignia chassis, the Regal nameplate returns to the U.S. Buick lineup to bring a measure of sports-sedan performance to the rapidly evolving brand.  A choice of four-cylinder engines offers 182 or 220 horsepower and is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission.  It’s definitely more distinguished than the last Regal we saw in 2004, with a cool toothy Buick grille and a very handsome interior that does a great job of modernizing Buick’s aesthetic.   The switchgear and appointments are appropriately elegant yet approachable without obviously copycatting anyone else.   The Regal’s on sale this spring with cars like the Acura TSX and Volvo S60 in its sights.

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2011 Honda CR-Z: This two-seater is both a hybrid and a sort-of reincarnation of the legendary Honda CR-X.  There have been rumors that a CR-X successor would be a hybrid, and with the recent departure of the S2000, Honda’s taking the opportunity to merge its sporting and environmental intentions into a single vehicle.  The stubby styling reminds immediately of the original car, especially from the truncated rear aspect with its vertical glass panel in the hatch.  Up front, the CR-Z sports an impish smile, indicative perhaps of the cheerful performance promised by its 122-horsepower 1.5 liter four-cylinder with Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist hybrid-electric drive.  A choice of six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmissions will be offered when the CR-Z goes on sale this summer, slotting into the lineup below the Insight and Civic Hybrid.  Will it truly resurrect the spirit of the original CRX?  That remains to be seen.

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2010 Jeep Islander and Mountain: Jeep showed off a pair of special-edition Wranglers and a Liberty with a new Renegade package.  Tape-and-paint upgrades are rarely earth-shattering news, except of course to hard-core fans, but hey–it’s a tactic that’s worked for the Ford Mustang for many years, so why not?  The Islander gives the Wrangler a tiki-party mien, while the Mountain sports a more rugged look.  All three Jeep special editions boast additional standard equipment as well.

Just for the sake of thoroughness, Chrysler and Dodge also unveiled special editions of existing products:  the Plum Crazy Challenger, the Nitro Heat, Nitro Shock and Nitro Detonator, the PT Cruiser Couture Edition and the Walter P. Chrysler Edition Town & Country.   Got all of that?

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2011 Lincoln MKX: Lincoln’s crossover is tweaked just enough to keep it at the forefront of the growing wave of luxury crossovers.  Between the Lexus RX350, Cadillac SRX, Audi Q5 and Infiniti EX things are starting to get a little crowded,  so Lincoln’s given the MKX’ face a deeper, larger grille and arched front fenders so it stands out more.  LED taillights add flair to the rear, and the 3.7 V6 has been bumped to a surprising 305 horsepower, while still getting up to 25mpg on the freeway.  The really big news is Ford’s MyLincoln Touch infotainment system, which is standard and replaces all of the buttons associated with the Sync driver-information system with a pair of programmable touch screens.  MyLincoln Touch uses touch-sensitive screens for all radio and climate control functions, and includes an expanded version of Sync that incorporates iTunes tagging for HD radio and other features.  Standard Lincoln tech like the adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning with cross-traffic alert, AdvanceTrac stability control and a keyless start are also a part of the new MKX.

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2010 Mercedes S400 Hybrid and ML450 Hybrid: After several years of teasing and hinting, Mercedes’ luxury hybrids are finally ready to meet Lexus on the road.  The S400 Hybrid looks just like the conventional “Esser,” but is powered by a V6 and electric motor combo that bumps fuel economy to 19/26.  The ML450 Hybrid gets a 3.5 liter gasoline engine paired with two electric motors for a total of 335 horsepower and a reported 46% improvement in fuel economy compared to the V8-powered ML550.  Both are packed with the usual raft of Mercedes goodies, and both are on sale.

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2010 Mercedes E-Class convertible: Much more interesting than the new hybrids was Mercedes’ E-Class convertible, which arrives to complete the new E-Class lineup.  This car’s arguably the star of the high-tech, full-size luxury range, offering all of the high-tech driving aids and taking it all a step further.  Not only does the new E-Class convertible allow the sun to shine in when its soft-top is dropped, but the January introduction was fitting as well.  The E-Class convertible might well be the world’s first all-season convertible; Mercedes’ AIRSCARF shoulder- warming system is combined with AIRCAP, a power-operated wind-deflecting panel that raises to all but eliminate cabin wind buffeting at speed.  With these two devices in place, cruising comfortably with the top down in thirty-degree weather is possible, should one be so inclined.  I’ll certainly give it a try.

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2011 Bentley Mulsanne: Bentley’s new flagship sedan is the massive Mulsanne, which elegantly meshes classic Bentley styling cues with modern muscle.  The good news is that the tactile experience is more of the same from Bentley, only handsomer.  Chrome, leather (in one of twenty-four hides) sumptuous carpet (you can choose from twenty-one different colors) and light-colored wood trim (there’s a choice of nine veneers) slather the interior, and closing the door shuts out the outside world with shocking effectiveness.  High doorsills are set off by an elegant (it’s hard not to overuse that word with this car) fender crease that runs from front to rear, making the Mulsanne imposing but not as off-putting as a Rolls-Royce, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending.  Performance hasn’t been neglected, either; the hand-built twin-turbo V8 engine has been lightened and puts out 505 horsepower, the better to move this massive sedan with authority.  The Mulsanne goes on sale this fall.  The price of entry?  $285,000.

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2011 Cadillac CTS-V coupe: Cadillac’s new CTS coupe has spawned a high-powered V version, the better to bring sharp angles and American muscle to the luxury sport coupe market currently dominated by the BMW M3 and Audi RS.  You’ve got to admit that a supercharged 6.2 liter V8 pushing out 556 horsepower is cool.  Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control is augmented by an even wider track than the CTS-V sedan and Brembo brakes riding under 19-inch wheels.  Visual distinction is conferred by larger air intakes and a chromy grille up front, by touchpads replacing traditional door handles and by LED light pipes in the taillights.  When will this beast hit the road?  Early this summer.

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2011 Audi A8: Audi’s redesigned range-topper made its public debut in Detroit.  Touted as the “sportiest sedan in the luxury class,” the new A8 features an evolutionary styling upgrade that smoothes the sharp edges and is available with LED headlights.  The new body is aluminum-intensive, so it’s carrying less bulk than it appears to, and that will no doubt improve the economy of the new diesel-powered 4.2TDI model.  A new eight-speed Tiptronic transmission gets the power to the road, and the A8’s reputation as a technobarge is safe thanks to a radical touch-screen interface for the MMI system, an adaptive air suspension, more intelligent adaptive cruise control, night vision, Audi Lane Assist and a camera that can read speed limit signs and display the posted limit for the driver.

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2011 Kia Sorento: “It’s so amazing, it traveled from the future to go on sale now!” Kia’s enthusiastic pitchman crowed about the 2011 Sorento in a cheerfully silly, high-energy press conference that wasn’t shy about poking fun at the dry delivery of many of the other execs on hand.  The new Sorento features burlier styling and will also debut Kia’s new UVO system.  UVO is shorthand for “Your Voice,” and was developed by Microsoft just like Ford’s Sync infotainment system.  Like Sync, UVO offers voice recognition, Bluetooth connectivity, HD radio and Sirius satellite radio as well as a gigabyte of internal music storage capability.  Kia says that UVO also goes Sync one better with individual voice recognition that can be trained to understand its owner.  The Sorento will also be available with a backup camera and a sub-$20,000 starting price when it debuts shortly.

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2012 Chevrolet Spark: Small is the new big, and as the Chevrolet Aveo grows for its next generation, it leaves a gap at the bottom of the lineup.  Enter the Spark.  This adorably stumpy little five-door will show up in a couple of years, but so far Chevy has been quiet on the details.

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2010 Volvo C30: Volvo’s adorable C30 coupe gets a facelift for 2010, with a more distinctive and assertive face and a revised tail.  The basic chopped-off silhouette stays the same, but the C30 looks higher-class, with deeper detailing.  A revised optional sport suspension with sharper reflexes is also available.