More stories related to Chicago Auto ShowKudos for Honda Truck, But Composite Bed Not for Everyone

Engineers and executives asked at the Chicago Auto Show for reaction to Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s first-ever pickup truck, Ridgeline, are almost universal in praise for Honda’s execution. And even sources for the domestic auto makers – whose pickup lineups for years have been the linchpins of overall profitability – are generous to a fault.

“It’s (Ridgeline) an excellent execution,” says one Big Three executive here. “The styling is pretty good, and it’s obviously pretty high quality.” Another says, “It’s clear they know their customer. It’s on the light side of light duty, but they’ll (Honda) do all the volume they’ve said, and probably more.”

A Chrysler Group engineer at the introduction of the company’s Dodge Ram Mega Cab here says he finds Honda’s execution faultless and admires one of Ridgeline’s key features, a plastic composite cargo bed. (See related story: Meridian: Honda Composite Box Profitable)

The composite construction has many attributes, the engineer says, but it is not a good possibility for heavy-duty pickups, which continue to gain popularity in the U.S.

“Composite is a good alternative for a light pickup,” he says. “But for heavy-duty use, where the customer really is using the box for commercial purposes, it probably would get torn up pretty quickly.”

Lion’s Share of Mega Cab Business to Be Heavy Duty

Marc Schwartz, Chrysler Group vehicle program manager-Truck Product Planning, says the all-new Dodge Ram Mega Cab introduced here is expected to appeal mainly to customers who gravitate to the heavy-duty side of the Ram pickup business.

Schwartz says Chrysler expects to sell 60,000-70,000 Mega Cabs in the first full year of production, and 75% of those will be in the Heavy Duty 2500/3500 Ram series. The remaining 25% of production will be in the Ram light-duty series, he says. (See related story: Dodge’s Mega Cab Pickup Proves Size Matters)

At least for the first year of production, however, customers will not be able to combine the Mega Cab bodystyle with the dual-rear-wheel chassis, a popular option for pickups intended for commercial use.

Midwest Likes Mercedes AWD

Mercedes-Benz USA officials say ongoing emphasis on all-wheel drive for its sedan lineup is proving popular in the Midwest, a region where it commonly snows in winter.

Mercedes claims to own 23.2% of the AWD luxury-car market in the Chicago region, a spokesman says, in what may be a preemptive strike at surging rival Audi AG, the AWD specialist that plans rapid U.S. expansion in the next several years.

Apart from its M-Class SUV, Mercedes currently offers AWD models in its C-, E- and S-Class sedans. The high-end G-Class SUV also has AWD as standard. Mercedes officials also say the R-Class crossover wagon, scheduled for U.S. launch later this year, will offer an AWD variant.

Waste Not, Want Not

One of the more intriguing “displays” at the Chicago show was at the Mercedes-Benz booth, where in an ongoing 2-day demonstration, a technician patiently assembled – by himself – two of the complicated, immensely powerful twin-turbocharged 6L SOHC V-12s used by the company’s AMG performance-tuning unit.

The stunt was staged to show every AMG vehicle’s engine is hand-assembled from start to finish by a single expert engine maker. The technician affixes to each engine a plaque carrying his name.

But Mercedes doesn’t plan to waste the fruits of the AMG engine maker’s laborious Chicago-show demonstration. A company spokesman says both V-12s will be shipped back to AMG’s facility in Germany, where each will power a new, $169,000 S65 AMG model unveiled here. One S65 AMG is promised to a customer in the Chicago region, and the other will be used as a media demonstrator.

Honda Predicts 1.25 Million in U.S.; HEVs Going Strong

John Mendel, American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s senior vice president, says sales of the recently launched Accord Hybrid are going just fine, thanks. Accord Hybrid and other new Honda hits will help propel the company to a predicted 1.25 million sales in the U.S. for 2005 – another record.

Honda is selling Accord Hybrids “as fast as we can make them,” Mendel says at Honda’s press conference here. He adds sales of Honda’s redesigned Odyssey minivan also are boiling; Odyssey sales are up 20% since last October, when the new ’05 model was launched.

And the new Ridgeline pickup, which goes on sale next month, has generated plenty of buzz from customers and dealers. “We’re confident we can hit our target of 50,000 units in the first 12 months of sales,” Mendel says.