The 104th New York Auto Show
The New York Auto Show isn't known for world debuts of significant vehicles since it occurs so late in the year. Yet because it's in New York, it still garners its share of attention from the automakers and usually features the world debut of several styling exercises as well as new production vehicles. For sport truck enthusiasts, the offerings were limited to a few new SUVs.

New Saab 9-7X High-Performance Midsize SUV
Based on GM's Chevy Trailblazer/GMC Envoy, the new 9-7X is Saab's response to nearly a third of its customer base leaving the brand to buy an SUV. And clearly those buyers are looking at high-performance midsize SUVs because instead of re-popping another derivative traditional SUV, the company shunned the rugged off-road images and went for street-oriented performance with sports car-like refinement.

The exterior stands a little lower and sleeker than its GM counterpart, is cladding-free, and doesn't have the overhang and visual weight in the bumpers of its sibling SUVs. The 18-inch alloy wheels, blacked out D-pillars, and smooth one-piece front further the sporting image of this machine

Saab says its 9-7X is designed to be a driver's vehicle with great dynamic road manners and a comfortable, well-controlled ride. To achieve this, Saab 9-7X engineers put their tune on the Trailblazer/ Envoy chassis' double A-arm front suspension with front coil springs and five-link electronically controlled rear air suspension. The Saab 9-7X uses firm front and rear spring rates, a low ride height, a large front stabilizer bar, and stiff upper control arm bushings in the rear to control body roll. The road-tuned suspension and grippy Dunlop P255/55R18 all-season radials should deliver above-average cornering-handling capability.

According to the specs, the Saab designers even stiffened the front section of the frame and used stiffer steering rack mounts and other tuning techniques to enhance the steering feel, response, and precision of the quick 18.5:1 steering gear ratio box. In addition, the 9-7X gets big 12.8-inch ventilated rotors and aluminum calipers (front dual-piston) ABS brakes. Match the presumably good suspension with an advanced all-wheel-drive (AWD) system and the 9-7X looks to us to be a great all-weather road rocket.

The 9-7X is set to go on sale in the U.S. in early 2005, with an estimated price between mid-$30,000 to mid-$40,000. We'll bring you more on this hot-rod SUV soon.

'05 Ford Escape Hybrid Gets 38 mpg in Manhattan Traffic
The '05 Ford Escape Hybrid made its official debut after being driven nonstop for 37 hours as part of an extreme driving test throughout Manhattan. And get this: Even through the congestion of morning and evening rush hours, the all-new '05 Ford Escape Hybrid traveled an amazing 576 miles on a single tank of gas. That put, according to Ford, the Escape Hybrids average more than 38 miles per gallon. Just think of that when you're filling up at the pump. On second thought, don't; it'll just hurt too much.

'05 Jeep Grand Cherokee Gets Optional Hemi V-8
Jeep recently introduced its all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee. This is only the second complete redesign of the model first introduced in 1993 by Chrysler. The last redesign was in the '99 model year, and since then, the luxury SUV category has been refined by competitors such as Lexus, Cadillac, and Hummer, which puts the Grand Cherokee at a severe disadvantage. Since the Grand Cherokee is the top truck of the Jeep brand, the company needed a new model to remain competitive.

In the '99 redesign, the signature vertical bars of the Jeep grille were angled, which softened the off-road tough image. Now, that softened image is reversed and the square-shouldered seven-slot Jeep front grille is back. On the Limited, the bars are chrome-plated; with the Laredo you get paint. The designers have also departed from the simple round headlights usually associated with Jeep, but still use arcs to form a modern upgrade that works well with the strong vertical element of the new front grille.

Also significant is the longer hood of the new Grand Cherokee. The choice gives the Jeep a more powerful presence that the company is hinting it'll back up with an optional 5.7L Hemi V-8.

In addition to the optional Hemi, we applaud the designers' choice to lose the plastic cladding. The look is now cleaner, with a crisp edge to the styling that conveys the vehicle's purpose and capability but with a sense of refinement; a blacksmith in a sport coat perhaps.

Regarding interior design, to its credit, Jeep decided not to include a third-row seat; that would reduce the capability of the Grand Cherokee, a move that would tarnish the rig's image with its core buyers. The company did, however, make every effort to increase the comfort and control of the driver and passengers as well as their enjoyment of the cockpit.

The new Jeep features a new 4x4 system, the Quadra-Drive II, and more European-influenced seat designs. We take that to mean firmer seats with more side support, an element we're looking forward to testing along with the Hemi.

'05 Jeep Liberty Renegade World Debut of First Diesel midsize SUV
For '05, the Jeep Liberty gets its exterior freshened and a refined interior, and is the first diesel in the U.S. and Canadian midsize SUV segment. The new engine will provide increased torque, power, and range.

The 2.8L common-rail diesel (CRD) engine is rated at an estimated 160 hp at 3,800 rpm and with 295 lb-ft at 1,800 rpm, which should provide excellent performance and towing capability. Diesel engines are becoming more attractive to today's light-truck buyer because they offer increased torque, towing, and range, while improving fuel economy an average of 25 percent and reducing CO2 emissions by an average of 20 percent. Jeep says the diesel engine will be available on both Sport and Limited models.

The Jeep Liberty Renegade features a new flatter hood, taller grille, off-road foglamps, taillamp guards, rock rails, and four skidplates, and is available with wide, aggressive 16-inch all-terrain tires. An overhead light bar and a GPS-DVD navigation radio are also available.

New Truck Review '04 Saturn VUE Red Line
A 250hp, 242-lb-ft, Five-passenger AWD Sport TruckReaction Time
Likes: monster grip in the corners on wet, dry, or crumbling pavement; balanced handling, great road feel, good brakes; fun balance of performance and fuel economy; roomy with sporting interior styling; comfortable seats with firm side support; generally not fans of green, but this color works on the VUE Red Line
Dislikes: plastic interior trim

Compared with a fullsize pickup, this '04 Saturn VUE Red Line midsize ute test unit feels like a Miata. It's tossable, catchable, and very well-balanced. You can hang it out past the limits of the tire's grip and it still behaves with no unexpected moves. And it's got enough power to make it fun to drive. Even on our test loop, a twisting two-lane that jumps to 7,000-feet in less than 10 miles, it had enough power reserve to accelerate adequately in the thin air. The VUE Red Line's 0-60-mph time of 8.2 seconds doesn't classify it as a road rocket, but it's still quick enough to move through traffic with confidence.

The tuners at Saturn put together a great package with grippy tires backed with shock rates, spring rates, and roll bar rates tuned to provide terrific control over most roads and speeds you're likely to encounter or generate on the street. We were impressed by how well the suspension package controlled body motion and roll rates, even when we threw it through a set of serious switch backs, but was still compliant enough to keep the tires stuck on the road in a variety of road surfaces and speeds. The spring rates and rear weight bias give a very good ride. We appreciated how it swallows expansion chamber chop with near sedan-like ride quality on California freeways. It's very good for a sport-tuned suspension.

The steering wheel features thumb detents and good-quality leather with interesting stitching. The rim is a substantial size, letting your hand feel the sensitive and precise steering. A good amount of vibration comes through, letting you know what the tires are doing. Though we concede that some of the steering sensitivity comes at the cost of a higher level of road noise.

The VUE Red Line's AWD system gives this SUV amazing grip. In loose, off-camber, switch-back turns that usually gets inside wheels of even good LSDs spinning wildly, this driveline grabbed the traction up front and to the outside and squirted off the corner. It didn't have to delay picking up the throttle at all.

This test unit's brakes were surprisingly good. Our test loop runs up and down a series of switch backs with one of the steepest climbs in the lower 48. It's a good loop to push brakes to the limit. We had to really drive hard into the corners, late-braking on the downhill portion of the loop to get the brakes to fade.

The only nits we have to pick with the VUE Red Line is the quality of the plastic interior trim; not the overall design, but the materials choice. The layout and styling elements of the dash and interior space is smart, efficient, and fun. It's just the plastic looks too much like, well, plastic. Other than that, we have a high opinion of the unit. It surprised us with good performance, fun style, and lots of attention on the road. The VUE Red Line should be top on the list for a snowboarder or other action-sports hero without the wallet for an X5 or SRX.

Year/make/model: '04 Saturn VUE Red Line V-6 AWD
Base price: $24,055 (not including DFCof $575 or Red Line package)
Price as tested: N/A
Vehicle type: midsize, 4-door sport utility; front-engine, transverse-mount, front-wheel-drive, and all-wheel-drive versions Construction: body frame integral
Engine: 3.5L V-6 (L66) aluminum block and heads; DOHC with 4 valves per cylinder
Horsepower: 250 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 242 @ 4,500 rpm
Fuel: reg.
Transmission: MJ8 (AWD) 5-speed electronic automatic
Suspension: F: independent, strut-type with coil springs, antiroll bar. R: independent, trailing arm with three lateral locating links, antiroll bar and coil springs
Wheel: F&R: 18x7.5-inch cast aluminum
Tire: F&R: P245/50SR18 Bridgestone Turanza all-season touring blackwall radial
Brakes: F/R: rear-vented disc/drum with power assist and ABS
Wheelbase (in): 106.6
Length/width/height (in): 181.3/71.5/66.5
Track (in): F: 61; R: 61
Turning circle (curb to curb): 39.4 ft
Curb weight (lbs): 3,630 (wt. dist: 57/43)
Tow rating (lbs): 1,000 without trailer brakes; 3,500 with EPA city/hwy/combined mpg: 19/25/22
Fuel-tank capacity/range: 16.3 gal/350 mi (est.)
Acceleration 0-60: 8.2 secs

General Motors Pickup RecallThe General is recalling about 4 million pickups to fix the tailgate cables. The recall includes certain Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierras, Chevrolet Avalanche, and Cadillac Escalade EXT trucks made between 2000 and 2004. The cables that hold the tailgate level when opened may corrode and fracture, causing the tailgate to drop down onto the rear bumper, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Customers will be notified in phases about when to come in to their dealer for a free cable replacement. In the meantime, don't put excessive weight on the tailgates of your truck.

Land Rover LR3 High-Tech, High-Performance Powerhouse
The competition must be white-hot in the midsize SUV market. All the new product for 2005 is packing serious performance heat, and the new LR3 from Ford's Land Rover brand is no exception.

At the press briefing in New York, Land Rover asserted that great on-road refinement and performance was a priority for the LR3. And the company's backing that assertion up with a 300-bhp 4.4L Jaguar-sourced V-8 engine that's specially adapted for Land Rover. We're assuming the torque curve is fattened up toward the bottom, and if so, we're in agreement with Land Rover that it's an excellent starting point for a great road car - er, truck.

Land Rover is backing the motor with a six-speed electronically controlled automatic gearbox and stuffing the powerteam into the chassis, built in a manner it's calling "Integrated Body-Frame Architecture," which to us reads as a properly rigid frame; it should be a great foundation for on-road ride and handling, fitting the LR3's image. To this chassis, Land Rover is adding a fully independent cross-linked air suspension to further improve off-road ride and handling as well as its on-road manners.

The LR3 will come with Land Rover's new Terrain Response technology that the company says optimizes driveability and comfort as well as maximizing traction. The driver simply chooses one of five terrain settings - from on-road to extreme off-road - via a rotary switch. Terrain Response then automatically selects the most appropriate settings for the vehicle's advanced electronic controls and traction aids, including ride height, engine torque response, hill descent control, electronic traction, and transmission settings.

Factor in a height-adjustable fully independent air suspension, high- and low-range transmission that's electronically selected, and infinitely variable locking center and rear differential, and the LR3 looks to be a formidable player in this upscale sector of the market.

Window Tint Troubles?
In our unofficial survey here at Sport Truck magazine, we've found that the crazy quilt of state laws regulating window tint for automobiles confuses everybody, except, of course, our fine state and local law enforcement officers. Fortunately for the rest of us, the International Window Film Association (IWFA) has a chart that explains it all. Think of it as the map of the universe from the film Time Bandits. You can access the chart on the association's Web site at www.iwfa.com or you can contact the IWFA at the following coordinates: International Window Film Association (IWFA), P.O. Box 3871, Martinsville, VA 24115, (276) 666-4932, Fax: (276) 666-4933, information@iwfa.com

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