SSR Paces Nextel Cup
NASCAR fans love their pickup trucks. Chevy surprised the crowd at the Auto Club 500, the second race on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup 2005 schedule, by pacing the race with a special-edition SSR. The Chevy SSR pace truck will lead the field at 20 Cup events this year. Chevy is the Official Pace Vehicle of NASCAR, and the SSR joins Corvette, Monte Carlo, and Silverado pace vehicles at a total of 60 NASCAR events in 2005 including 28 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races, 17 Busch Series races, and 15 Craftsman Truck races.

Chevy made sure you won't miss the SSR pace truck - it sports a four-color flame job that starts with Sling Shot Yellow on the leading edge that merges with Hot Orange, then Torch Red, and finally Kinetic Blue on the bed. There's a big red Chevy bow tie on the hood and unique event logos on the doors for each race.

No modifications were needed to keep the SSR in front of the field. Chevy dropped the hot LS2 6.0L small-block V-8 in between the SSR's fenders this year mated to an optional six-speed manual transmission. With 390 hp on tap, the LS2 will catapult the retro SSR from 0-60 mph in 5.29 seconds. For '05, the SSR carries a base price of $42,555, complete with the standard power retractable hardtop that stows in the back wall of the cab at the touch of a button. With the top down, who wouldn't love to see the view the pace driver has in his rearview mirror coming off Turn 4?

'07 Toyota FJ Cruiser Debuts
Toyota will produce the retro FJ Cruiser sport-utility vehicle. Unveiled at the recent Chicago Auto Show, the production FJ Cruiser retains many of the design cues that made the concept vehicle so popular when it debuted at the 2003 NAIAS in Detroit. The production design is a joint venture between Toyota Motor Corporation and Calty Design Research, the manufacturer's California design center.

The FJ Cruiser draws design inspiration from the original FJ40 utility vehicle, which went out of production in 1983 after a 35-year production run. True to the original, the FJ Cruiser is intended to be functional and utilitarian. "The FJ Cruiser effectively fills a gap in the Toyota lineup which was once our core heritage - capable, affordable, and durable vehicles that are youthful, fun to drive, aggressive, and tough." States Don Esmond, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Division. The design is rugged and targets the youth market at the lower end of Toyota's SUV line. Pricing has not been released, but industry insiders project a low-to-mid-$20,000 range.

The FJ Cruiser will be built on a modified 4Runner platform with standard 17-inch wheels and four-wheel disc brakes. Offering seating for five, the two-door, five-passenger body style incorporates hidden rear access doors to aid entry and egress. Toyota's Star Safety System is standard and includes Vehicle Stability Control, TRAC traction control, antilock brakes, and electronic brake-force distribution. A two-part rear hatch offers flip-up glass for easy access to the cargo area. Overall interior feel is functional and utilitarian, reminiscent of the Honda Element and Nissan Xterra.

The FJ Cruiser will be available in both 4x2 and 4x4 configurations. Toyota's 4.0L V-6 is standard, offering 245 hp and 282 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. FJ Cruiser 4x4 buyers will also be able to order an optional six-speed manual transmission. Towing capacity is an impressive 5,000 pounds. Toyota dealers should start seeing the FJ Cruiser in early 2006 as an '07 model.

Nitro Follows M80 Theme
Chicago was also the stage for the unveiling of the midsize Dodge Nitro SUV concept vehicle. The five-passenger Nitro is smaller than the Durango and would fill a popular segment if Dodge decides to take the Nitro to market. Trevor Creed, senior vice president, Chrysler Group Design, says, "This is more than just another typical SUV design statement. The Dodge Nitro concept is brimming with character; it evokes emotion through its rugged styling and dominant stance."

Compared with the rounded lines of the Durango, the Nitro delivers a fresh look with crisp edges. The concept was finished in bright anodized-red metallic paint with brushed-silver accents. The Nitro rolls on 20s and features full-time four-wheel drive, an independent SLA front suspension, and a five-link rear suspension.

Under the hood is a Magnum 3.7L V-6 that produces 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Chrysler's 42RLE four-speed automatic handles the shifting chores. According to Dodge, the combination is potent enough to propel the 4,115-pound Nitro from 0-60 mph in 9.6 seconds and through the quarter-mile traps in 16.9 seconds with a top speed of 108 mph.

The concept's interior is trimmed in rich black leather with bright-red inserts and offers electroluminescent instrument lighting, and a satin-silver center console that carries the DVD-based navigation system with a 7-inch LED screen. The Nitro's interior is designed to be functional as well; the front passenger and rear seats all fold-flat to provide exceptional cargo volume. One of our favorite features, however, is the textured-vinyl rear cargo floor that slides rearward with the hatch open to aid loading and unloading.