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Crossovers take center stage in Chicago

As the crossover becomes increasingly competitive, carmakers are unveiling even more new products at this week’s Chicago Auto Show.
Scion’s 2008 xB is one of the new cars on show at this year’s Chicago show.
Scion’s 2008 xB is one of the new cars on show at this year’s Chicago show.Toyota Motors
/ Source: Business Week

Crossover sport-utility vehicles, which are based on passenger car engineering rather than truck chassis, represent the fastest-growing segment of the auto industry. And as such, some automakers are throwing more fuel-saving technology at them to keep them from becoming as unfashionable as the thirsty SUVs they are replacing.

Crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, are expected to leapfrog over four vehicle segments to become the highest-volume sector in North America by 2009, according to

At this week's Chicago Auto Show, Toyota is introducing a redesigned Highlander crossover, which will be in showrooms this summer. The Highlander has been the second best-selling midsize crossover, behind the Honda Pilot, selling 130,000 last year, though sales were off by almost 8,000 from 2005.

The new Highlander, as with the old one, is also offered in a gas-electric hybrid version. But the new hybrid comes with an "EV Only" driving mode, which allows the diver to get along on electric power alone up to 25 mph for three to five miles. That is especially beneficial for driving in congested cities, crawling traffic, and even small suburban towns.

Highlander’s redesigned interior
The new Highlander gas engine is Toyota's 3.5-liter V6, rated at 270 horsepower and 249 ft-lb of torque. That's an increase of 55 horsepower and 27 ft-lb over the 3.3-liter V6 it replaces. The hybrid continues using the 3.3-liter engine. Combined with power from the electric motor, it has the same 270-horespower rating as the standard Highlander.

Though the new Highlander is 4 inches longer and wider than the old version, the big change in the new crossover, which is built on the same engineering platform as the new Camry and Avalon sedans, is inside. Toyota has designed a second-row middle seat that slides under the front console. It can be pulled out for three-passenger seating in the second row or stowed away to create two captain's chairs in the second row. The third row seats two. The Highlander is about a full foot shorter than the new Saturn Outlook and Buick Enclave, both from General Motors, whose third-row seats are more practical for seating.

Prices won't be disclosed until summer, but are expected to be close to today's prices. The current Highlander costs between $25,000 and $40,000. The hybrid runs from about $33,000 to $45,000.

Hues of the Vue
The Saturn Vue is arguably General Motors' best answer to Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V crossovers, and it gets a major makeover for the 2008 model year. The standard Vue arrives in showrooms in spring, while a performance-rated Vue Red Line and a hybrid Vue Green Line go on sale in the fall. An even more fuel-efficient Green Line goes on sale in the third quarter of next year.

The Red Line is powered by a 3.6-liter V6 used in a number of vehicles by General Motors. In the Red Line, it's rated at 250 horsepower and 243 ft-lb of torque. It comes with a six-speed automatic transmission and is available in front-wheel or all-wheel drive. From a performance perspective, the Red Line comes with standard tap-up/tap-down transmission control on the shifter.

The Green Line, a gasoline-electric hybrid, is scheduled for the fourth quarter. The Green Line uses a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor that helps get the vehicle rolling. The electric power also kicks in when acceleration is needed and allows the engine to shut down at idle, like at a stoplight or in stop-and-go traffic. This is referred to as a "mild hybrid," while a full hybrid, such as what is offered in the Highlander and Toyota Prius, arrives next year.

Current Vue prices range from about $18,000 to $27,000, and prices are expected to remain largely unchanged for the new models.

Pathfinder powers up
With all the emphasis on enhancing fuel economy in SUVs, Nissan seemed slightly out of step this week with its introduction of a modified Pathfinder SUV that will for the first time sport a V8 engine. The venerable and popular Pathfinder has always stopped the engine cylinders at six.

The new 300-plus-horsepower, 5.6-liter V8 offers a significant increase in torque—rated at 300-plus ft-lb to achieve 7,000 lb. of towing capacity. The base engine for the SUV is the 266-horsepower, 4.0-liter version of the Nissan VQ-series V6 engine. All Pathfinders continue to be built on a high-strength, fully boxed, all-steel frame based on the full-size Nissan Armada SUV.

Other changes for 2008 include new exterior styling and a nicer interior, as well as new options like a revised Nissan Navigation System with 9.3GB Music Box hard drive. The 2008 Pathfinder's exterior features new front and rear fasciae, new 17-in. wheel designs for the SE-V6 and LE-V6 versions and new 18-in. wheel designs for the SE-V8 and LE-V8 models.

Upgrades for even the top-ranked
The Nissan Armada SUV, which has topped the J.D. Power & Associates APEAL (how well customers like a vehicle overall) ranking for full-size SUVs in two of the last three years, nonetheless also gets a packet of upgrades—a new front fascia, new headlight and fog light designs, new one-piece roof rack design, revised rear fascia, and 20-in. wheel and Michelin tire package (LE only).

Despite the longevity of the Pathfinder brand, Nissan is still making its bones in the pickup truck and SUV category. Last year, Armada sales were clipped with other big thirsty SUVs, with sales down 17%. Pathfinder sales were off just 4%. Titan sales were down 17% as a tightening pickup market favored established players like Ford and Chevy, while Toyota soaked up a lot of sales discounting its old Tundra before the all-new one launches this month.

Truck, SUV, or CUV, there is widening opinion among auto executives that the automakers who combine toughness and capability with constant improvement in fuel economy will win in these categories.