SPORT-UTILITIES and luxury sedans merged at the Detroit auto show.
Engineers have tried to make sport-utilities less truck-like for a decade, and sedan makers have toyed with higher seating positions in response. The two directions are now united.
Audi and Lexus showed the theme.
'The boundary between sport-utilities and luxury sedans is becoming fuzzy,' said Renault product planner Yves Dubreil, after looking at the Lexus RX300. Dubreil is developing the replacement for the Renault Safrane due after 2000. That car is likely to follow the trend.
Toyota Lexus RX300
'You can't jam this vehicle into an existing category,' said Jim Press, general manager of the US Lexus Division. 'Luxury means more than adding leather to a truck.'
Other car-based sport-utilities on the market are niche vehicles, such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Subaru Forester. The RX300 is the first aimed at the heart of the segment, competing with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Land Rover lineup.
The RX300 lacks off-road credentials, but Lexus believes that few people actually use their sport-utilities off-road. Lexus said a 'well-equipped' RX300 will cost about $35,305.
The RX300 is based loosely on the platform under the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES300.
Lexus borrowed an all-wheel-drive system from the European-specification Celica All-Trac Turbo, rather than the permanent four-wheel-drive system of the Land Cruiser.
The RX300 splits engine torque 50-50 between the front and rear axle; a viscous center differential directs torque to the wheel that has the most traction.
'We were able to throw away the usual constraints and think of this new product not in terms of truck, or sport-utility, or van, or luxury sedan,' said Tsuneo Uchimoto, RX300 chief engineer. 'We could incorporate the most desirable attributes of all of those types of vehicles.'
Press said the Mercedes-Benz M-class does a good job of covering the rugged and luxurious sides of the market. 'If you can only build one sport-utility platform,' he said, 'you make it from a truck and make it car-like.'
The RX300 goes on sale in March, with a hoped-for volume of 25,000 units a year.
Audi All-Road Quattro
Audi AG says an 'un-SUV strategy' is behind its All-Road Quattro concept vehicle.
The all-wheel-drive vehicle features a four-wheel air suspension system that automatically adjusts ground clearance according to the vehicle's speed. Vehicle height can also be set manually at 145mm, 170mm, or 195mm.
Werner Mischke, the Audi board member responsible for research, said the car combines the best of luxury cars and sport-utilities. He said the car would be at home in either the Rocky Mountains or on a German autobahn.
Gerd Klauss, vice president in charge of Audi of America, said Audi is trying to provide customers with cars that have 'all the advantages of a sport-utility, but none, none, of the disadvantages of a truck.'
The A6 Avant station wagon which is scheduled to be introduced at the Geneva auto show in March will look similar to the All-Road Quattro. It will have air suspension in the rear only.
The A6 Avant will go on sale in Europe immediately after the Geneva auto show in March, and will arrive in North America in the summer.