2007 Chicago Auto Show: Winners and Losers

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It’s about that time. The media preview is over and the doors to the 2007 Chicago Auto Show have opened to the public. Cars.com’s Mike Hanley, David Thomas and Joe Wiesenfelder spent the past two days walking the 1.3 million square feet of the show to bring you the best and worst of what’s new, so you won’t have to waste your time with the riffraff. This rundown focuses only on the new vehicles that debuted in Chicago, but most of the production and concept cars we rated at the Detroit show will also be there.

2008 Pontiac G8

DT: Winner
Unquestionably my “Best of Show” pick. Even with the outdated hood scoops — they do look better in person — the G8 is Pontiac’s best offering in a long time and, unlike the Solstice, will sell to a lot of people. This is exactly what Pontiac needs, and it aims right at the heart of the brand’s identity.

MH: Winner
I’m a big fan of sport sedans in general, and the G8 gives Pontiac a credible entry in the segment. I, too, wish Pontiac hadn’t poked any holes in the hood, but otherwise the look is sporty without going overboard. The V-8 edition will undoubtedly be a riot, but I wish Pontiac offered a manual with the base V-6, too.

JW: Big Winner
My first cars were giant rear-wheel-drive sedans powered by big-block V-8s — GM cars, incidentally. (Technically, this 6.0-liter is a small block, but as today’s blocks go, at least the displacement is big.) The six-speed manual is a big, big draw to the target buyer. Ditto on the hood nostrils, and on the car’s presence when you see it in person. Pontiac included body cues that make the car look muscular — without making it cartoony. They’re learning.

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2008 Ford Taurus, Taurus X, Mercury Sable

DT: Losers
On the other end of the show spectrum was the ridiculousness that was the renaming of the Five Hundred sedan — a mere month after its own redesign — to the Taurus. If that weren’t bad enough, the new naming of the Taurus X and Mercury Sable add insult to injury to the savvy car buyer. Of course, Ford isn’t going after savvy buyers with these pedestrian models. I can’t even go on…

MH: Losers
Even though the new, more powerful V-6 engines should make these full-size cars more appealing than before, the constant fiddling Ford, Lincoln and Mercury have been doing with model names lately is only making the buying experience more confusing for consumers, which is the last thing Ford needs right now.

JW: Losers
As I said in the blog when we first reported on this, Ford Motor Co. has proved over and over its cluelessness in naming models — trading the good ones for alphabetical ones (Lincoln), insisting on starting new Ford car models with the letter “F” and new SUVs with “E,” confusing even people inside the company. I like the Five Hundred and Freestyle more than most, and I’ll probably like them more with the upgrades. The name change just makes you think they’re concentrating on the wrong thing — a huge turnoff.

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2008 Scion xB

DT: Winner
Scion’s got another winner with the new xB. The backseat can actually accommodate those hip friends all young drivers seem to have in car-commercial road trips. You and three friends can take one to Coachella this summer and have a good time with the iPod plugged in, jamming to whatever the kids are listening to this year.

MH: Loser
The previous xB was a low-powered box on wheels, and while engine size and power has increased, the new xB is still just a box. I must not get it.

JW: Winner
On the like/dislike scale, I’ve always been on the like side of this one. The increased power and torque are sure to make the new xB a much more viable car.

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2008 Scion xD

DT: Loser
It looked like a reworked xA to me, not an entirely new vehicle like Scion wants us to think. Like the xA, the xD is completely shown up by the funkier and more functional xB.

MH: Winner
There are lots of choices in the small-car segment, but few will be able to match the xD’s tough-hatch look. Throw in a versatile interior and decent engine power, and the xD gets a thumbs up from me.

JW: Winner
This one just squeaks by, mainly because it’s a cooler version of the Toyota Yaris, which isn’t our favorite subcompact. The xD isn’t as polarizing as the xB, but no one seems to think it’s bland. With Scion’s no-haggle pricing and far, far more options than the Yaris, this one has a shot at solid sales.

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2008 Saturn Astra

DT: Winner
Ford says hatchbacks are out. GM must think they’re in, and after seeing these two- and four-door hatches in the flesh, I agree with the General. The two-door is sexy on the outside, and the four-door is practical on the inside, with a cavernous cargo compartment. If they drive half as well as I think they will, the Astra should top the domestic compact heap.

MH: Winner
The Astra hatchback gets Saturn into the premium small-car segment, and even though consumers familiar with GM interiors will have to relearn some switches and controls, the time spent should be worth it.

JW: Winner
This is how giant car companies are going to survive and thrive in the future: by making smart use of their global assets. Flexibility is key — knowing that sometimes components, technology and platforms should be shared, and knowing how much one model needs to be changed before it can be sold elsewhere. The changes GM made to the Astra seem like the minimum — and here that was the best thing it could do.

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2008 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid

DT: Winner by default
The Highlander is typical Toyota. It looks to be the best in class in interior materials and probably comfort, ride and maybe even mileage, but boy it does nothing to thrill me. Also, this field seems to be getting awfully crowded these days.

MH: Winner
The new Highlander plays it safe on the styling front with its conservative looks, but this move should play well with Toyota fans. Inside, interior quality continues to inch closer to Lexus levels. The evolution of the hybrid is evident here, too, with the inclusion of an electric-only mode that allows the Highlander Hybrid to travel short distances on battery power alone.

JW: Winner
Like Mike and Dave said. It doesn’t set my hair on fire, but it’s a very good model, and at least a little less dorky-looking than the current one. Points for offering a rearview camera as a more affordable, stand-alone option not tied to an expensive navigation system.

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2008 Volkswagen R32

DT: Winner
Put a 250-hp engine into a VW Rabbit with AWD and you get a fun little machine. All the little touches, like the limited edition number right on the steering wheel, were nice, and this will probably sell out its 5,000 limited production number quite easily if it drives anything like the last R32 I tested.

MH: Loser
The Volkswagen GTI is an entertaining little car, and the R32, with its more powerful engine and all-wheel drive, seems — at first glance — to be a hatchback enthusiasts could love. I want to love this car, but the lack of a manual transmission and a clutch pedal breaks my heart.

JW: Conflicted
I’m with Mike on the transmission issue, but I’m enthusiastic about the change to rear-biased all-wheel drive, which should make the car handle much better when pushed to its limits. Now that the turbo option in the GTI has improved so much — 2.0 liters and really great all-around performance — I can’t get as excited about the six cylinders.

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2008 Nissan Armada, Pathfinder, Titan

DT: Losers
To be honest, I didn’t even make it to the booth. All three needed the interior updates, and the Pathfinder needed the V-8, but will any of the changes spur sales of huge Nissan SUVs and trucks? Not likely.

MH: Losers
The Armada and Pathfinder get some significant cabin-styling revisions, but for the most part the updates to these models are minor. If you weren’t already considering one, the changes aren’t significant enough to make you look now.

JW: Losers
Again, folks, from the auto-show perspective, these aren’t big winners. Not to say they were losers before — only that they don’t have a lot of draw in the world of what’s new.

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2008 Saturn Vue Red Line and Green Line

DT: Winners
These were barely seen next to the Astra hype, but I think the Red Line’s gigantic, extended grille and the Green Line’s bump in mileage will make both attractive to their respective shoppers. I’m glad Saturn is rolling out the entire line at once, too, even if they are a few months apart. The new Vue overall should do well for them.

MH: Winners
Even without performance- and fuel economy-oriented variants, the redesigned Vue compact SUV is still a winner; more trim choices just enhance its overall appeal. Now, if only the Red Line could lose that goofy lower grille.

JW: Losers
I don’t think the Red Line has enough to set it above the regular Vue equipped with the same engine. As for the Green Line, it will be good to have, but we’ve already been promised a more efficient version and eventually a plug-in. Add that to the gap between sales of the current one (almost at the end of its run) and the new, and I just see a loss.

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2008 Dodge Dakota

DT: Loser
I didn’t get a lot of time to check out the Dakota because of the massive media frenzy — generated by free food — but the front grille and its faux silver paint were atrocious. Everyone is buying bigger trucks these days, but this looked big enough to me. The new exterior design could be even more aggressive. Perhaps that will be held off until the next Ram.

MH: Loser
The optional V-8 gets a bump in horsepower, but beneath the minor styling changes, it’s still the same Dakota.

JW: Loser
If you’re looking for something new and exciting, there are many other things to check out — some of them at the Dodge display.

Photo of David Thomas
Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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