Chrysler California Cruiser and Dodge Kahuna
Chrysler California Cruiser and Dodge Kahuna. Click image to enlarge

By Richard Russell

Miami, Florida – Not content to get a feel for what the car-conscious auto show crowd think of their concept vehicles, DaimlerChrysler takes them to the streets to gauge reaction from a cross-section of consumers. The venue for this year’s rolling research was the trendy South Beach enclave of Miami.

A trio of concepts introduced at the Paris, Geneva and North American (Detroit) Auto Shows were driven, under their own power, by a small group of journalists around a two or three mile loop slowly past thousands just starting to get into the night life. Hardly a single soul looked to see who was driving – they were too busy staring at the very unique rolling stock.

Dodge Kahuna
Dodge Kahuna

Chrysler Airflite
Chrysler Airflite

Dodge Avenger
Dodge Avenger
Click image to enlarge

Chrysler brought five concept vehicles this year, but one overheated in the 30 degree plus temperatures and the V10 motorcycle simply doesn’t run well at low speeds. All were first displayed on the beach before the downtown drive. The next day we got to drive them in a state park in nearby Key Biscayne, following technical presentations.

These are one-off, hand-built show cars. The fact they ran under their own power is a testament to those who built them. Suspensions are all but inoperative, designed to maintain the correct ride height. Monstrous tires up to 24-inches in diameter made steering difficult and resulted in turning circles similar to the cruise ships dotting the horizon. Brakes are equally massive, to look good behind those tall wheels, they squealed and grabbed – but worked. The engines and transmissions, thanks to modern electronics, are perfectly civil. These vehicles are irreplaceable and in some cases unrepairable, so we were asked to take it easy, no slamming doors, flooring throttles or charging into corners. Speeds topped out at 60 kilometres per hour.




It's a process that has worked well in the past. The Viper, PT Cruiser and Crossfire all began as concept cars that were "researched" in this manner.

This year the Chrysler Group displayed the Chrysler Cruiser and Airflite and from Dodge division, the Kahuna and Avenger. Judging from reactions here at least three of the four are hits.


Chrysler California Cruiser

Chrysler California Cruiser
Chrysler California Cruiser
Click image to enlarge

This might be the next wave for the PT Cruiser. Think of its as a contemporary 50's surf wagon. Eight glass panels figure prominently dropping, pivoting or swiveling out of sight to provide an extremely open experience that looked very much at home on the beach. The "chopped top" results in a much shorter vehicle, but leaves plenty of headroom inside. The tail lights feature a new irridescent theme the designers are toying with - when lit they are red or orange, but unlit they give off a blue glow. Up front the new signature Chrysler identifiers are clearly evident - scalloped headlights, hood strakes and horizontal slats spanning the width of the grill below the big new winged Chrysler logo. The same theme was introduced on the Chrysler Crossfire sports coupe last month and can be found on the front of the Airflite. The Cruiser is powered by a turbocharged 2.4 litre four.

Dodge Kahuna
Dodge Kahuna

Dodge Kahuna
Dodge Kahuna
Click image to enlarge


Dodge Kahuna

The Kahuna was one of the big hits at this year's Detroit show and it was even more popular on or near the beach. Kahuna means "The Boss" in Hawaiian and designer Alan Barrington said they wanted the Kahuna to represent the Dodge image - bold, powerful, practical and in your face. "We wanted an active lifestyle vehicle as far away from the mom-mobile minivan as possible, while utilizing the practicality of a minivan's shape."

There are some reminders of the old Dodge Power Wagon, especially around the wheel wells. There is a bit of a technical take on the old Woody, but using milled aluminum to supplement the maple-like wood applique. All windows disappear completely into the doors for a very open feeling, especially with the canvas roof rolled back. The two-tone interior is trimmed with materials reminiscent of a contemporary beach house or yacht, down to the sisal floor covering, rolled up bamboo mats and flowing wave design of the instrument panel and switches. Six seats are positioned in three rows, each fastened to a track in the floor. They fold flat and have bungee cords on the backrests. The front passenger seat can be rotated 180 degrees to meet the rears. Power comes from a 2.4 litre four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission.

Chrysler Airflite

Chrysler Airflite
Chrysler Airflite
Click image to enlarge

When the Chrysler Crossfire was unveiled at the Geneva Auto Show, several senior DC executives challenged the design department to examine how far they could push a similar concept in terms of a D segment sedan a la Camry, Accord etc. The result was introduced at this year's Geneva show - a slick five-door hatchback with a strong resemblance to the Crossfire. But where the two-seat Crossfire is heavily based on an existing Mercedes platform, the Airflite rides on a revised version of the rear-drive platform first seen beneath the Dodge Magnum wagon and later the Chrysler 300C show car. Four inches have been cut from the 120-inch wheelbase resulting in a very compact, but roomy sedan with a sweeping roofline, long hood and short rear overhang. Push buttons control the automatic transmission, echoing the Chrysler practice of 50 years ago.

Reflecting its international flavor the Airflite has side repeater lights and rear fog lights. Power comes from a 3.5 litre V6. The interior features four seats cantilevered from the dominant centre tunnel and the instrument panel is a trio of floating gauges fastened to the steering wheel.


Dodge Avenger

Dodge Avenger
Dodge Avenger
Click image to enlarge

Also introduced in Detroit, the Dodge Avenger is portrayed as a Rally-inspired indication of where Dodge may be going with Sport Utility Vehicle. A huge five-door hatchback that would not fit on any rally trail we've ever seen, the Avenger is a five-door, four-seat hatchback. Power from the 3.5 litre V6 goes to all four wheels through an automatic transmission controlled by steering wheel-mounted paddles. Avenger designer Mike Nichols says "We see this vehicle appealing to youth more than a wagon, such as last year's Magnum show car. We also think the taboo about hatchbacks may be disappearing, especially among youth." Hatchbacks have an amazing share of the market in Europe and Japan but have not been popular in the U.S. It may take more than this to convince a skeptical public. One wag was heard to comment as we drove by - "Oh look, it's the new Aztek."

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