Chevrolet SSR
Chevrolet SSR
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by Jim Kenzie

A couple of years ago, General Motors was considered the sick man of the domestic auto industry. Cars nobody wanted. Inefficient plants. Financial troubles beyond the ken of mere automotive writers.

Now, they seem to be the place everyone in Detroit wants to work. They are on the cusp of a new-product revolution which will almost completely revamp their line up from top to bottom.

For 2003, we get just a hint of where that direction will lead, with nine (depending on how you count) all-new and a whole bunch more significantly upgraded entries.

GM’s 2003 model year began early, with the Cadillac CTS, a compact sport sedan replacing the generally unloved Cadillac Catera. The CTS’s edgy styling heralds the Cadillac look of the near-future, and offers driving dynamics unheard of from America’s premier luxury car brand. The aim of CTS is to compete with the BMWs and Audis of the world, and to lower the average age of Cadillac owners from the current “deceased”.

Another early 2003 arrival was the Pontiac Vibe, a combination sedan/hatchback/wagon designed to give SUV buyers all the vehicle they really need, while retaining most of that genre’s (dubious, in my view…) image attributes. The GM-led program uses Toyota mechanicals – Toyota has their equivalent in the Matrix – which means a high-revving but torqueless 130-horsepower 1.8 litre four cylinder engine as standard fitment.

Four-wheel drive is available, as is a six-speed manual transmission on the GT model, which also gets 180 horses by virtue of slightly higher displacement, but mostly from a higher r.p.m. limit.

Still on the sporty sedan side of the business, GM’s premium European brand Saab offers the all-new 9-3, based on a GM corporate “Epsilon” platform which will also underpin a variety of products over the next few years. Larger, roomier and more sophisticated than before, the new 9-3 offers two new turbocharged four cylinder engines, with 175 and 210 horsepower respectively, mated to five-speed automatic and five- and six-speed manual transmissions. There’s no ragtop on the new platform yet, but convertible fans fear not – the old model continues until this is rectified, which it surely will be.

Saturn ION
Saturn Ion

Hummer H2
Hummer H2
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Saturn replaces the original S sedan and coupe – and not before time – with the all-new Ion, based on what will become another of GM’s global platforms, this time dubbed “Delta”. Larger, vastly more refined, and more powerful, thanks to the European-engineered Ecotec 2.2 litre four cylinder engine, Ion hopes to bring some energy back to Saturn showrooms. There will be an Ion coupe too. The left-side rear-hinged third door on the old S coupe was so successful they’ve done the logical thing – put one on each side of the Ion coupe.

GM’s brilliant GMT-800 truck platform (full-size pick-ups; the big SUVs) not only continues to generate sales and profits, it also spawns a never-ending series of variants. Most remarkable is undoubtedly the Hummer H2, which takes the image of the original but hugely impractical Hummer H1 and creates a still-gigantic yet feasible everyday runner.

If H2 gives up anything in off-road capability to its bigger brother, you’d have to be a braver man than I to find out. Yet on-road, it’s vastly more comfortable and driveable. Of every vehicle GM makes, this is the one your teen-aged kids will most want to be picked up at the mall in.

Cadillac has always been biggest-and-best at GM. It therefore has been an anomaly that the Escalade was built on the short-wheelbase SUV chassis. (The reason is historical – the vehicle was originally aimed at Lincoln Navigator.)

For 2003 this is rectified with the introduction of the Escalade ESV. Cadillac’s marketing folks cringe when you call it the “Cadillac Suburban”, but that’s essentially what it is – and there’s no need to be ashamed of that.

Buick Rainier
Buick Rainier
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Still with the ever-burgeoning SUV market, Buick dipped their toes in with the Venture-minivan-based Rendezvous a couple of years ago. With the impending demise of Oldsmobile and the Chevy Trailblazer-based Bravada, Buick will jump into this perceived niche with both feet by launching the Rainier. While officially a 2004 model, it should see the light of showroom day sometime in calendar 2003.

And Isuzu will offer a new Ascender, also a bit later in the model year. It is essentially a re-bodied long-wheelbase GMC Envoy – badge engineering at its finest (or most shameless, depending on your point of view…).

Car or truck? Who cares, if Chevrolet gets the hoped-for PT Cruiser/New Beetle/New Mini-like reaction to their SSR roadster, again arriving later in 2003. A styling theme taken from an early-’50s pick-up truck, mated to a modern pick-up chassis, powered by a 5.3 litre V8 and featuring a power retractable hard-top roof, SSR could also herald a return to the El Camino/Ford Ranchero car/truck blends of the late-fifties.

Among GM’s updated carry-over offerings, the evergreen Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire gain refreshed exteriors, revised innards, and the 140 horsepower Ecotec four cylinder engine as standard equipment. GM has backed off their standard ABS strategy – a shame – and the underlying architecture is almost pre-glacial. But Cavalier and Sunfire continue to deliver cubic metres of the car for the dollar, which has kept them both in the Top Five of car sales in Canada for what seems like generations.

Pontiac’s Grand Am, another perennial Canadian Top Ten sales leader, gets a facelifted – and much smoother – exterior in the base SE sedan version. The SE coupe is discontinued, the theory presumably being that sportier coupe drivers would probably want the GT version anyway.

Those full-size pick-ups and SUVs gain added availability of both Stabilitrak, GM’s directional stability control system, and Quadrasteer, their brilliant if somewhat pricey four-wheel steering system – you won’t believe how manoeuvrable these big vehicles are until you try this yourself.
The new-last-year Chevy Trailblazer/GMC Envoy mid-sized SUVs gained long wheelbase versions mid-way through last year. These now offer a 5.3 litre V8 in the formerly six-cylinder-only engine bay. Not much more power – 290 horses versus the 275 of the upgraded-for-2003 4.2 litre six – but massive increases in torque – 330 lb.-ft. versus 275.

Full-size vans don’t command a lot of attention among retail buyers, but commercial and conversion customers will like the refreshed Chevy Express and GMC Savanna. Facelifted exterior, new engines, and the availability of left-hand side cargo doors – now, there’s an idea whose time should have come years ago – and all-wheel drive are the major modifications.

And did you know GM still makes the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari rear-drive and four-wheel drive vans? Maybe somebody forgot to turn off the switch…

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