By Eric Peters, Automotive Columist
The 2012 model year is almost here — and could mark a turning point away from traditional (truck-based) SUVs, at least as far as mass-market vehicles.
The redesigned Ford Explorer, for openers, is the first-ever Explorer to be built on a light-duty, car-based platform. It also no longer even offers a V-8 engine — and comes standard with a four-cylinder engine … and front-wheel-drive.
2012 will also see the launch of a new hybrid version of the 1500-series Dodge Ram truck.
And you may be able to get behind the wheel of a 33 MPG Range Rover next year — if Land Rover imports the new twin-turbo diesel engine it has announced will be available this fall in the Range Rover Sport … in UK and European markets.
But if you still want to haul ass — and don’t care about gas — Ford has got you covered with the new F-150 Harley Davidson SuperCrew, powered by the SVT Raptor’s 6.2 liter, 411 hp V-8.
Here’s a look down the road at what’s coming your way later this fall and by spring/summer of 2012:
I. FUEL SAVERS
* 2012 Dodge Ram hybrid
Like the GM 1500 series hybrid trucks (the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra) the Ram hybrid will feature V-8 (5.7 liter Hemi) power for performance, but the gas engine will be supplemented by an electric battery pack/motor that will reduce fuel consumption by letting the truck “idle” without the gas engine operating at all. The hybrid 1500 will also reportedly be able to move on electric power alone, too.
In stop-and-go city driving (and at speeds up to about 30 MPH) it will be possible to drive using just the electric side of the hybrid powertrain. At the time of this review, Chrysler had not published fuel economy stats, but given that the Ram hybrid is directly targeting the GM 1500 series hybrids, which get about 5 MPG better (average) gas mileage than the equivalent gas-only versions of those trucks, the Ram 1500 hybrid ought to be in the same ballpark — with mid-high 20s under ideal conditions conceivable.
Though the cost of the hybrid is expected to be higher than the otherwise equivalent gas-powered Ram 1500, for people who do a lot of stop-and-go driving (where a hybrid does best) the long-term fuel savings could make the hybrid Ram a sensible choice.
MSRP: $39,500 (estimated).
Available: Spring 2012
* 2012 Range Rover Sport turbodiesel
The current Range Rover, including the Range Rover Sport, is one of the best rides going when the going gets tough. Short of a Hummer H1 Alpha — or a dirt bike with off-road knobbies — there are few vehicles that can go where it can when the pavement ends.
The downside is you won’t get very far — because of the 5 liter V-8’s big-time appetite for gas: 13 MPG city, 18 highway. But help could be on the horizon. Land Rover just announced that a new, high-efficiency (and high-output) twin-turbo 3 liter diesel V-6 will be available in the 2012 Range Rover… in European and UK markets at first and then, fingers crossed, here in the United States as well.
With the 3 liter diesel under the hood, the Range Rover is reported to be capable of a 33 MPG on the highway — not far behind what you’d get in a compact economy sedan such as a new Toyota Corolla (35 MPG, highway). But the Corolla isn’t packing 400-plus ft.-lbs. of torque or 265 hp — and you probably don’t want to take one off-roading.
MSRP: $63,000 (estimated)
Available: Spring 2012
* 2012 Ford F-150 Harley Davidson Edition Supercrew
The entire F-truck lineup got new engines last year — including a new standard 3.7 liter V-6 that makes 50-plus more horsepower (302) than the previous 4.6 liter V-8 (248 hp) did while returning noticeably better gas mileage numbers, too: 17 city, 23 highway vs. 14 city, 19 highway for the old 4.6 V-8.
But if you want the full monte, check out the 2012 F-150 Harley Davidson. There’s a 411 hp 6.2 liter V-8 under the hood with two spark plugs per cylinder and variable cam timing — derived from last year’s SVT Raptor muscle truck — plus a wild-looking snakeskin leather interior similar to the material used on the tank inserts on top-of-the-line HD bikes… plus massive 22 inch machined alloy wheels, electric-deployable running boards and a new 4.2 inch LCD “productivity screen” to monitor the functions of the voice-activated GPS, audio and entertainment systems. And those are just the major features of this literally loaded-to-the-door-sills ultimate F-150.
What Ford calls “dimensional” (basically, 3-D look) Harley-Davidson emblems are featured on each box side and there are numerous chrome and piano-black trim inserts and details inside and out. Each one gets a special laser-engraved VIN plate, too.
The 6.2 liter V-8 gives the truck a 7,500 lb. max tow rating (1,400 pounds in the 5.5 foot bed – ample room for a custom chopper) and there’s a 110V power inverter to run accessories. A six-speed automatic is standard and you can choose either RWD or full-time 4WD.
MSRP: $49,500 (estimated)
Available: Fall 2011
III PRICE CUTTERS
*2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee
All-new last year — including a new/standard 290 hp 3.6 liter “Pentastar” V-6 that delivers a spectacular 80 hp more than the previously standard 3.7 liter V-6 (which was also a horrendous gas pig, in addition to being underpowered). But the really big news for 2012 is the dramatic price cut Chrysler Corp. (Jeep’s parent company) just announced: Base price for the 2012 GC Laredo is $26,995 vs. $30,215 for the essentially identical 2011 version. That’s $3,220 off the top. Reason: The GC is a great SUV but the market for real-deal SUVs (as opposed to car-based crossover SUVs) is not-so-great.
Buyers are concerned about the economy — as well as the cost of gas, not just now (bad as it is) but what it could be a year or two down the road. The popularity of traditional, heavy-duty SUVs with 4WD (vs light-duty AWD) and big V-6s and even bigger V-8s has been in decline for several years and the recent signs of a double-dip recession are worrying buyers — and Chrysler. Hence the price drop.
But if you’re in the market for a GC, this is probably the time to go for it. The 2012 models also get a few worth-mentioning mechanical improvements, too — including electric-assist power steering that ups the gas mileage slightly to 23 MPG highway from 22 MPG in 2011. A six-speed automatic may be on deck, too.
Available: Fall/winter 2011
IV MAJOR MAKEOVERS / ALL NEW
* 2012 Honda Ridgeline
Honda’s controversial (because car-based, with lighter-duty AWD vs. truck-type heavy-duty RWD/4WD) pick-up will not be discontinued — as had been rumored (and feared) by those who like the different-drummer layout of this vehicle, in particular, the car-like ride quality and handling. In fact, Honda has committed to the Ridgeline’s future and will be introducing an updated 2012 model in a few months (November is the expected official launch) that will feature revised exterior and interior styling, including a new Sport and top-of-the-line RTL trim package with a more rugged-looking three three-bar grille design.
There is also a chance that Honda will try to improve the current Ridgeline’s not-so-great fuel economy numbers (15 city, 20 highway) by replacing the five-speed automatic that’s standard equipment in this model right now with a new, more efficient six-speed automatic.
But the bottom line is that Honda has not given up on the Ridgeline — or the concept behind it. The company remains convinced that there is a market for people who need the light-duty capability of a vehicle with a pick-up’s bed (and the winter-weather grip of AWD) but not the heavier-duty underpinnings of a traditional truck, including truck-type 4WD.
And really, the Ridgeline’s not a lightweight — despite what you may have read. It can take 1,550 lbs. in its composite/dent-resistant 5.5 foot bed, with an additional 8.5 cubic foot hidden — and lockable — bed underneath. This area can be filled with ice and beverages, too. There are drain plugs in the bottom to let the water out afterwards. It can also pull 5,000 lbs. — not all that far off the capability of a medium-sized V-8 SUV and better than many compact pick-ups can manage.
MSRP ($30,500 – estimated)
Available: Fall 2011
* 2012 BMW X1
Most crossover SUVs are car-based and more than that, they’re based on front-wheel-drive cars (often with an AWD system optionally available). There are only a handful on the market that are based on a rear-drive platform — and none of them are compact-sized.
The soon-to-here X1 will give buyers both a RWD-based layout and compact size. BMW’s littlest crossover SUV will be based on the current 1 Series, a shorter-wheelbase version of the RWD 3-series sport sedan and coupe. Like the slightly larger X3, the X1 will come standard with a full-time AWD system that’s biased toward the rear wheels vs. the opposite in most FWD-based crossover SUVs. What that means is that until the system detects wheelslip, most of the engine’s power goes to the back wheels in the X1 — with the system feeding more power to the front wheels when the rear wheels begin to lose traction. This — and the fact that the weight of the X1’s drivetrain is spread out more equally from front to rear rather than having most of the weight up front, as in a FWD-based car — should give the X1 the handling feel of a RWD sport sedan instead of a FWD car.
For power, it appears there will be two choices: First, the same gas-fed 3 liter (230 hp) inline six used in the current 1 Series and 3 Series sedans/coupes. But it looks like BMW is also going to offer a 2.0 liter turbo-diesel option later in 2012; this engine should be capable of 40 MPG or better on the highway — which would make the new X1 the most fuel-efficient compact SUV on the road, too.
MSRP: $32,000 (estimated)
Available: Fall 2011
* 2012 Toyota RAV4 electric
Electric cars are not news. They’ve been available off and on for years. But an electric SUV is new — and news. Toyota looks to be the first major automaker to get one on the road — or rather, in an actual dealer showroom and available for sale to the public.
The backdrop to this story is the $50 million dollars Toyota reportedly invested in Tesla Motors, maker of the rock-star (and six figure) Tesla Roadster electric car. But where the Tesla roadster was built to sex up the idea of electric cars by showing how good they can look — and how fast they can go — the electrified RAV4 will be all about bread-and-butter functionality: Range — and room.
A large lithium-ion battery pack producing about 50 Kilowatts of power will feed a direct-drive electric motor. Unlike the Chevy Volt, there will be absolutely no internal combustion involved. The upside: Toyota is claiming the electric RAV will have a 100 mile real-world range (vs. the optimistic/best case ranges that have been touted by some other electric cars that in actual real-world driving often fell far short of the mark).
The downside is that even with its sophisticated lithium-ion battery pack, recharge times will still be measured in hours vs. the minutes it takes to refuel a conventional, gas-powered vehicle. However, it’s good to see EVs branching out from almost unusable two-seaters and micro-compact cars to more realistic vehicles that can carry 4-5 people — and which are hopefully going to be capable of real-world ranges, too.
MSRP: $35,000 (estimated)?Available