The pullout storage tray has three compartments to hold   up to 400 lb of gear.

The pullout storage tray has three compartments to hold up to 400 lb of gear.


What's new in the auto world for 2001? Trucks, SUVs, and more trucks and SUVs. The new lineup for GM includes the Pontiac Aztek, Chevy Avalanche, and Buick Rendezvous. Ford beat other automakers to the punch by introducing a combination SUV/pickup, the 2001 Explorer Sport Trac. Also, the Ford Escape enters the compact, "sport-cute" market.

The demand for sport-utes and trucks have put automakers into autodrive. Here's a look at a few of the latest, some of which follow convention, others that defy it.

2001 PONTIAC AZTEK
In an effort to stand out amongst a sea of SUVs, Pontiac has dubbed the Aztek a "sport-recreation vehicle" or SRV. You might ask, how is this different from other sport-utility vehicles? First of all, the Aztek wide-track chassis, with a 62.7-in.-wide front and a rear track of 63.8-in., is wider than most mid-size SUVs such as the Dodge Durango.

Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard. The MacPherson strut front suspension has four-stage shock absorbers valving for smooth ride and handling. A hydro-formed engine cradle gives strength and stiffness at the front of the chassis. On front-wheel-drive models, a twist-beam rear axle has an integral antiroll bar. A short-and-long-arm (SLA) independent rear suspension is specifically engineered for all-wheel-drive models.

In order to minimize unsprung weight, a rear-drive module features aluminum materials for the axle housing, crossmember, control arms, and knuckles. Monotube gas-pressure shock absorbers have a larger piston diameter and greater oil volume for better wheel control and road isolation compared to conventional twin-tube dampers. An optional automatic level-control system adds a bladder around each rear shock absorber. An on-board compressor provides air for the bladder to maintain a level ride when carrying heavy loads or pulling a trailer. An auxiliary outlet sits behind the rear trim, with an air hose and pressure gage for inflating bicycle tires or sports gear.

The Aztek is powered by a 3.4-liter OHV V6 providing 185 hp at 5,200 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Engine features include aluminum cylinder heads, oil sump, and intake manifold to cut weight; sequential fuel injection; forged-steel connecting rods; and roller-type hydraulic lifters and rocker arms.

All-speed traction control using both powertrain and brake systems to control wheel spin is standard on the GT version. Versatrak all-wheel drive directs torque to the wheels with the highest traction. A power takeoff unit (PTU) mates to the front-mounted transaxle. An aluminum driveshaft links the PTU with a rear-drive module. Inside the rear module, two gerotor pumps react to any difference in the rotational speed of the front and rear wheels.

When one of the front wheels begins to slip, the pumps increase fluid pressure to redirect torque to one or both rear wheels through clutches. When the wheels stop slipping, the clutches disengage and the vehicle returns to front-wheel drive. The compact Versatrak system fits under the flat rear load floor and has electronic and mechanical safeguards to prevent damage from overload.

As far as cargo room goes, dropping the tailgate lets the cargo area hold four 4 X 8-ft sheets of 3 /4-in. building materials. Removing the rear seats opens up a 93.5 ft 3 cargo area. A sliding rear cargo tray system transports up to 400 lb. The tray rolls onto the open tailgate for loading and unloading, then rolls forward and latches. A dual-door pop-up unit on the right side is subdivided with nets into three separate compartments. The left side of the tray has a hidden compartment underneath. A grab handle and roller wheels let the tray be removed from the vehicle.

Another option is a reconfigurable cargo net system. Loads to 35 lb can be carried next to each rear side panel. Two larger cross-vehicle nets are rated at 100 lb each. The system can be reconfigured 22 different ways using the floor-mounted anchors.

A portable console/cooler, standard on the GT, holds up to a dozen 12-oz beverage cans. Also, removable utility packs sit in the front door trim. The Aztek offers three custom accessory packages: the camping package, the biking package, and the hiking package. All this can be yours for $21,995 base model, and $24,995 for the GT.

2001 FORD EXPLORER SPORT TRAC
The Ford Explorer Sport Trac is the first sport-ute to add a composite cargo area, as well as hosting the first power rear window in a truck or SUV.

Based on the Ford Explorer, the frame is 14.25-in. longer. The Sport Trac's frame is 40% laterally stiffer than the Explorer, said to make it more agile on and off road. The stiffness comes from additional gussets on the longitudinal beams, as well as a tubular cross-member and thicker-frame side rails. To combat road and engine vibration, Ford engineers used microcellular urethane body mounts rather than solid rubber ones.

The Sport Trac is powered by a 4.0-liter SOHC V6 engine with 205 hp at 5,250 rpm and 240 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. A five-speed automatic transmission mates to the V6, and a five-speed manual is on the horizon.

An independent torsion bar, SLA suspension is up front. Two-stage variable-rate leaf springs in the rear are said to help give a smoother ride, regardless of load. With light loads, the primary leaf springs work to keep the ride smooth. For heavier loads, a second, stiffer leaf contacts the first to maintain the smooth ride. Revalved shocks match the new spring rates. A 30-mm front stabilizer bar on the 4 2 and 32-mm on the 4 4 helps during cornering. A 19.5-mm rear stabilizer bar is on both models.

Four-wheel drive can be engaged while the vehicle is moving via an electronic shift transfer case with automatic locking hubs. Engaging 4WD is done by turning a switch on the instrument panel to 2WD for normal rear-wheel driving, 4WD high for slippery surfaces at higher speeds, and 4WD low to handle heavy snow or mud-covered surfaces at low speeds. A limited-slip rear axle comes with a 3.73 final drive ratio or a 4.10 axle ratio. This optional system gives the Sport Trac better traction by limiting the power differences between the two rear wheels.

Finally, there's the 29.6 ft 3 of cargo space. The strength behind it is sheet molding composite (SMC) plastic. SMC is 20% lighter than traditional steel pickup boxes and is said to be more durable. The composite plastic is recyclable and withstands temperature ranges of 150 to 40°F. The entire cargo area is composite, with the exception of a steel D-pillar and tailgate. The cargo area has a weatherproof 12-V outlet, and 10 cargo hooks, each capable of holding 700 lb.

A heavy-duty stainless-steel cargo cage is an option. It's a removable, lightweight U-shaped device which hinges into the sides of the cargo area. When more cargo length is needed, the tailgate is lowered and the cage pivots 180° to rest on the tailgate floor, giving 22.6-in. additional cargo length. To deter thieves, the cage can only be removed when the tailgate is unlocked and open. Also available is a 70-lb lockable hard tonneau cover.

The Explorer Sport Trac 4 2 lists for $23,075, $25,820 for the 4 X 4 model.

2002 Buick Rendezvous

The Rendezvous will be Buick's first truck-based vehicle since 1923, and is said to combine features from SUVs, luxury sedans, and minivans. Available in the spring of 2001, the 2002 Buick Rendezvous features a reconfigurable interior that can seat seven passengers with a third row of seats, or use the space to store 108.9 ft 3 of cargo. With the push of a lever, the two-passenger, third-row seat folds into the floor. Weighing only 36 lb, a composite liftgate gives access to the 48-in.-wide fold-flat rear cargo area.

It appears the Rendezvous uses the same 3.4-liter OHV V6 power plant as the Aztek, with 185 hp at 5,200 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

The vehicle also shares the Versatrak all-wheel-drive system with the Aztek. The suspension also sounds suspiciously familiar. The SLA independent rear suspension attaches each wheel to a cast aluminum crossmember and upper and lower control arms. Aluminum knuckle assemblies minimize total and unsprung weight. Curved coil springs sandwich between each lower control arm and the rear suspension crossmember. Monotube rear shock absorbers help smooth out rough roads. Like the Aztek, an optional automatic level-control system is available.

A body control module (BCM) sits inside the center console and is the heart of the electrical system. It connects electrically and mechanically to the bused mechanical center, a device that concentrates a large number of wire terminations, fuses, and relays in one location with service access through a door in the console. Functions managed by the BCM include ignition, driver warning signals, interior and exterior lights, door locking and unlocking, rear-hatch release, theft alarm, power control such as battery rundown protection, and custom operations such as exit lights, automatic door locks, and remote lock confirmation.

A safety cage unibody is a network of steel beams that are said to absorb energy and protect passengers in a collision. A hydroformed S-shaped reinforcement tube resists collapse in an area where the frame rails drop below the passenger compartment. Door beams transfer more load from the A-pillar into the B-pillar, to keep the door opening from collapsing.

A neat feature is an ultrasonic intrusion-alert system that can be armed to sound an alarm when it detects motion inside the locked vehicle. The OnStar GPS system, providing emergency assistance as well as travel support, is optional equipment on the Rendezvous. Pricing is not yet available.


2001 FORD ESCAPE

With its eye on the compact SUV market, Ford developed the Escape on a platform in concert with Mazda. Measuring 17-in. shorter than the Explorer, the Escape competes with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.

Powerplant options include a DOHC 2.0-liter Zetec I-4 or 3.0-liter Duratec V6, both manufactured in Cleveland. The Duratec V6 is the same power-plant found in the Taurus, boasting 200 hp at 6,000 rpm and 200 lb-ft of torque at 4,750 rpm. The Zetec four-cylinder has 130 hp at 5,400 rpm with 135 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. Linked to the four-cylinder engine is a five-speed manual tranny, while the V6 has a four-speed with automatic/overdrive.

The traditional front suspension consists of MacPherson struts attached to lower control arms, and an independent rear suspension with double lateral link and trailing arms. The front-wheel-drive Escape has an optional all-wheel-drive system. Dubbed "Control Trac II," in auto mode the Escape runs in front-wheel drive until it senses slipping wheels. Then, a rotary blade coupling activates a clutch that sends up to 100% of torque to the rear axle. In the guts of the coupling is a silicone-filled chamber with a three-blade fan. When slippage starts at the front wheels, the fan spins, heating and expanding the fluid. This produces the pressure necessary to engage the clutch, which then transmits torque.

When the driver-selected "4 4 lock" mode is on, an electromagnet energizes a clutch pack which locks a ball ramp to the input shaft. When the front wheels slip, the ball ramp turns, overriding the rotary blade coupling and pressurizing the multiplate clutch.

The five-passenger Escape has 34.8 ft 3 of cargo room which, by folding the second row seats, increases to 68.5 ft 3 . Base price for the Escape XLS with the Zetec four-cylinder is $18,160, and the V6-powered XLT starts at $19,710.


2002 CHEVROLET AVALANCHE

The cargo cover converts the bed into a variety of configurations   and can be stored on board the vehicle.

The cargo cover converts the bed into a variety of configurations and can be stored on board the vehicle.


Basically a Suburban with the top of the back end cut off, the ultimate-utility vehicle, or UUV Avalanche is scheduled to hit showrooms in spring, 2001. The exterior is clad with panels similar to those on an armored vehicle, giving credence to its tough-guy image. A Convert-a-Cab system expands the truck from a five passenger vehicle with a 5-ft 3-in. bed to a 8-ft 1-in. bed. To convert the cab, a weatherproof composite midgate folds forward and the rear window is removed and stored against the inside of the midgate. A three-piece composite cover interlocks with tabs, letting each piece be removed independently of the others.

The Avalanche shares most of its basic chassis and body structure with the 2000 Suburban. It also shares its 5.3-liter Vortec V8, which boasts 285 hp at 5,200 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. While pricing has not yet been determined, a safe estimate is around $32,000.