Pick-up game in Chicago
American automakers that think they own the truck market -- get ready for the Tundra.
By Alex Taylor III, FORTUNE senior editor

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - It may come as a shock to hometown boosters in New York, Los Angeles and Detroit, but the biggest auto show in North America opens on Feb. 8 and it isn't in any of those cities. Instead it fills the cavernous spaces of McCormick Place in Chicago and draws more potential customers than exhibitions in those lesser cities. Expect it to make plenty of news this year.

Domestic automakers have known about Chicago for years -- they still have a huge buyer base in the heartland -- and they have scheduled a number of important new model introductions for the 2006 show. However, they are being upstaged this year by, of all people, Toyota (Research).

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It has chosen Chicago as the venue for unveiling its new full-size pick-up truck, the Tundra. That may not mean much to city drivers, but pickups remain enormously popular in the United States: Ford's F-Series and Chevrolet's Silverado have been the best and second-best selling vehicles in America for years. They are distinctly American -- fullsize pickups are made no place else in the world -- and they are also among the most profitable vehicles made by Ford (Research) and General Motors (Research) because they have had little foreign competition. Until now.

Toyota, which has made several efforts to crack the big pickup market, is making its most serious effort to date with the 2007 Tundra. So serious is Toyota this time that it is erecting a giant new plant in San Antonio, Texas, to build the Tundra. Since Texas has more pickups per capita than any other state, that effort represents a deliberate slap in the face to Detroit. It will have the capacity to build up to 300,000 trucks a year.

The other big news at Chicago isn't a car or truck but a new feature from OnStar, GM's in-car service that combines the functions of GPS navigation system with a live human at the other end of a cell phone connection. Details of the new feature are supposed to remain secret until Feb. 7, but it is sufficiently important for chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner to put aside his worries about a possible bankruptcy for one day and introduce it in person.

Without giving too much away, it is safe to stay that OnStar will take a giant step toward making it easier for people to get to their destination and it may have developed the "killer ap" that will make OnStar as essential as satellite radio.

After On-Star, it will be cars, cars, cars. Chrysler is taking the wraps off the 2007 Dodge Nitro, its first mid-size SUV. Not quite as hot as its name, the Nitro shares its engineering with the Jeep Liberty, and shares its boxy lines too, punctuated by Dodge's signature crosshair grille. Chrysler lately has been showing new designs that are deliberately provocative and the Nitro fits into that category.

Chevy will launch the latest iteration of its new full-size truck platform with the 2007 Chevy Avalanche. The first vehicle to combine the passenger carrying capability of an SUV with the cargo capacity of a truck, the Avalanche proved unexpectedly popular during the SUV boom but may have trouble duplicating that success now that gasoline prices are stuck at seemingly high levels.

Lincoln comes to Chicago with a new truck too, the Navigator SUV. Besides trim and feature changes, the Navigator gets a big brother with a wheelbase that is exactly one foot longer -- another vehicle that was planned before gas prices took off. It's basically a replacement for Ford's Excursion, which won the Sierra Club's Exxon Valdez award for environmental destruction, although it's not quite as big.

A couple of new minivans will be displayed. Hyundai, now the 12th most popular brand in America, with 2005 sales up 8.7 percent, shows off its first minivan, appropriately called the Entourage. Nissan restyles its Quest minivan to take some of the spaceship elements out of the interior in the hope of attracting more soccer moms. Finally, Volkswagen gives Americans its first look at a non-minivan, the four-door Golf. The Golf is practically a used car by now, having already been on sale across the Atlantic for some two years before arriving in the U.S.

All told, this could be Chicago's breakout show, with enough newsworthy events to finally make its profile visible on both the East and West coasts. Now, if the Bears had only gotten into the Super Bowl.... Top of page