So I really think I should be the third Tapper Brother on NPR's Car Talk. Today I went to the Chicago Auto Show, the country's largest auto show. I got to see many things, I didn't bring a bag for booklets nor did I take a bunch of pictures. What I did do was take my time looking at every manufacturer's offerings with an eye for materials, craftsmanship, originality, and appeal. Here are some observations I made:
There is good reason that Ford Motor Company lost $12.4 BILLION (not a typo, that is a B) last quarter (again, not a typo, not last year, just quarter). They have the worst offerings of any company...ANY company. The 3 year old Mustang is still the freshest looking car and it's nostalgia has worn off long ago. After finally giving the Taurus the axe, three months later they have announced that the Five Hundred will be rebadged as the Tarus (the Mercury Montego will now be the Sable) and the Freestyle crossover SUV will now be the Taurus X. Um, don't take your most innovative car and give it a geezer name, you might as well hand me a billion or two and close the doors now. The highlight of the Ford display was the new Focus. The only car with some appeal might win over some small car shoppers, once again though Ford left something on the table. The platform for the new Focus is the same as the old on, ten years old (the old Focus platform debuted in 1997 in the U.K. and in 2000 in the U.S.). The new, much more rigid and flexible platform will remain in European Focci, the Mazda3, and the Volvo S40 & C30. I can't wait to see how little Toyota has to pay to buy Ford in 2010.
Chrysler.... I woke up right at the end to realize that without Jeep, we would see the end of all these brands. Dodge & Chrysler introduced the new Grand Caravan and Town & Country. The T&C had reverse swivel captains chairs that could have a card table, kind of cool if you have a long trip and a poker game planned at the same time. On the outside, they look just like the new Kia Sedona / Hyndai Entourage introduced last year, those vans look like the Honda Odyssey released in 1999, aren't we all falling behind Honda?
No, Honda just released the 2008 Accord Coupe "concept" (80 percent of it will see production) which looks just like the Scion tC. The 4 door Civic Si was my favorite thing there, I miss my little blue rocket ship. Nothing was really new at the Honda camp, just a bunch of rock solid, built to last, most boring cars on the road. I love Honda.
Back to the Jeep camp. First off, you should all know I have a soft spot for Jeeps. I have owned two and loved many. Aunt Annie has had three now. Jeeps are three day stubble charming. They released the new Wrangler, purist loath it, mainstream America loves it. They have already sold 144,000 2007's, they only sold 112k 2006's last year, I think they will hit a quarter million with this more friendly Jeep. You can have power windows and locks on all 4 doors, three piece hard top, navigation, and Yes anti microbial cloth seats, no more stinky Wrangler. Jeep also released a car/SUV I was very very skeptical of, the Jeep Patriot, the Compass is already out, it is too close to car like for my taste, but its sibling in the line up, the Patriot is as close as you can get to the old school Cherokee without having to buy a big ass Commander. I dig the Patriot with the exception there is no V6 motor. I want one actually, they had a Limited 4WD, Sirius, Heated Leather Seats, Sunroof, and most important MANUAL transmission for about $24 grand, thats a lot of Jeep for the buck!
Toyota's new Tundra was kinda bland. It looks like they took pieces of Ford and Nissan and melted them. Under the sheetmetal that thing is a great ammount of truck. Look out Detroit. The one thing they do is build something that lasts forever. They do have to be careful, if one of the big three were to go out of business (Ford first!) then our over reactive government will likely retaliate by putting a $4,000 tariff on each yota, then you'll have $20,000 corollas competing against $14,000 Focuses, well I would save $120 bucks a month by buying the Ford, see my point? Love the new Camry! Prius is still ugly, please stop building them.
Nissan put a Tux on their truck, the Titan, is looks a lot better, they also added a long bed option. You can now get a V8 Pathfinder, the new Altima is shorter in length and height, a little wider and much more attractive. This is a mid size car I could drive everyday and not feel like I am in the vanilla Accord or Camry.
Mini introduced the new Cooper, to most people it will look no different. They kept all the proportions the same, but made it taller, wider, and longer. They main change on the exterior is the grille, instead of horizontal slats of chrome it is now black honeycomb. The interior is much refined with the center stack a little more logically laid out. This is a for U.S. cooper so the hood latch is now on the driver's side, shame.
LS600h, the hybrid version of the flagship luxury sedan from the fine folks at Lexua, displayed it's parking prowess. The auto park system is a very novel idea, most people who see it make them instantly covet the car. Well even the trained tech reps of Lexus could get it right the first time, I even watched it later in the day and they still got it wrong. In the commercial, you see the guy pull up next to the car, little do you know that inside the car, the driver is going through a series of calculations. First, you have to have a parking spot that gives you three feet fore and aft of this long sedan, good luck in Evanston and Chicago. Then using the ultra sonic sensors, the car will ask you to point on the screen where you want it to park. (Imagine doing that on a main street while the hoard of lesser cars behind you just want you the hell out of their way.) Well then comes the rules section, you take your hands off the wheel, keep your foot on the brake and ease up. If you go over 25 mph, the program ends, if you move the steering wheel, the program ends, if you come to a complete stop, the program ends, if something comes within 9 inches of the sensor, you guessed it. I cannot wait to walk down the sidewalk and see someone using the system, I am surely going to stick my hand behind the sensor. The kicker, it won't straighten you out like it does in the commercial, you have to do that last little bit yourself. Anyway, if you can afford a $100,000 car, pay a valet. Lexus also introduced the IS-F, an in house tuner version of their sexy entry level sedan. Designed to compete with BMW's M, Benz's AMG, and Audi's S&RS monikers, this new 400 hp Lexus is what rice boys drive when they sell their .com business for millions of dollars.
VW showed the limited edition Farenheit edition cars. A bright yellow (and $30,000 ?) Jetta with all the options and a brighter orange GTI. VW is all about personality, they still got it.
BMW, a fading Bradshaw favorite had a few new models that were Bangle'd up. (Chris Bangle has been the head of design since 2001, he is responsible for the horrible 7 series and worse Z4. The new X5 is very nice, sharp, a new useless third seat which has become standard fare on all premium midsize SUV's. The new three series coupe is the sexiest thing they have shown since the last three series debuted in 1999. On hand was bimmer's new individual line. For your $70-100k 750i, Li, or 760Li you can choose custom color combinations and rims. Just to note, the more you customize a car, the more you devalue it. Custom cars have lower demand, so the price does not beg a premium. When you buy a car for more than 30 grand, make sure you buy white w/ tan or gray, black w/ tan or black, double gray, or champagne/tan. Blues, Greens, and Reds are for lower priced cars.
Sexiest car of the day, Mercedes-Benz CL63AMG. I am not a highline guy, I like practical cars with utility, but this $160,000 460 Horse coupe is the exception to my practical rule.
Hyundai, Kia, and Suzuki had nothing to show or impress with. They did all that in 2005 with the intro of the Hyundai Sonata / Kia Optima. Those cars are still smart buys, they rival the accord in every way, including reliability, and cost much less.
My manufacturer of the day, GM (not a typo, really, read on)
Chevy introduced all of its new full sized trucks. This is what Chevy knows well. The Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon/Yukon XL/Escalade are still the class of all full sized SUV's. They have cylander deactivation and E85 capability, at least they are trying a little bit. The interior of all these trucks are so far beyond what any American company has invested in build quality and materials in trucks.
Pontiac G8, GXP series, Solstice, drop top G6. The G8 is a full sized car, replacing the Bonneville, that is built by Holden (GM's Austrailian company). This rear wheel drive sedan is a sharp looking, well crafted car. The GT version will have over 350 horsepower with a great suspension setup. The GXP series, Pontiac's performance line, keeping the division's roots in performance alive. You can get Grand Prix GXP with a northstar V8, a G6 GXP with a high feature 260 hp V6, a supercharged Solstice GXP, and of course a 210 horse Torrent GXP SUV. The Solstice now has a weekend racer package which makes the car ready to race in ARCA and Spec racing, all under warranty! The retractable hard top G6 convertible is the first American car with an automatic retracting hard top that happens to also have a sunroof, in case you can't commit.
Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook. GM's Lambda platform for a unibody full sized SUV will likely be the savior as far as compromises go for soccer moms. The trucks are three rows of seats, similar in size to Tahoes, and ride like cars and get much improved gas mileage because of the aluminum frame that saves weight. The Outlook will be the intro level, the GMC is the more upscale, and the Buick is the top of the line. All can be had with V8's, leather, roof, quads, all kinds of entertainment options, and of course, navigation systems.
Saturn is going to be the brand that saves the General from going under. They have decided to make Saturn the division that will appeal to and compete with foreign car companys. How does that happen, well make better cars. GM used it's global resources at Opel (UK) to build the Saturn Aura. Based on the Opel Vectra, the Aura is an attractive sedan (new concept for Saturn) that has high content at a competitive price. The second generation is a Holden (Aus) platform that will be a vast improvement over the previous generation, sadly, the alliance with Honda to have the Pilot's motor in the VUE is gone. The above mentioned Outlook will give the brand a full line of options. The best Saturn at the show was the Saturn Astra, built on the Opel Astra (the best selling compact car in Europe for over 20 years, beating Corolla's, Rabbits, Focus, and Puegot's 206). This car will be a 3 door hatchback (like my Si Civic) or a five-door hatch. It is very attractive, sharpe design, interior materials rival VW & Honda, and the 140 hp motor will get close to 38mpg. Americans will be dumb to buy any other compact American car.
Smart move, GM has given up on Minivans. The Lumina APV never got off the ground, and all successive vans though well thought out and pretty well built never sold like Odysseys, Siennas, and Grand Caravans.
Editor's Note: There is no editor, sorry.... thanks for reading this, my first op-ed.