Wheels of fortune

For car fanatics, January means one thing. Well, two: the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows, where new products are introduced and where the hottest new concepts are displayed

Even though the V8 engine made a roaring return, journalists voted BMW’s charming Mini Cooper 2003’s Car of the Year.

Even though the V8 engine made a roaring return, journalists voted BMW’s charming Mini Cooper 2003’s Car of the Year.

Last weekend, the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show opened in the convention center next door to Staples Center, where the Lakers and Clippers play. This weekend, the North American International Auto Show opens in Detroit’s Cobo Center.

Those of us accursed car fanatics who couldn’t go have been hunkered over our computer keyboards at home. Feverishly pointing and clicking, we’ve been trying to get the lowdown on next year’s models along with the latest “concept cars”—those corporate statements of automotive outrageousness car companies like to build to test-market ideas that will show up later in production models.

It’s weird being a car freak these days—the kind of person who would rather drool over the spreads in Car and Driver or Automobile magazines than over the ones in Playboy. According to most news accounts, this country is about to go to war with Iraq, a sovereign nation in the Middle East that just happens to be sitting on a sizable reservoir of low-sulfur crude oil. And down in South America, Venezuela, the largest supplier of petroleum products to the western United States, is on the brink of a civil war.

OK, so many Americans today couldn’t find Iraq or Venezuela on a map and probably couldn’t care less as long as the price of gas continued to hover around $1.50 a gallon. But an American two or three decades ago would have been spooked. Out would have come the creaky old bicycle to be oiled and then pedaled, rain or shine, to and from work in defiance of those evil oil barons.

Not so, today. At a time when better sense tells us we should be riding bicycles or cramming ourselves into tiny cars that sip gasoline like misers, we don’t—because we don’t want to get run off the road by a Lincoln Navigator or Cadillac Escalade. When in Rome … well, you know the rest.

We live in strange days. But, for those of us who love new cars, they’re good days—even if many of the car companies seem to be woefully out of touch with reality.

According to Ford’s design vice-president, J Mays, the Ford 427 concept exemplifies the future of the American family car, which just goes to show the peculiar sense of denial that seems to possess today’s carmakers. Hey, it’s got a big V10 engine, oil crisis be damned, not to mention a front end that looks like some aftermarket “bling bling” grille for an F-150 pickup. If Ford builds the thing, it may be badged with the old family name of Galaxie.

What? The funny Wankel makes a comeback? Mazda’s new rotary-powered, rubber-burning RX-8.

“Heritage” is big with carmakers these days, as it should be; the best automobile designs spring from a coherent articulation of a marque’s—or automobile brand’s—historical flow of styling cues. Mays and Freeman Thomas (now at DaimlerChrysler) were the designers who developed Volkswagen’s New Beetle, the model that brought retro styling back with a vengeance.

Ford was scheduled to introduce a number of new cars at the two auto shows this month, including the next iteration of the Mustang. Though Mays’ press-conference quote was a blinding flash of the obvious—something about “anybody can design a sporty car, but only Ford can design a Mustang” (well, duh, and only Chevy can design a Camaro)—the car itself looks pretty impressive. The sharply cut convertible and GT coupe updates, and quite nicely, the architecture of the 1968-1970 ’Stangs, arguably the cleanest design in that model’s history. And the new one’s packing a 400-bhp, 4.6-liter supercharged V8 mill.

Not to be outdone, the Japanese division of Ford, Mazda, introduced the RX-8, its first Wankel rotary-powered car since the demise of the gas-guzzling RX-7.

Ford wasn’t the only delusional automaker exhibiting. DaimlerChrysler, the German industrial conglomerate that swallowed one of Detroit’s big three a few years ago, went public with its decision to build the next generation of its LH cars (Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Intrepid) with big front engines and rear-wheel drive. At the media hoopla leading up to the Detroit show, the company formerly known as Mopar introduced a sleek sport-utility vehicle “crossover”—think “station wagon on steroids”—called the z, which features a 430-bhp, 5.7-liter hemi-head V8. Yow!

For sheer excess, though, it’s difficult to top the newly revived Maybach marque. Built in Germany by DaimlerChrysler’s Mercedes-Benz division, the Maybach comes in two models, the 57 and the 62. As with yachts, the numbers refer to metric length. These 550-bhp, V12-powered cars compete with Volkswagen’s Bentley and BMW’s Rolls-Royce divisions for the chauffeur-driven crowd, and they don’t come cheap; prices start upward of $300,000. At a Detroit press conference last Monday, noted car enthusiast Jay Leno did the introduction. At least he can afford one.

While Ford and Chrysler have been putting out interesting cars for at least the past decade, General Motors has been lagging behind. Seriously. Sure, the General’s overseas divisions—SAAB in Sweden and (the partially GM-owned) Isuzu, Suzuki and (especially) Subaru in Japan—have turned out a number of exciting designs. And GM’s moribund Italian partner FIAT owns Alfa-Romeo, whose cars may be offered here by Cadillac dealers soon. Fiat also owns Lancia, Ferrari and Maserati.

But domestically, GM has been rather clueless; it killed off Oldsmobile and refashioned the once dominant American family-car maker Chevrolet into a truck company. GM watched Cadillac be eaten alive by European and Japanese luxury marques and continued to churn out Buicks that looked like Batesville caskets on wheels. It saddled Pontiac with some of the ugliest cars on the road, with unsightly plastic body cladding that was the design equivalent of an Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo. Only GM’s anti-car division, Saturn, seemed to have an idea of how to sell cars.

Then, Bob Lutz, largely responsible for Chrysler’s 1990s renaissance, was hired by GM to be its vice-chairman of product development. Last year, he showed up at the car shows with a pair of sleek, two-seat Pontiac Solstice sports cars that quickly had been assembled from GM’s parts bins.

Return of the station wagon: Dodge’s Magnum, with V8 power and rear-wheel drive—perfect for adolescent lawn jobs.

And last weekend, Lutz—now chairman of GM North America—barged into a press conference in a 2004 Pontiac GTO, essentially a re-badged rear-wheel-drive V8 model called the Monaro, built by GM’s Australian subsidiary, Holden. Like the Solstice and the just-redesigned Grand Prix, the new GTO boasts sheet metal that’s clean and curvaceous. No Yngwie solos here.

In the parlance of auto-mag writers, Lutz is a “car guy,” the kind of person who’s more inclined to turn a company around by introducing new products than by juggling its books. With GM, he had his work cut out for him, although he seems to be pulling it off. Cadillac has repositioned itself with a number of edgy, angular—and controversial—designs and by licensing Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” to drive its new image home in its ads. Buick’s current lineup is still ugly, but show cars such as the Bengal and La Crosse are voluptuously extravagant. If those design cues ever make it to production models, look out. And Chevrolet has a number of new cars, including a sleek coupe called the SS; an updated 1953-pickup-meets-the-El Camino concept called the SSR; and a still homely Accord/Camry competitor called the Malibu.

While the car companies unveiled a surprising number of vehicles powered by V8s and larger—on Monday, Lutz introduced the Cadillac Sixteen, a sedan powered by a 1,000-bhp, 13.6-liter V16—a jury of auto journalists awarded the 2003 Car of the Year award to the Mini Cooper. The Mini is a whimsical but fun updating (by BMW) of Sir Alec Issigonis’ classic econobox design. In the 1950s, the design introduced the transverse-mounted, front-wheel-drive, four-banger layout that since has become ubiquitous, from the Volkswagen Golf to the Honda Civic. The Mini beat out some worthy contenders, including Nissan’s 350Z and its sibling, the Infiniti G35.

It would seem that the future would lie in this direction, which Toyota tacitly acknowledged by finally launching its youth-oriented Scion marque. If countries are going to go to war over oil, isn’t it rather insane for automakers to be introducing a bunch of gas-guzzling cars? Shouldn’t the companies be expending that creative energy by developing models that move people in style while sipping gas?

Some still do—in Europe and Japan.

Though American car magazines tend to push a politically conservative and pro-gas-guzzler point of view, such magazines as the excellent English monthly Car do a good job of covering automotive design in the real world. For example, can you guess what country is a hotbed of automobile design and manufacture right now? Car companies are losing money all over Europe, except in France.

Yes, that’s right. France. You wouldn’t know it because the two big French automakers—Renault and PSA Peugeot-Citröen—were hosed out of the American market years ago. Renault is still here, in a way; it owns a controlling stake of Nissan, arguably the hottest Japanese manufacturer right now.

But in Europe, such subcompacts as Renault’s Megane and Peugeot’s 206 prove that cars can be stylish and fun to drive, and concept cars like Citröen’s sleek Airdream and Renault’s quirky Ellypse indicate the French may become a force to be reckoned with.

Now, if Renault would just drop a V12 into its weird-looking Vel Satis saloon, it might have a shot at re-entering the American market.

Don’t get me wrong. Sure, I’d like to burn some rubber in Cadillac’s 1,000-bhp Sixteen or perhaps in Porsche’s new 450-bhp SUV, the Cayenne Turbo. And the idea of being chauffeured around in a Maybach 62 excites me greatly. It’s just that, in the real world, that’s a level of decadence I can’t afford—financially or morally.

And it’s in the real world that we must drive.