Monday, December 21, 2009

LA Auto Show: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

By Jeffrey Zurschmeide

The Los Angeles Auto Show is the biggest, best, most over-the-top auto show on the west coast, and coming as it does a month before the North American International Auto Show (simply known as “Detroit” in the industry), the show has been gaining popularity as a way for automakers to get a jump on the good press for their product launches. So L.A.’s been getting more unveils and concept cars in the past few years.

With the Automobile industry still reeling from the worst year in living memory, it was interesting to see what was featured, what was hyped, and what was spun. Remember that what’s on the show floor today was approved for production at least 18 months ago, so the examples reflect the first surge in fuel prices, but not necessarily the economic meltdown.

Gone are the Hummers, the mighty 10,000-pound Escalades on the giant rotating stages, and the diamond-encrusted concepts on 42-inch wheels. Thank God—those rolling piles of decadence were worse than syphilis, and if it took a near miss on the second Great Depression to purge them from our automotive intestinal system, it was worth it.

But what we saw in Los Angeles this weekend was an industry in transition. We’ve left the 2000s for sure, but we haven’t arrived in the brave new 21st century just yet. Signs of transition were all over the show, and like all industries in a state of flux, the LA Auto Show had plenty to like and plenty to wonder what the automakers are thinking. So forthwith, here’s our assessment of the best, and worst, of the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show.

The Best

Here are our five favorite new cars from the LA Show:

1) Ford Fiesta/Mazda2 - Both Ford and Mazda have been selling this pocket rocket B-platform runabout all over the world for years, and so it was easy to gin up a U.S. market version of the car when the fuel price spike hit. We think they should have done this years ago—back when the official Ford line was that the American public wouldn’t buy a car with less than a 2.5-liter engine. Well, here’s the Fiesta with its 1.6-liter DOHC engine, and people lining up to take a look and slide behind the wheel. About bloody time, we say.

2) MINI Cooper Roadster – We love roadsters. They’re just pure undiluted fun in car form. The concept MINI Roadster (pictured above) takes the convertible form of the popular Anglo-German subcompact and makes it a pure roadrunner. The rear seats go away in exchange for a larger trunk and better convertible top stowage. In classic speedster form, the windshield is raked back and the whole effect says Hot Rod. Inside sources tell us this has already been approved for production, and we can’t wait.

3) 2011 Ford Mustang - We’re Mustang fans here at DrivingSports, and that’s because it’s the most drivable and enjoyable of the retro-pony cars from the Big 3. For 2011, Ford has put new engine technology into the Mustang as part of a general facelift, boosting the base horsepower to 300 for the V6 version. This is the first serious revision to the model since the Mustang went Retro in 2005, but they kept the aggressive styling (just softened the edges a bit) and put their efforts under the skin where they’ll do some good. Ford’s on a roll, and we think the Mustang will continue to lead its class.

4) Lexus LFA – This is clearly Toyota’s response to the Nissan GT-R, and they rocked it. The car has design touches carried over from the last-generation Celica, but taken to supercar status in every way. This car has a DOHC V10 with a 9,000 RPM redline, 552 horsepower, 354 pound-feet of torque, and a top speed over 200 miles per hour. The LFA has design cues you’d expect on a Lamborghini or Ferrari, huge brakes, and aggressive body styling, plus Toyota reliability. If everything Toyota made was this sexy, there wouldn’t even be any other car companies.

5) Audi R8 Spyder - The Audi R8 has been one of the world’s great supercars. With Quattro AWD, over 400 horsepower, and a sexy looking body, the only way they could improve it was to cut the top off and give it more power, so they did. The car is now sporting a 518 horsepower 5.2-liter V10 like its platform-sister Lamborghini Gallardo, but with better lines and Audi interior touches, and a much lower price tag than the Lambo, the Audi still takes the prize.

The Worst

To counterweight the Best in Show, ere are five cars we think the world can do without.

1) Porsche Panamera – Billed as a four-door 911, this car is really just a Cayenne SUV with short legs. It’s got the same AWD system, and it’s about the same size. It’s big. Like Oldsmobile big. Lots and lots of trunk space and rear seat legroom. It’s for the person who loves to have a Porsche crest on the nose, needs to trade in his Cayenne because it’s not cool to have an SUV any more, and really wants a big ol’ family car. We’re sure it’s fast and drives nice, but so is a Cayenne. If you’re going to be that guy, then just man up and be that guy, y’know?

2) Mini Cooper Coupe – This was still just a “concept” in the MINI booth, but knowledgeable insiders tell us that this silly thing has been approved for production. Cut the top off and it’s a MINI—one of the finest cars to come out of this decade, with a lovely 1.6-liter naturally aspirated base model or a peppy turbocharged S edition. But you have to ask what was so wrong with the successful hatchback that MINI decided to do away with the rear seat room and trade the cavernous (and usable) hatch space for a tiny trunk and a design that says "Look Mom, I cut the roof off a VW Beetle and welded it onto your MINI"?

3) Honda Accord Crosstour – Here’s another “Not An SUV, really!” car that’s really an SUV with less ground clearance. The Crosstour is big, ungainly looking, and looks like Honda’s corporate espionage team got some good spy photos of the Panamera in its early stages. The good news is that it’ll be a lot cheaper than the Panamera. The bad news is, you’ll be rolling around in the modern equivalent of an AMC Eagle.

4) Spyker C8 Aileron Spyder - Wretched excess is the name of the game with Spyker. They take nice Audi components and build a car that’s stupid fast, handles great, and looks like it was designed by a committee of nearsighted pimps. Vulgar just isn’t enough to describe the Spyker, and it still manages to be overpriced. But hey, it’s a favorite of Saudi princes and soon-to-be-bankrupt pop singers.

5) Chevrolet Volt – GM is still promising that the Volt electric car will be available Real Soon Now - they just need to add a gasoline engine to motivate the too-large EV farther than its current anemic 40 mile range. Meanwhile, the MINI EV was introduced a year ago, and Nissan is rolling out the all-electric Leaf in December, both with over twice the Volt’s effective range.

Jeffrey Zurschmeide is a freelance writer, a regular contributor to as well as an author of several books, including The New MINI Performance Handbook and High-Performance Subaru Builder's Guide.

1 comment:

nlpnt said...

Fiesta/2: The hardest decision will be between which one. I wonder what the 2's pricing will be (and if this is the reason for the missing Fiesta S hatch)

Mini roadster: Not really my thing but cool for what it is; since the daily driver's got small and FWD covered, if I could swing a toy I'd go for the...

Mustang: 300 hp from the SIX!? In my car-crazed-kid days squeezing 200 from the old carbed 5.0 V8 was a Big Deal!

Lexus LFA: Time to start playing the lottery....

R8 Spyder: Like what I said about the Fiesta/2 conundrum....the R8/LFA one is the problem you dream of having.....

Panamera: 50 years late to the party. Seriously - I would've loved to see a 356 sedan, unmodified VW body shell and all. I want to like this car for its' hatchbackness and not being a Mercedes Equus (or is that Hyundai S-Class) but seriously. Get a 911 and a Fiesta if you've got the bucks.

Mini Coupe: Another of MINI's "every-variant-but-the-obvious-one" attempts. Build a 5-door and get it over with.

Accord Crosstour: You're complaining about LESS ground clearance than an SUV, but I'd rather have the same height as a sedan. If big hatchbacks are coming back (finally!), can we please have them WITHOUT an extra helping of ride height? Please?
Or maybe just a straight-up Accord wagon?

Spyker whatever: Who are they kidding with that dark silver? Anyone who buys this wants to be seen. Desperately.

Volt: Still no date certain? Why reinvent the wheel, Randall Munroe said it best: