BUSINESS

THE HOTTEST NEW LOOKS ON THE ROAD

BARBARA RIGHTON March 3 2008
BUSINESS

THE HOTTEST NEW LOOKS ON THE ROAD

BARBARA RIGHTON March 3 2008

THE HOTTEST NEW LOOKS ON THE ROAD

2008 AUTO REPORT

BARBARA RIGHTON

Car company executives fell all over themselves at the 2008 North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month, trying to prove they were green, green, green, or at least inclined to lean that way sometime in the near future. They talked, talked, talked about biodiesel fuel, and hybrids and lithium ion batteries, but it’s all still theoretical. At Saturn, a tiny plug-in hybrid concept called Flextreme actually had to be pushed out onto the stage. But, whether they ran or not, most every earth-friendly car was a concept—including Henrik Fisker’s US$80,000 plug-in hybrid called, appropriately enough, Karma. Some worthwhile announcements were made. GM CEO Rick Wagoner heralded a partnership with Illinois start-up Coskata to develop bio-ethanol from garbage. Still, overall, Detroit was about power and getting a good preview of what to watch for at this week’s Toronto Auto Show. North American automakers are still more about getting people where they’re going in a hurry, while putting out ideas for a green future that are at least intriguing.

CHEVY MALIBU

Aiming at Toyota

For the second year in a row, GM won the North American Car of the Year award from automotive journalists for its redesigned 2008 Chevy Malibu. No yawning please. The frontwheel drive, five-passenger sedan, which GM likes to call “the car you can’t ignore,” is aimed straight at the bestselling Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, no apologies or employee discounts offered. GM’s Bob Lutz claims dealers can’t keep them in stock, which must mean that families, especially in the U.S., love a fourdoor with a big trunk and a base price of US$19,345. Sporty types, however, can ante up as much as $37,000 for the 3.5-litre V6 with two-tone leather upholstery. They better not be wide-beamed though; the bucket seats in the leather version are a tight fit.

MINI CLUBMAN

Not so Mini-me

While other car companies are sizing down, this cute-as-a-button BMW-owned British brand is getting bigger, but not by much. For 2009, Mini comes in a Clubman, a five-seater that offers 80 mm more legroom in the back seat and a slightly larger wheelbase. In other words, it’s still small and plenty quick. In the Clubman S, there’s a turbo-charged engine that promises 0-62 mph in 7.6 seconds, with a top speed just under 140 mph. The Clubman, like other Minis, comes standard with a six-speed gearbox and, in the U.S., an integrated Apple iPhone. For back-seat passengers, the Clubman adds a rear-hinged Clubdoor, and there’s a pair of centre-split doors at the back. The Clubman will start at US$20,600 and is due any time now.

HUNNER HX

Dino Rocks

Okay, it’s a Hummer. But the HX concept is so small compared to its bruiser predecessors that it looks like it was hatched from a dinosaur egg. It’s also stylish in a slantback that features removable doors and fender flares, 35-inch tires, and instruments that change from a tachometer and a speedometer to a wheel-angle indicator for people who don’t know if they’re up or down while off-roading. Environmentalists may wring their hands, but Erich Merkle, an auto analyst for IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., likes the HX. Says Merkle, “Hummer had to get smaller to survive, but the HX is still rugged. It’s a good alternative to the Jeep Wrangler.” GM promises that the HX, if it’s ever built, will run on flex-fuel, if it’s ever available.

JEEP RENEGADE

Zany and Holistic

One of three odd-looking electric concepts from Chrysler, the apple-green Jeep Renegade dune buggy (with a waterproof interior and a drain plug, so the car can be hosed out after a particularly messy off-road experience) was zany and colourful enough to draw a huge crowd. Many people had to climb up on the Dodge minivans littered around the Chrysler display just to see the stage. All three were produced by an in-house division called Envi, whose mandate is to develop “next generation” vehicles. Their add-ons—like WiFi, automatic wireless map updates, email, Web access—will soon be available in all Chryslers, executive vice-president Frank Klegon promised, because they are a part of the company’s new “holistic thinking in the future.”

HONDA PILOT

Better Safe

Building up to the unveiling of its redone 2009 Pilot minivan, Honda flashed so many lights and pounded out so much loud music that the vehicle itself was a letdown. Honda swears the styling is bolder on its second-generation, eight-passenger, “funner” family SUV, but it still looks boxy. Soccer moms won’t care. This Pilot has a new version of Honda’s fuelsaver variable-cylinder management technology, which means it works on all six cylinders when accelerating, and runs on four or even three cylinders while cruising along the highway. All this makes it more efficient than its predecessor, and even better, this time there are no cheap seats—the third row promises plenty of room for normal-sized adults. The Pilot will be available this spring.

TOYOTA VENZA

Fence-sit No More

At the “unveil” for its new five-passenger American-built wagon, Toyota reps were so hyper they checked press badges three times. Then they drove the car right up the aisle to centre stage where cameramen rushed to take its picture. Toyota executives described the 2009 Venza as a “crossover wagon” for “fencesitters” who are migrating back to sedans from SUVs. Designed in California, and built at the Camry plant in Georgetown, Ky., the Venza is for “active boomers,” said general manager Bob Carter, and “young families looking to move down from large SUVs or up from mid-size sedans.” In other words, pretty much everybody. Pricing is not yet announced, but Carter said it would be somewhere between US$18,750 and $27,300.

FORD VERVE

Cheap Chic

If its moniker seems like an oxymoron, the tiny, four-cylinder concept from the beleaguered No. 3 automaker may spark interest among the group Ford is calling the “Millenials”—13to 28-year-olds who want a car even smaller and more stylish (duh) than the Focus. The Verve, as shown in Detroit, was a little gem, complete with a glass roof, a pillarless side window that makes the fourdoor look like a coupe, and spoked, 18-inch tires. The red and black two-tone interior, extending to an obtrusive dash, was overdone, though Ford calls it sophisticated. But executive Jim Farley (a Toyota transplant) says the Verve is Ford’s future: a three-door is selling in Europe now and this one will be here in 2010. Kids, start saving.

FORD F-150

No Bull

Chrysler executive Jim Press threw a barn coat over his silk tie and staged a stampede outside Detroit’s Cobo Center, complete with longhorns and cowboys, to promote the new Dodge Ram. Ford invited scruffy country singer Toby Keith to admire its new 10th-generation all-V8 F-150 and exclaim as how he had to have one to add to the half-dozen he owns already. The new Ford is tall and muscular-looking and promises better stability and a larger supercrew, plus a rear-view camera so the reverse-challenged can see what they’re doing. As Press said, there is a whole herd of choices in pickup trucks. But Ford owns the market; the F-150 has been the topselling truck in the U.S. and Canada for decades. So step aside, Mr. Shiny Shoes. M