NEWS

2009 New York Auto Show Winners and Losers

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There were plenty of concept and production cars to sort through at last week’s New York auto show. Kelsey Mays and Joe Wiesenfelder weigh in on what did and didn’t impress them under the bright show lights.

Acura ZDX Concept

KM: Loser
The BMW X6 moves quickly and handles well, but that doesn’t make it a particularly attractive choice — not when buyers are looking for value and practicality more than ever. The ZDX strikes me as a model headed down the same path. It’s relatively cramped inside, with limited cargo capabilities, for a price upward of $50,000. BMW sold — wait for it — 299 X6s in March. Methinks the market for these is small, and shrinking.

JW: Loser
“Bad Timing, Episode I.” Now is a bad time in history to be introducing any new model, as new-car sales are at a decades-long low, automakers are strapped for cash, first generations are seldom profitable, and a product’s success demands prodigious marketing — i.e., money. For its size, the ZDX prototype (scheduled for sale this fall) isn’t especially practical, and I suspect practicality will remain the watchword even once the auto market rebounds. Acura has gotten perilously close to the deep end in terms of styling; this model doesn’t move closer to the edge, but it doesn’t step back much, either.

2010 GMC Terrain

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KM: Winner
I’ve questioned before why anyone would pay for a GMC when its Chevrolet twin costs a few hundred bucks less. The Terrain, at least, differentiates itself cleanly with styling. Its sibling, the redesigned Chevy Equinox, is a promising crossover, and the Terrain’s look should win some fans. Besides, if GM can wring an EPA-estimated 30 mpg on the highway from these crossovers, there’s no reason not to keep ‘em coming.

JW: Winner
What he said. Though I don’t care for the look, I’m impressed by how different it is from the Equinox. If the latter is a viable and efficient model, as it appears to be, why not spread it around for the time being? GMC is profitable, and General Motors needs that now. In the long term, however, the brand is superfluous.


GM/Segway PUMA prototype

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KM: Loser
I rode in this briefly at the Javits convention center. Like the Segway two-wheeler, its operation requires a bit of teeter-totter trickery, with wheels that gyrate back and forth to keep you upright. But viability issues abound — do you really want to share the streets with hyperactive New York taxicabs or witless L.A. fugitives in Scion xBs? Then there are the safety concerns — that’s putting it lightly — not to mention GM’s current straits. If the General is potentially fighting its last stand, I’m not sure why it sent troops to this skirmish.

JW: Epic Loser
“Bad Timing, Episode II: Go Play in Traffic.” The Northeast already thinks of American automakers as Detroit’s Three Stooges, and here is where they choose to roll out an experiment no one — anywhere — should take seriously? I’ve yet to get a read on reactions outside the auto-show bubble, but I immediately envisioned newscasts teasing, “Is this the future of motoring?” and Americans replying, “This is what they’re doing with our tax dollars?!” Inventor Dean Kamen teased the original Segway as a transportation revolution, and it remains little more than a curiosity that serves police officers and tourists. GM must have seen the PUMA as an example of high-tech electric transport, whereas the public will surely see it as a flightless corporate jet and an example of institutionalized cluelessness. This project certainly began long before GM’s crisis, but GM didn’t need to unveil it now. It should know better.


2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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KM: Loser
Chrysler skipper Jim Press said the Grand Cherokee is part of “the new Chrysler.” Is a 5,000-pound SUV whose projected (and improved) V-6 mileage still trails the Nissan Murano and Toyota Venza really what we should expect? It pains me to call the Grand Cherokee a loser, as its interior quality, styling and V-8 towing capabilities are promising. Indeed, if the new Chrysler can make it, this may be one of a few existing nameplates to survive, alongside a lot of reworked Fiats. Given where Chrysler’s at right now, though, it doesn’t scream change.

JW: Loser
“Bad Timing, Episode III: Late for the Party, Early for the Revival.” Jeep’s Grand Cherokee was the life of the pre-party, when it sold hundreds of thousands of luxury(ish) SUVs in the ’90s. Then it became a wallflower as crossovers dialed up the lux and other brands brought the off-roading innovation. The 2011 JGC is impressive, and in a few years, once most brands have dropped truck-based SUVs like socialites dropped martinis, Jeep and similar niche marques will again own this space. Arguably, Chrysler had to do this intro; the Grand Cherokee is a flagship, it’s what they had ready, and they’d appear mortally wounded if they’d introduced nothing at all. But it’s just more fodder for Detroit-bashing. The Grand Cherokee’s next party is still years away.


2010 Subaru Legacy

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KM: Loser
The Legacy will win its share of all-wheel-drive fans, but the cabin doesn’t impart the quality that a Honda Accord, Nissan Altima or even Ford’s new Fusion deliver. The backseat received some badly needed improvements in terms of legroom, and the sport sedan enthusiast in me likes that there’s still a stick-shift/turbo option. But given the car’s ghoulish styling and underwhelming cabin materials, I’m not sold.

JW: Winner
Kelsey puts more faith in his aesthetic appreciation than I do in mine. With the exception of the Mazdaspeed3 (an exception if I’ve ever seen one), I generally leave styling conclusions to the beholder. Subaru lost its way years ago in terms of design, but the Legacy remains an alternative to Camry styling. In the tricky auto-show lights, I didn’t see dramatic differences between this interior and those of the competitors Kelsey names. More important, the 2010 is larger than the 2009, and the Legacy’s backseat needed the legroom more than any other midsize sedan I can think of. With its six-speed manual, the GT should have a unique and sporty character.


 2010 Subaru Outback

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KM: Winner
Though it shares styling elements with the Legacy, the Outback makes them work. I had similar reactions to its interior quality, but the Outback has always seemed like a workaday wagon, not an upscale all-wheel-drive family sedan, so the granola-grade plastics are more acceptable. The cargo area seems at least as large as the outgoing Outback’s, and the rear seats fold easily. One quibble: They only do so when you pull a lever in the seat cushions, so you can’t flip them down from the cargo area.

JW: Winner
The Outback “Sport Utility Wagon” was a great idea when it came out 15 years ago. It’s been a great alternative during the SUV craze, and for 2010 its greatness only grows — along with its size and the popularity of wagons and hatchbacks. The added backseat legroom was overdue. Any model that gets larger and more efficient at the same time has my vote.


Scion iQ Concept

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KM: Winner
Has Toyota outsmarted Smart? It’s possible. The iQ comes with two extra seats — though only the passenger-side one can accommodate anyone larger than Kermit the Frog — and a host of standard safety features, including nine airbags and stability control. If Toyota can post similar or higher mileage figures than the ForTwo’s 33/41 mpg city/highway — and use regular unleaded gas (the ForTwo recommends premium) — then this could be the next popular runabout.

JW: Winner
The Smart ForTwo is the right idea, but it demands way too much sacrifice — seats, cargo space — for its price and gas mileage. Americans will take a chance on a micro car, but it’s best if it’s, you know, a real car: four wheels, more than two seats and decent cargo volume. The iQ makes the GM/Segway PUMA seem all the more ridiculous. If they get the iQ into our market in time for higher gas prices — and tone down the styling a bit — Scion will have a smash hit.


2010 Kia Forte Koup

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KM: Winner
Aside from the asinine “Koup” designation, the two-door Forte is one sharp car. Its sedan partner looked a bit too pedestrian. The coupe fixes all that: It’s sleekly proportioned, with clever details and nothing garish. Given Kia’s penchant for value, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it start under $17,000 — for a car that looks to be far better equipped than the $17,255 Civic LX coupe. Kia’s on a roll.

JW: Winner
Yep, Kia and Hyundai are on fire, gladly exploiting their competitors’ weakness and the return to value-driven car buying. It looks good, it’s well-equipped, and if its mileage is as good as the Civic’s, or even close, it should do well.


2010 Mazdaspeed3

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KM: Loser
Joe mentioned the Speed3’s clownish styling in his video. I found another likeness: Baleen. Yes, those sieve-like plates that whales use to strain edibles from the seven seas. Baleen can resemble party streamers or Venetian blinds — or the smiling lips of the Mazdaspeed3’s lower air dam. Perhaps the owner’s manual specifies the exact type of plankton the turbo four-cylinder prefers. Back to the important stuff: Interior quality is appealing, and there’s performance potential on paper. But remember, you’ll have to see this in your driveway every day. Is that mug really one you can live with?

JW: Loser
Kelsey shows his inveterate geekiness with the same observation I made about Mazda’s Nagare series of concept cars. It looked intriguing then; here it looks abominable, as I already detailed in the “Up Close” report and video. People will buy the Speed3 in spite of it, but I can’t imagine how good the car’s performance would have to be to overcome this clown-faced misfire. This is a blunder on the scale of the original Subaru B9 Tribeca. Someone should fire up the Bat Signal over the Mazda design studio before the Joker finds another face to disfigure.


2010 Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid

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KM: Loser
Do we really need an M-Class hybrid? Granted, Mercedes invested plenty in the technology back in its DaimlerChrysler days, but the M-Class already offers a diesel engine that gets an EPA-estimated 20 mpg overall. The ML450 Hybrid should get about 22 mpg overall. Even accounting for the hybrid’s likely bigger tax credit (the diesel M-Class qualifies for $900) and the savings of premium unleaded versus diesel, I’m not sure the extra fuel efficiency will merit the thousands more an ML450 Hybrid will likely cost. If the hybrid moves without the diesel’s awful accelerator lag, however, I could drum up more enthusiasm.

JW: Winner
I can think of no model in hybrid history that hasn’t served one purpose or another. The original Insight and Prius proved the concept. The Ford Escape proved that hybrid SUVs were viable. The Honda Accord proved that hybrids should add efficiency, not power. GM’s mild hybrids proved that a little more mileage is worth a little more money. As it does in the GM trucks, the 2-Mode system will ensure that people who would have bought an SUV anyway will burn less fuel and pay more for the privilege. Both are good things. I question how sustainable this specific (outrageously expensive) hardware is, but getting the production numbers up can’t hurt the automakers’ profitability. That, too, is for the greater good.


Mitsubishi Outlander GT Concept

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KM: Loser
The Outlander gets the Lancer’s nose. Huzzah. Cabin materials are better in some areas, but vast improvements are still needed. And the V-6 gets another 10 hp? It needed more oomph than that.

JW: Loser
I haven’t been a fan of the Outlander since its growth in 2007. Unlike Kelsey, I don’t think I’d deem this version a loser for being only slightly improved. Wholesale changes are uncommon after only a few years. My issue is that the Lancer styling — which I think is great — doesn’t translate. Maybe the overall effect would be better with paint darker than the concept’s white, but in profile the proportions don’t work. It looks like a nose job where the person picked the wrong nose for his face. It’s a better nose, as noses go, but it doesn’t belong.


2010 Nissan 370Z Roadster

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KM: Winner
The 350Z Roadster always looked a bit awkward, with ungainly proportions and an odd-looking top. How things have changed: The 370Z Roadster is the bespectacled debate-team partner turned leggy Manhattan attorney. See, now you wish you’d stayed in touch. Nissan fixed the Z’s chassis issues in this latest iteration, so I’m confident the droptop will handle like a proper sports car. Don’t believe its billing as some sort of everyday driver, though. Noise levels and overall utility are likely to keep with the 370Z hardtop’s, and neither is good. This being a convertible, of course, those compromises are more acceptable.

JW: Winner
Somehow I can’t see the 350Z Roadster as a bespectacled debate partner. However you see it, though, be sure to see the 370Z. It has a sophistication you don’t get elsewhere in this price range.


2010 Land Rover LR4, Range Rover Sport

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KM: Toss-up
My exposure to the LR4’s predecessor, the LR3 — and its platform-sharing Range Rover Sport —amounts to a couple quick drives some time ago, but the first impressions of both newbies are decent. Quality seems average for a $50,000 luxury SUV, and the new 5.0-liter V-8 should provide enough oomph for the weighty pair. Naturally, reliability needs to improve a great deal.

JW: Losers
New drivetrain or not, I don’t think the LR3 has changed enough to get a new name. I feel like Land Rover’s pulling a fast one — like they did when they based a new model on the cheaper LR3 and called it a Range Rover Sport. With the improvements, the 2010 RRS doesn’t pale as much in comparison to the real Range Rover, but it still isn’t a Range Rover. To me, it’s ever the loser. The LR4’s interior improvements are substantial, and it’s not claiming to be something it’s not. It’s a helluva off-roader, too, but I have a hard time calling anything this large and thirsty a winner in today’s climate — except for the real Range Rover…


2010 Land Rover Range Rover

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KM: Winner
It appears Land Rover has fixed a number of the Range Rover’s niggling issues. The backup camera is still mounted above the rear window — in the outgoing model that placement didn’t show the rear bumper in relation to whatever was nearby — but a new Surround Camera option might mitigate this. The navigation system looks to have been vastly improved, but the rear still employs a liftgate/tailgate combo that appears to be entirely manual. The Range Rover has sold decently despite the industry’s downturn; the new one ought to do just as well.

JW: Winner
I’ve always liked the real Range Rover, and the 2010 updates the interior aspects that had definitely become outdated. Its interior luxury and offroad capability may seem oxymoronic, but it’s the incongruity that makes the RR so exceptional. It’s big, inefficient, expensive and exclusive, and there’s nothing else like it. The greatest threat comes from the name-robbing Range Rover Sport and the LR4, which are just too similar in size and design. I wouldn’t want to be an offroad-vehicle dealer in 2009, but if I were, I’d want to sell Range Rovers.


2010 Volkswagen Golf/GTI

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KM: Winners
Volkswagen’s new — and angrier looking — faces work for me, and cabin materials continue to be outstanding for this class. The shoe drops with overall space — the cargo area is quite small — but that’s no different from before. Gas mileage with the Golf’s 2.5-liter engine will probably be mediocre, but a fuel-efficient diesel option should address that issue. The GTI’s 2.0-liter turbo carries over; I’m not sure why VW didn’t go with the Audi A4’s torquier 2.0-liter, but this one certainly ought to get the job done.

JW: Winners
The new faces, the complexity of the headlights and the distinctions between the Golf and GTI are all winners in my book. Finally, a presence to match the GTI’s personality; can we retire the “Fast” figurine now that the car itself looks a little wicked? I’m good with the interior changes — in a space that didn’t really demand enhancement — with one exception: The faux metal trim in the Golf TDI show car isn’t worthy of VW, the undisputed leader in interior quality.

Photo of David Thomas
Former managing editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David Thomas

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