As auto shows in Chicago go, 2011 brought a decent crop of announcements. Fast cars have been a pariah in recent years, so the gearheads in us like that they’re back — especially among mainstream nameplates. Editors Kelsey Mays, Mike Hanley, David Thomas and Joe Wiesenfelder weigh in on this week’s Windy City debuts.
2012 Acura TL
Kelsey Mays: Winner
The TL’s toned-down grille suits the car better, and I can abide (barely) by the lower-bumper openings, which mirror those on the ZDX crossover-thing. With a rear bumper that doesn’t protrude to quite such a hard point in the middle, the rear is a certain improvement. Last year’s TL “really sagged down” in back, an Acura spokesman said. I agree. Add to that the car’s gas mileage improvements — which are considerable with its base V-6 — and the TL rides high.
Mike Hanley: Winner
Give Acura credit for recognizing a problem with the design of the TL and doing something about it. The sedan’s new face has removed the controversial elements of the car but in the process created one without much of a design identity. It’s a clean look, but not particularly memorable. Still, I’m betting TL sales will increase.
Joe Wiesenfelder: Winner
Simply a more cohesive design that befits the car’s other impressive attributes. This shows how much can be done in a midcycle refresh, though it was clearly an extensive — and expensive — one.
David Thomas: Loser
I liked the TL’s design in 2009 because it was futuristic and was wrapped around a terrific vehicle. However, the buying public has spoken, and they didn’t find it appealing. This update isn’t enough to sway those people, and I doubt the impressive-to-us upgrades to the powertrains will, either.
2012 Buick Regal with eAssist
The 2.4-liter Regal gets 23 mpg combined; the eAssist could manage 30 mpg overall. However you feel about the trim’s wonky name, the mileage improvements are nothing to sneeze at — and reason enough for GM not to be bashful of calling this a hybrid, especially given the drivetrain’s workings.
The mileage gains are indeed impressive, and they’re enough to make this a winner for me. I wonder, though, whether hybrid buyers will want more in terms of design differentiation — the kind Hyundai has given consumers with its Sonata Hybrid.
Mild hybrids are a good idea, and I believe this generation will prove it. Hybrids are a cost/benefit conundrum, and conventional hybrids generally cost way too much to build. A beefed-up alternator and small battery pack can make a huge difference without the cost of two powertrains.
The Regal originally impressed me as a comfy commuter with a high level of luxury for the price in its non-turbo form. Adding such a mileage gain with limited trade-offs will only make this car more alluring in the segment. The eAssist moniker is a clear Loser, however.
2012 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
It never made sense to me why Chevy would bring back the storied Z28 moniker, as the rumor mill has been chanting for months, for a monster engine that’s slotted above the Camaro SS. That’s a flip-flop of what usually has been the case through the car’s 45-year history. Given the ZL1’s impressive onetime tenure, that moniker seems more appropriate. The Camaro isn’t perfect by a long shot. But the story here is the drivetrain, and having experienced it in the Corvette ZR1, I’m giving a thumbs-up.
Though not as stout as the 638-horsepower V-8 in the Corvette ZR1, the notion of a 550-hp engine in the nearly two-ton Camaro should bring a smile to any muscle-car enthusiast. I also like that Chevrolet gave the ZL1 a face all its own — and one that’s reminiscent of the “Bumblebee” Camaro — without adding any excessive styling bits.
I say winner for two reasons, both of which reflect my reluctance toward the Camaro. First, the car needs to lose at least 500 pounds. That ain’t gonna happen, so the addition of power and an adaptive suspension should give a similar impression. Second, the styling never moved me, but I appreciate that the ZL1 is relatively understated, at least in the profile and rear views.
Look at the ZL1 from the side or rear, and it’s hard to tell there is anything special about what will surely be one very expensive muscle car. The front seems too toyish as well. I walked over to the Ford booth and soaked in a dark-gray Shelby GT500 with black stripes and wanted it more, much more, than the ZL1. That car looks radically different than a standard Mustang GT. Besides the big, black mole on the hood, the ZL1 doesn’t really stand out.
2012 Dodge Charger SRT8
In person, the Charger SRT8 looks a bit overdone — too many cut lines, particularly in the rear bumper — but let’s not forget its raison d’être: a conveyance for Chrysler’s mammoth 465-hp, 6.4-liter Hemi V-8. A K-Car could carry this engine, and I might offer kind words for the overwhelmed train wreck of a subcompact that would result. That the Charger has a nice pedigree is icing on the Hemi-stamped cake. A full-size sedan that runs 12s through the quarter-mile, likely for well under $50,000? Yes, please.
I’m not sure why Dodge felt the need to go all Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution with the face of the Charger SRT8 because the car looks pretty burly in regular form, but it’s easy to like the 6.4-liter V-8 under the hood. With a zero-to-60 mph time in the high 4-second range, how could you not?
Honestly, I think the non-SRT version is a bit overdone, and this one takes it further. But we’ll have to let the consumers decide about aesthetic issues. I grew up with big V-8s in big rear-drive cars. What’s not to like?
I want to call it a Loser to be contrarian and to point out how poorly done the front grille treatment is. How hard would it have been to get rid of the upper crosshairs and just make one ginormous crosshair out of that big black stripe in the middle? Regardless, the silver with black maw looks menacing in person, and I can only imagine how scary it will be approaching in the rearview mirror, just like the current SRT8.
2012 Hyundai Genesis
Hyundai is flexing its engineering might, and that’s nowhere more evident than in the Genesis sedan. Combine a chassis as dynamic as anything Hyundai has produced with more power and better fuel efficiency, and the Genesis is an easy winner. The 5.0 R-Spec is compelling, but the real magic is in the base 3.8-liter V-6, whose direct-injection technology renders an impressive 333 hp and 29 mpg highway.
The Genesis didn’t have any glaring issues that needed fixing, and the changes for 2012 only make it more appealing. The design has been — and remains — a bit understated, but that’s fine by me.
We named the original sedan our Cars.com Best of 2009, and I like it no less today than I did then. The upgrades are welcome, and I believe this car represents Hyundai’s best chassis work — better than the Genesis Coupe — so I look forward to the R-Spec version. Maybe it will get the car more attention, because it has never sold as well as it should have.
Again, I’m going to point to the consumer who hasn’t noticed the Genesis despite heaps of deserved praise for the Loser score. This version will only be better, but like the TL, the market is too crowded with distinctive and well-reviewed competitors.
2011 Toyota Matrix
The Matrix is more compelling than its Corolla sibling, but that’s faint praise. The hatchback’s major draw is utility, and it’s still competitive on that front. The styling updates go over well enough, but today’s compact hatchbacks have enough styling and quality appeal to make you want to own them — not just cram the cargo area (or boot, as Mini insists) full of stuff.
Even at a relatively slow media preview like the Chicago Auto Show, the Matrix flew under the radar. There are styling changes here and there, but you almost need a prior model for reference in order to see them. Competitors are improving their small-car offerings by leaps and bounds, but Toyota’s trend of mild updates is troubling.
This one just doesn’t have it. The black lower grille on the Matrix S at the show is too much, and the similar treatment on the rear fails. Is that supposed to look like a diffuser? The interior is similarly unimpressive. One could argue that the competition isn’t as fierce among compact hatchbacks as it is among sedans, but that could change at any time. As with the Corolla, it will be too late.
Besides the reworked front treatment, there is nothing else good to say about the 2011 Matrix … next.
2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI
Given its mechanical credentials, the GLI will probably be fun to drive. But Volkswagen promised this car would satisfy Jetta faithful with the sort of quality that’s distinguished the Jetta nameplate. I’m underwhelmed. The GLI’s dash has padded materials — something auto journalists, myself included, care far too much about — but other differences, beyond what a Jetta SEL would offer, are sparse. Go sit in a GTI, whose drivetrain and price tag are similar to the GLI’s, and the differences in cabin quality are stark. The GTI’s interior is what we’ve come to expect of Volkswagen. The GLI’s is not.
This is the Jetta that Volkswagen enthusiasts will care the most about, with the other more basic trims left for the masses VW intends to reach. As Kelsey mentioned, the GLI’s interior — while a little nicer than the regular Jetta’s — isn’t what fans of the brand have come to expect. No matter the performance of the turbo four-cylinder, that’s still a downer.
I concur with my colleagues. I could be swayed by its performance, especially because I like this engine so much more than the Jetta five-cylinder, but beyond that it leaves me flat. Maybe we’ll come around to the “new VW,” but for now, it’s hard to accept any step backward in interior quality from this former leader — and having Jetta wagons (still based on the previous generation) or GTIs nearby at an auto show make it all too clear.
Like millions of other internet denizens, I, too, complained about the look and quality of the new Jetta when it debuted online. However, once I brought it home, I noticed just how elegant the lines of the car truly are. The interiors of both the regular Jetta and this GLI aren’t as stellar as past VWs, but they are in line with the price on the sticker. This GLI starts $1,000 less than the outgoing version with the same power plant. Plus, the Fender sound system is spectacular.