Los Angeles’ Best in Show
Small, sporty and efficient are back. Overall, the American market continues to drift in the doldrums, but there are signs of life in segments that embrace these values. It’s no accident that during the ‘Cash for Clunkers’ program many of the trades were from large SUVs to much smaller vehicles such as Toyota’s Corolla, Ford’s Focus and Honda’s Civic. People are ready for right size cars and the 2009 LA Auto Show proved that manufacturers are ready to respond with a brace of efficient and exciting choices. If the industry can market these new cars properly, we won’t need another government subsidy to keep people in small and efficient vehicles.
As a show, LA feels like a return to reality from the preceding, concept-heavy Tokyo spectacle. While there were certainly a fair number of concepts at LA, the big news was how manufacturers were positioning themselves to take advantage of trends in the US market. CarReview is happy to report that it’s all good. There will be plenty of green tech to go around and a fair dose of sport to go along with it. Below are some of the highlights:
Chevrolet Volt and Cruze: While the Volt has seen its share of the media spotlight, the LA Auto Show marks the US debut of its production cousin, Cruze, as well as an announcement about which retail outlets will be first to receive the much anticipated Volt. While the Cruze has been on sale in Europe and Asia for a while, what was on display represents extensive fine tuning for the American market.
On sale in late 2010, the Cruze takes advantage of current engine technologies including small displacement turbos. The suspension will be setup with a distinct emphasis on being fun to drive and for once the styling of a GM small car will actually work in its favor. Improved build quality and materials will also help make the right impression that this is not a car designed for rental fleets.
Something else to note – the Volt is also being positioned to be one of the more involving and sporty hybrids on the market. According to GM, being efficient does not mean suffering in a penalty box of dull driving.
Mazda 2 and Ford Fiesta: While Ford has divested itself of most of its investment in Mazda, these two subcompacts that will hit the US market in 2010 share the same basic architecture and both were conceived to be best in class. It worked. The Mazda 2 was named “World Car of the Year” in 2008. It blends style, efficiency and driving dynamics in a way not seen since first generation VW Golfs and the Mazda GLC. As hard as GM is trying, these two set the standard.
Based on the throngs of millennials surrounding the Fiesta displays, Ford knows its market and will have a hit on its hands, especially if the Fiesta drives as good as the European versions which have received accolades from every corner for the same reasons that helped the Mazda 2 win so many awards.
Finally, while these cars are related under the skin, there’s no question that over time there will be an opportunity for them to take a different and even more interesting path down the road of affordable fun. 2010 is just the beginning of a subcompact renaissance.
VW Up! Lite concept car: While still a concept/prototype, this version of VW’s new small family platform appears near production ready and insiders suggest that something very similar to what was on display will hit showrooms in 2011.
So what is Up!? Since its inception Up! has represented the marriage of innovative engineering within affordable price points that is packaged for today’s global markets. Think old school Beetle, which is what first iterations seemed to mimic. Fortunately this latest rendition visually and technically makes more sense for this market. With its combination of a Volkswagen TDI® Clean Diesel engine, an advanced electric motor, and a seven-speed Direct Shift Gearbox® (DSG®), the Up! Lite is an innovative hybrid capable of up to 70 mpg on the highway with room for four adults.
2011 Mustang: Ford is on a roll. With the 2010 redesigned Mustang recently recognized as CarReview’s ‘Best Muscle car,’ how could the 2011 be any better? Consistent with LA’s theme of sporty and efficient, the smallest of the muscle cars finally has a real V6 that can hang with the big dogs.
In the past, the base V6 has been the cheapest way to get into the Mustang’s perfectly proportioned pony car styling. However the lifeless 4 liter engine immediately sucked any sporting intentions out of the driver’s right foot and fingertips.
With the new 3.7 liter Duratec V6 the base Mustang is at last something other than a secretary special. Similar to the Camaro’s V6, it’s got plenty of useful power and torque (305 hp and 280 lb-ft respectively). A new six speed manual replaces the old 5 speed and it all adds up to a real contender in the pony car wars.
Subaru Impreza WRX STI Special Edition: Not to be left out of the sport/enthusiast zeitgeist, Subaru announced its limited edition STI Special Edition in LA. 125 of these more focused STIs will be coming to our shores and they certainly embody the racer mantra of ‘less is more’. The de-contented Special Edition redirects costs of interior comforts into subtle chassis refinements that help the STI from feeling overly damped and slightly detached from the road.
The 305 hp engine remains standard fare, but the 2.5 liter mill has always been a terrific match for this market. The best news is that the Special Edition will be priced a couple of thousand dollars less than the regular STI making it a terrific drive out of the box and ready for tuner upgrades.
The differences between the Special Edition and the ordinary U.S.-market STI are few. The Special Edition’s front springs are 16 percent stiffer; its rear dampers have been stiffened by 29 percent; its rear anti-roll bar is one millimeter thicker, and its rear subframe bushings are stiffer. The eighteen-inch wheels come from the Spec C. Halogen headlamps replace the U.S. STI’s HID units, and the standard six-disc CD changer is ditched in favor of a single-disc unit.
Porsche Boxster Spyder: ‘Less is more’ takes on a different meaning in this Boxster. In fact, the Spyder will occupy the top rung of the Boxster pricing ladder, but as with the Subaru you definitely get more value for your dollar. Extensive re-engineering has made Spyder the lightest and most agile Porsche. It is almost 200 pounds less than the Boxster S it is based on. Everything from a unique, lightweight retractable roof to aluminum doors transform the Boxster Spyder into perhaps the most precise and entertaining model in Porsche’s lineup. The body kit enhancements also distinguish the car from its brethren and give it a modern, racy touch. Finally, as befits a top end model, Porsche has tweaked the 3.4 liter engine to deliver 320 horsepower, 10 more than the standard S. 911 specials excepted, this is the Porsche that begs to be driven with sturm and drang.
Cadillac CTS Coupe: All of the best features of the award winning 2008 concept have been retained and the production model is drop-dead gorgeous. This has to explain how Cadillac kept the coupe off of GM’s chopping block. Cadillac needs a halo mode and the CTS Coupe has that presence and the sophisticated interior and drivetrain technology to back it up. Eventually a high performance V model will take the top rung on the ladder, but the GM direct injection 3.6 V6 is no slouch and most buyers will take that route. They won’t be disappointed. There’s even a manual option for those who want a more sporting experience and prefer to spend their money on specialized options. Who would have dreamed that Cadillac could see a portion of their entry level market wanting a sports sedan with a stick? Times have changed.