Something for the Old, Something for the New

The New York International Auto Show usually offers enjoyment for kids of all ages, but that trite motto was especially appropriate this year, as the major auto shows concluded their run for 2002. Ford unveiled a new concept pointed directly at older Baby Boomers who are fast approaching retirement age if not senility. Meanwhile, Toyota made a brave attempt to court the children of the Baby Boom generation with an all-new car brand, just what the confused American market really needs. Only time will tell if either concept is on the money.

In perhaps the grandest dog-and-pony show of the two-day press preview period, Toyota endeavored to make everyone over 25 years of age feel ancient as the lasers parted to reveal the company's new Scion division. (Yeah, you're not the only one who can't pronounce it, but the Toyota folks say "sigh-on.") Of course a "scion" is the soon-to-inherit-son of wealthy parents, and since Toyota is one of the wealthiest car companies in the world the title is apt, but you have to ask, why name a brand with a word so many are likely to mispronounce?

As to the Scion vehicles themselves, they almost seemed afterthoughts to the presentation of why Toyota was introducing a new brand. The key reason: its buyers are getting old, and the company does not want to face the same fate as Oldsmobile -- being regarded as a great car for your father but not for you.

Well, you can bet not too many over-40 fathers out there are likely to warm up to either Scion vehicle. The bbX looks like a breadbox on wheels or, to be more charitable, a station wagon version of the new Mini. The swoopy ccX (are you sensing a naming pattern here?) was even more radically styled, and we don't mean that in a good way. But the Toyota-Scion execs on hand -- Jim Press, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. COO; and Jim Lentz, Toyota VP and head of Scion -- took great pains to point out the ccX might not even evolve into a Scion product. Whew! That's a relief.

Toyota hopes to sell 100,000 Scion models a year by 2005 through dealerships within Toyota dealerships, plus what is promised to be the heaviest dose of Internet selling ever. While many in the auto media expressed skepticism about the future of the brand, Toyota has the money and the product firepower to make it work.

While Toyota was taking aim at Gen Y, Ford Motor Company was pulling back an arrow pointed at the soon-to-be-geriatric Baby Boomer set. Ford didn't even have a concept car ready, but it did show journalists renderings of the Ford Five Hundred (note, not 500.) The key design element: this is one new sedan that isn't "longer, lower, wider." Instead, this baby is taller and roomier inside than the similarly sized Ford Taurus. Key advantages: a driver's seat that is up to four inches higher than in the typical mid-size car and a more upright seating position. Thus the Five Hundred offers a command-of-the-road vantage from the cockpit, and it is easier for us older geezers to get in and out of. While many SUVs these days are based on cars, the Five Hundred is based on the upcoming Ford Cross Trainer SUV. There's a switch.

There is no doubt that the Five Hundred is an attractive design, bearing many similarities to current Audi vehicles. That should come as no surprise since J Mays, Ford design chief, was responsible for many attractive VW and Audi vehicles before returning to the good ol' USA.

Perhaps the most notable soon-to-be production vehicle unveiled at the show was the Honda Element, another stab at a Gen Y vehicle, and through our aging eyes, a pretty good one. Based on the same platform as the plain-vanilla Honda CR-V small sport utility, the Element certainly has character. Some of that comes from its upright, packing carton profile, which is accentuated by rear swing-back (suicide) doors. The lack of a b-pillar is also supposed to make the vehicle easier to load, but to us it's more a funky design statement than anything. Of course, that's okay; we like funky.

Nissan and Mitsubishi showed SUV-tall wagons, which will soon reach the production vehicle ranks. The Nissan Murano is a tall wagon on the Altima platform that will offer a 240 horsepower 3.5-liter V-6, so you can haul a lot of groceries very fast. The Mitsubishi Outlander is even more SUV-like, targeted at Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V buyers. It will be equipped with a 2.4-liter in-line four cylinder delivering 140 horsepower, so you can haul a lot of groceries not so fast.

Saturn showed the replacement for its venerable S-Series, called the Ion. Both sedan and unique "quad coupe" are attractively styled cars, but long overdue. Like the Honda Element, the Ion quad coupe also features suicide doors. Wow, is suicide a Gen Y design theme? Is somebody readying a Kurt Cobain edition?


Jack R. Nerad is the managing editor of Driving Today and co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show "America on the Road." And, gosh, is he old.

Want to Save $1,000?

Many consumers will drive miles out of town to save $100 on a vehicle purchase. Others will travel from supermarket to supermarket to cash in on coupon savings that will net them less than $10 a week. Yet new research shows that a majority of American consumers are reluctant to shop around for auto insurance, despite the fact that a short time spent shopping around could result in a yearly savings of well more than $1,000.

A U.S.-wide telephone survey of 2,000 consumers found that a solid majority of consumers (58 percent) reported being somewhat or extremely unlikely to shop for auto insurance, even though they could save significantly by doing so. As further evidence that many consumers are reluctant to shop around for insurance, some 29 percent of those surveyed reported that they have not shopped for insurance in at least five years.

It seems when it comes to car insurance, lethargy sets in in a big way. The survey, which was funded by Progressive Insurance, found that some consumers are more comfortable simply renewing their current policy than shopping for better rates. Of those respondents who said they have not shopped for auto insurance within the last year, 19 percent have spent more than 10 years with their current auto insurance company and report having never shopped for auto insurance.

Once some consumers settle on an insurance company, they are content to stick with it. According to the research, of those consumers who have been with the same auto insurance carrier for seven to 10 years, 42 percent said they are extremely unlikely to shop for auto insurance. This loyalty (or laziness) could be costing them hundreds of dollars each year.

"Just because you've been with the same auto insurance company for years doesn't mean you're getting the best rate available to you," said Alex Ho, consumer marketing director, Progressive. "We counsel all consumers to be smart about their auto insurance and to talk with their agent, their current insurance company or do online research to be sure they have the right coverage and the right services at the right price."

In addition to the consumer survey, Progressive also conducted an illuminating study of auto insurance "rate variance" -- the average spread between the highest and lowest six-month rates available to drivers for new policies from the country's leading auto insurance companies. The study found that the cost of a six-month auto insurance policy for the same driver(s) with the same coverages varied from company to company an average of $524. That means switching from the highest-cost insurance company to the lowest-cost provider could save you more than $1,000 a year.

The variance was calculated by using rate comparisons provided to more than 90,000 consumers who called or went online to receive a Progressive quote and the rates of up to three other auto insurers between July 1 and December 31, 2001. To highlight the spread that exists in rates available to consumers from different companies, visitors to Progressive can now see comparison rates offered to other visitors in real time on the site's unique "rate ticker." This new feature displays an up-to-the-minute sampling of comparison rates provided to consumers across the country who used Progressive's online service.

"The spread in rates represents a clear opportunity for consumers to save money," said Ho. "Consumers generally don't realize that rates from different companies vary; we've analyzed the data to let consumers know that their potential savings is significant. The rate ticker is one way we can highlight the difference in available rates."

Of course, rates are only one portion of the car insurance equation. You also need to examine various companies' service and claims policies. But, as the old song says, "Shop around." It will cost you a little time, but it could save you thousands of dollars.


Based in Cleveland, auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is fond of saving money.

Money Magazine's Top Seven Car Buys

Money Magazine said it best: "Bargains are everywhere this year, making shopping for cars a pure pleasure -- not the usual headache." Trying to stave off the effects of recession, many major car companies are filling the market with incentives. Some zero-percent loans are still available, while General Motors, which started the zero-percent bandwagon, has switched to $2,002 rebates, and other manufacturers have found themselves forced to throw incentives at their vehicles as well. The result: buyers should feel like they are traveling through the Happy Hunting Ground.

Of course, even with manufacturers falling all over themselves to compete for your business, it is still possible to get a bad deal, and nothing can sour a purchase quicker than choosing the wrong vehicle in the first place. Money Magazine has taken upon itself to select seven cars that, it says, "give the most for the money" in categories ranging from the Best SUV to the Best Station Wagon to the Best Compact Car. Money used the following criteria: a car, sport utility or van had to be practical, provide good value for the money ,and be good-looking and fun to drive. And here's their disclaimer: "while the seven choices may not be the cheapest vehicles in their category, Money's research shows they deliver the best combination of value and performance."

Well, okay; that's fair, but we at Driving Today just couldn't help ourselves from editorializing on their choices, so here they are, the Money Magazine descriptions of their Top Seven with our DT comments in parentheses:
  • BEST SUV: BMW X5
    The X5 is one great driving luxe machine with its super-sensitive power steering, traction control and luxury touches. In addition to receiving the top rating among mid-size sport utilities in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the X5 retails for about $38,000 with typical options, a cost still less or about the same as a fully loaded GMC Yukon.


    (Hey, we like the X5 a lot, but as a sport utility it comes up short in the utility department, because it is small for its price. If you want to pay a similar amount and get much more passenger and cargo space, try a Chevrolet Tahoe or that GMC Yukon. Or, if you'd like something about the size of the X5, look at a Chevrolet Trailblazer or GMC Envoy. Even that pair is bigger than the X5, and each offers a more powerful base engine.)


  • BEST MINIVAN: DODGE GRAND CARAVAN
    Daimler-Chrysler gave the Grand Caravan a more rugged look last year, and with its ready power, crisp handling and comfortable ride, the Dodge Grand Caravan is a great choice for a family car. In addition, the minivan offers unique options like the power rear lift gate that closes with the touch of a key fob and a built-in DVD player. The best value is the Dodge Grand Caravan EX with a standard V-6 engine and options. A good negotiator should be able to get the minivan for about $24,740 before a $655 destination charge and sales tax.

    (Dodge Grand Caravan is a decent choice, but we still would prefer the rock-solid build quality of the Honda Odyssey, a minivan van that seemingly answers every minivan question ever asked. Further, bargain shoppers should take a look at the new Kia Sedona minivan. A well-equipped LX model has a base price under $19,000, a bigger standard engine than the Caravan and a 10-year powertrain warranty, making it a strong contender in the segment.)


  • BEST STATION WAGON: VOLKSWAGEN PASSAT
    The Passat wagon is built for drivers. Its responsive steering moves you smoothly in and out of traffic and straightens out those curves on the road to the beach. In addition, the Passat has a great sleek look, quick anti-lock brakes and roomy cargo space comparable with some small sport utilities. One can buy the Passat GLX version for about $28,500 with a standard V-6 engine.

    (Nothing wrong with the Passat. It's a fine car, but look at these two alternatives as well: The Subaru Legacy Wagon is significantly less expensive, offers virtually the same horsepower, torque, and interior space. The Volvo V40 is a virtually dead-ringer for the Passat in every important category, costs about the same, and it's a Volvo, an upscale brand versus VW.)


  • BEST FAMILY SEDAN: TOYOTA CAMRY
    While sedans are usually unglamorous but comfortable and reliable, Toyota has started to change that stereotype with many improvements to the 2002 Camry. The new, lower front end, bulging front fenders and indented hood help move it beyond the anonymous look of the previous generation. A good negotiator can get a top-of-the-line Camry XLE for about $20,825, which is $1,000 over the dealer's price [invoice].

    (No quarrel with the Camry - great car, incredible reliability. But the Honda Accord is no slouch in those categories either, and it's more fun to drive. Plus, the new Nissan Altima has zoomed into the picture and is worth a look.)


  • BEST LUXURY CAR: ACURA 3.2TL
    Car manufacturers have been racing to sell a genuine luxury car for less than $30,000 but most luxury cars retail for over that, with popular options. The Acura 3.2TL really delivers: For about $29,550 a good negotiator can get a sporty-looking car with a power sunroof, six-CD changer and memory settings for two drivers in the power bucket seat.

    ("Luxury Car" takes in a lot of territory. The 3.2TL is really a Honda Accord in a nice disguise. The Infiniti I35 is a similarly disguised Nissan Maxima, also worth a test drive in this category. But if we're talking about "entry-level" luxury, as we think Money is here, the most satisfying buy in the class is the BMW 3-Series.)


  • BEST SPORTS CAR: CHEVROLET CORVETTE
    Money Magazine chose the Corvette for its exhilarating ride and value. For $49,706 for the top-of-the-line Z06, anyone can have the chance to drive one of the few cars that matches the acceleration of the Porsche 911 Turbo. You'll get the same speed for less than half the price.

    (Corvette offers great bang for the buck, no doubt about that, but sports car lovers will also find satisfaction with the Mazda Miata, about the best sports car value going, and the truly wonderful Honda S2000, a truly under-appreciated gem.)


  • BEST COMPACT CAR: FORD FOCUS
    Ford breaks the small-car rules. Designers combined edgy, eye-catching design with a roomy interior and honest seating space for four in many models. Focus provides driver with one main necessity for small cars: high gas mileage. A Ford Focus ZX3 two-door hatchback lists for $15,435 but a good negotiator can get one for around $15,019.

    (While we don't dislike the Ford Focus, we are convinced the Honda Civic is a better value. In all the fun-to-drive factors the Civic outpoints the Focus, and in build quality Honda gets all the high marks, too. Another car worth consideration in the category is the usually overlooked Mazda Protègè.)

Based in Cleveland, auto journalist Luigi Fraschini road tests more than 60 different models each year.

2002 Chicago Auto Show

It tells you how intense the rivalry between auto shows is when one auto show management company hires a research firm to prove that its show is bigger than the others. That is just what the Chicago Auto Show did this year, and by the analysis of Toronto-based Enigma Research, the Windy City's vehicular extravaganza bested both Detroit and Los Angeles to win the title "America's largest auto show."

By what measure did Chicago capture the title? Was it media attendance? Consumer attendance? Overall attendance? Well, no, actually the Chicago show claims bragging rights because more cars and trucks were exhibited at Chicago (701) than in Los Angeles (602) or Detroit (a paltry 538.) Perhaps this was more a factor of the ample size of the Chicago venue (McCormick Place) compared to those in LA (Los Angeles Convention Center) or Detroit (Cobo Hall,) but there is little doubt that Chicago is a bona fide member of the Big Four American shows (LA, Detroit, Chicago, and New York.) Further, the Chicago Auto Show featured enough interesting developments to keep journalists happy, especially when they were chowing down on Midwestern beef and deep-dish pizzas.

While some say that Detroit's North American International Auto Show has become the pre-eminent U.S.-based auto show, the Chicago show sent the following shot across Detroit's bow:

"With its central location and superior convention facilities, Chicago is well-positioned to be the country's premier show in the new millennium," said Mike Harker, a senior partner with Enigma Research. "Detroit's main drawing card is its automotive heritage, but with increased globalization in the industry, it will become a much less attractive destination for the automotive press and industry."

We can add without reservation the food and accommodations are much better in Chicago than in Detroit. But that's not exactly news. Instead, here is some real news, a gathering of the top automotive offerings from the Chicago Auto Show:
  • Nissan Frontier Open Sky

    The Nissan Frontier Open Sky pickup truck is designed for individuals who enjoy the outdoors and the open-air feeling of a convertible... or just want a big hole in their roof. The company told us it was designed after extensive consumer research indicated many off-road enthusiasts and adventure-seeking individualists desire a better connection with their recreational environment. But apparently not enough to get out and hike. Or maybe Nissan decided it could sell a few more trucks by putting in a big sunroof and giving it a catchy name. Marketing flim-flam aside, the Open Sky is pretty cool. The power-operated top retracts with the touch of a button, and when the top is completely retracted, the roof opening is nearly five square feet. For maximum utility, all Open Sky models are equipped with the popular tubular-style roof rack, and that would be a pretty tough trick with a true convertible.

  • Dodge Ram Heavy Duty

    Not to be confused with the Dodge Ram Hoody-Doody, a trim option discarded by Chrysler executives, the all-new 2003 Dodge Ram Heavy Duty debuts as the most powerful heavy-duty pickup on the market. The new big truck offers a choice of the most powerful diesel engine available in its class or the all-new 5.7-liter HEMI Magnum V-8. The revival of the legendary Hemi name is news in itself, and so is Chrysler's extension of its "big rig" styling introduced on the 2002 Dodge Ram 1500 into the heavy-duty class. The all-new Hemi engine produces an estimated 345 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 365 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. The High Output Cummins Turbo Diesel engine is the most powerful turbo diesel engine available in the 2500/3500 segment, producing 305 horsepower at 2,900 rpm and 555 pound-feet of torque at 1,400 rpm. That prodigious torque results in a class-leading towing capability of 23,000 lbs.

  • Subaru Forester

    One of the first of the "crossover" vehicles, the Subaru Forester debuted in second-generation form, building upon the "best of both worlds" approach. A stronger body structure, new suspension tuning, larger front brake rotors and standard 16-inch wheels should add a new level of driving fun and safety while preserving a smooth and quiet ride and trail-driving ability. Two Forester models are offered for the 2003 model year, the 2.5 X and the uplevel 2.5 XS. Both are powered by a 165-horsepower 2.5-liter "boxer" four-cylinder engine and are equipped with standard full-time all-wheel drive. When it comes to looks, the 2003 Forester is identified by a larger, more pronounced grille, contoured multi-reflector halogen headlights and a contoured bumper cover with integral multi-reflector foglights.

  • Kia Sorento

    The 2003 Kia Sorento, which will arrive in showrooms this fall, is a larger, more powerful SUV than the Sportage, a vehicle that will continue in the Kia line for the next several months after the Sorento debuts. With seating for five, the Sorento features a powerful 3.5-liter V-6 engine that generates 192 horsepower and is coupled to an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive. The new model will be available in both two-wheel and four-wheel drive configurations. With separate body-on-frame construction the new SUV offers the tough off-road capabilities and towing capacity of a truck, while at the same time offering exterior styling and amenities that echo -- dare we say it? -- the Lexus RX 300.

  • Hyundai HCD-7

    Styled at the Hyundai California Design Center in Fountain Valley, California, the HCD-7 is a flagship luxury sedan for the Korean automaker -- a concept of what might be the next step up from the company's current XG350 sedan. The sleek, aerodynamically designed exterior of the HCD-7 was inspired by an aircraft fuselage and features wraparound windshield glass that hides the A-pillars and pulls the "energy-tension" around the sides and to the rear of the car. Oh, goodness! Complementing a bold grille, the projector beam lamps are vertically stacked. The body envelope is designed to hug the large wheels and performance tires and reduce body overhang to a minimum, while the fender design provides room for the huge, armor-like billet aluminum wheels that are 21 inches in diameter and 10 inches wide. Fitted on those wheels are mammoth 245/45R-21 Michelin tires. The outsize wheel/tire package and the fuselage-inspired body give the concept car an aura of a mid-Fifties Bentley. Not bad at all.

A student of aesthetics and the human condition, Tom Ripley reports on the world automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.

North American International Auto Show 2002

There was a lot of collective whistling past the graveyard as the North American International Auto Show gathered the world's automotive cognoscenti in Detroit. While displaying to the gathered throng the vehicular equivalent of cotton candy, several of the world's top automakers were not-so-privately trying to figure out how to get their financial houses in order.

To the tune of rock music and dancing girls, many manufacturers' top execs waxed eloquent about various "concept vehicles," just as Detroit News headlines blared that Ford Motor Company was preparing to dump 20,000 employees, and General Motors was poised to offer thousands of its white-collar staff "early retirement packages" -- kind of Layoff Light. Though the day's headlines didn't play DaimlerChrysler's headaches in quite so blatant a fashion, German-American Motors is also in the throes of trying to return to financial stability so stridently that in a "good news" portion of one of its executive's speeches, staff cuts were presented as positive developments.

With this as the backdrop, the world's top automotive companies spent millions to display their wares to thousands of journalists from America and around the world. Oddly, the biggest trend that emerged this year was Ugly, with a capital U. While there were several attractive concept vehicles on display, a broad variety of car companies chose to represent the future with some of the most ungainly and dreary exercises in recent memory.

Apparently infected with the "cross-over vehicle virus," designers from around the globe seem to think that the vehicle tomorrow's public most desires is a Jetsons' version of the old station wagon. Just about every manufacturer showed a 'two-box" half-sedan, half-SUV, and most designs seriously compromised utility while at the same time offering dull-to-downright-offensive "style." I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm going to wake up on New Year's Day 2003 and suddenly develop a strong desire for gimmicked-up version of an airport bus, but maybe my tastes aren't sophisticated enough to recognize that in the future ugly will be attractive, a conclusion first espoused by an episode of The Twilight Zone. After all, I don't have odd patches of facial hair nor do I insist in dressing only in black, so how the hell hip can I be?

That being said, here are a few of what this humble reporter considers to be the hits and misses of this Detroit auto show:

Hits

Top of the charts for me was the Chevrolet BelAir, which admittedly taps into the Fifties retro mold of the Ford Thunderbird, but at least does it in an attractive way. Many of the car's exterior lines evoke the '55-56 full-size Chevrolets, and to my aging eyes, those are some of the best-looking cars ever built in mass production. The convertible BelAir will has bench seats front and rear, a column-mounted automatic shifter and an instrument panel that borrows freely from its mid-Fifties forebear. My only quarrel with the design is the anachronistic multi-spoke aluminum wheels that could have been lifted from a 1970s Ferrari (or a 1980s Camaro.)

Another hit was the Dodge M80. While the people-and-cargo packaging might leave something to be desired, you can't help but like this scaled-down Dodge Power Wagon. It offers neat touches like protruding round headlights and pontoon fenders, while a simple interior treatment updates the retro look in function but not in style.

Mining a similar vein was the Dodge Razor, a little coupe that has great similarity to the Pontiac Bonneville showcar of the early Fifties. With a long hood and fastback deck, this little stunner looks fast even if its eventual powerplant turns out to be a chipmunk in a treadmill. But, we have to ask, aren't the high-mounted tail-lamps a bit much?

The Pontiac Solstice is another stunning little coupe that owes less to the past than the Razor and could see future production. Ford contributed the GT40 to the hit list. The car is a throwback to Ford's endurance racing days of the mid-Sixties designed to be driven on the street. It is another profile that will get aging Baby Boomers' hearts pumping.


Misses

Leave it to Saab to come up with a showcar that could make the late, unlamented Sonnett seem pretty in comparison. Sure, Saab seems destined to go its own way, and we think that is laudable. Further, we like Saab's current street vehicles very much. So please, please, Mr. Lutz, deliver us from the 9X concept car. Designed to be a completely new take on the all-wheel-drive sports-utility, it turns out to be a new take on oddball.

And when it comes to oddball, how about the Mitsubishi Sport Utility Pack (SUP). This concept vehicle resembles a cross between a Volkswagen Thing and Kermit the Frog. (Please, Kermit, don't take offense at the association.) The cabriolet (convertible) version is filled with some pretty trick features, but if this is what Generation Y is seeking, I'll gag down my baseball cap.

Another oddity is the Jeep Willys2, which, with its pale seafoam-metallic paint and someone-stepped-on-me profile, should make real Jeep enthusiasts recoil in disbelief.

Finally among the misses in my book are the nearly innumerable station-wagonlike conveyances that were foisted upon us this year. Among them are the Acura RD-X, Infiniti FX45, Jeep Compass, Mercedes-Benz Vision Grand Sport Tourer, Toyota CCX and Volkswagen Magellan. Does anyone remember that the crossover vehicle that started it all, the Lexus RX 300, looks like a sport-utility, not like a station wagon from Disneyland's Autorama?