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.