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New York Auto Show – Acura

The Acura press conference was a small affair, since the only model they were introducing was their new TSX Sport Wagon. Looking almost identical to the European Honda Accord it is, the wagon is really pretty attractive; few wagons are more athletic looking, at least.

Since the TSX skews towards a relatively small niche of buyers, I imagine the wagon – which offers nearly identical performance with the additional space this smallish sedan could use – will do pretty well.

Then again, maybe I’m just optimistic and happy because I’m in the back seat of the new Bentley Mulsanne as I type this. Mmm…sumptuous.

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Mercedes-Benz SLS Double-Taps Z Button, Does Barrel Roll; Honda Rubs Canned NSX In Our Faces

In what could be the coolest piece of automotive video advertising to come out of Germany since BMW handed a group of directors their entire lineup and Clive Owen’s lanky frame, Mercedes-Benz appears to have driven its SLS supercar up the wall.

Literally.

Of course, could is the key word here. From the footage, it’s not entirely clear whether the volks at Mercedes actually sacked up and went for this testosterone-fueled stunt, or whether, like your prom date, they just faked the climax.

Most of the Interwebs seems to believe it was faked, citing everything from the over-rendered appearance of the vehicle at the Moment of Truth to the fact that only Chuck Norris possesses the ability to barrel roll a car inside a tunnel. As much as it pains us to admit it, we think it’s probably faked, too. I mean, don’t you think if Mercedes was gonna attempt this feat, they’d bring a couple journalists along to see (and Tweet about it)?

The bright spot of news here, though, is that the SLS looks a helluva lot better in motion than it does in static pictures. I mean, that B-pillar is still as ugly as Jay Leno in the morning, and the SLR packed a lot more visual Sturm und Drang. But based on the video (and that exhaust note!), we’re willing to move the SLS from the “Not Interested” column to “We’ll Consider It.”

(*Cough, cough – loan us one, Mercedes – cough, cough**)

Dynamics aside, wouldn't you rather see this car in your garage?

But unfortunately, very close to those two columns in our Enormous Anal-Retentive Spreadsheet of Cars is one entitled “Why Didn’t They Build It, God?” Populated for years by such cars as the Cadillac Sixteen, Chrysler ME412 and Bentley Hunaudières, the next-generation Acura NSX was one of the most recent and grieved-over additions to the list. Powered by a 5.5 liter, 600+ horsepower V10 routed through a race-optimized version of the company’s Super-Handling All Wheel Drive!, the NSX2 was nearly finished with development (including running the Wagnerian Nürburgring racetrack in 7 minutes 37 seconds on its first try) when Honda pulled the plug to focus on “fuel-efficient vehicles.” Dicks.

To this day, for Hondaphiles and auto enthusiasts, “Where Were You When They Killed The New NSX?” prompts the same sort of emotional jolt as asking “Where Were You When Kennedy Was Shot?” Perhaps the only real peace to be found was in Honda’s announcement that the finished product would have looked very similar to Acura’s 2007 Advanced Sports Car Concept, a supercar-shaped dose of Valium if there ever was one.

That’s it – preach it, Homer.

Then today, Honda releases photos of their HSV-10 GT race car – and it’s like seeing that girl you always wanted to ask out in high school on the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalog.

This is what the NSX was going to look like, isn’t it, Honda? Don’t bullshit me here. I can see it in that rear angle. You were all set to unleash a 625-horsepower AWD supercar that looked like a furious Ferrari 599 GTB, and you killed it? What were you thinking?

Was it that you were going to lose money on each one you sold? Well, of course you were – Toyota’s losing money on every Lexus LFA they sell, and they’re going for $350K. You were gonna sell a comparable car for 47 percent of the price – it would have been cheaper to upholster every Accord in the world in mink.

But a car like the NSX isn’t about the cost. It’s about Showing Your Power. Screw any argument about “bringing people into showrooms” or “generating interest in the brand” – nobody goes into a Chevy dealership to ogle a ZR1 then thinks, “Gee, this Cobalt must be just as cool, since it’s right next to the Corvette!” An unprofitable supercar is an automaker’s way of saying, “Our cars are so successful, we could literally afford to flush wads of cash down the toilet. But instead, we’re gonna take that money and build a car so cool, people will idolize it for the rest of the century.”

One more thing, Honda: you also have to keep up with the Joneses. Toyota has the LFA. Nissan has the GT-R. And you’re out several million bucks in R&D with nothing to show for it. Ball’s in your court.

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Review – 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

The Good: Dual-clutch transmission more appliance than gimmick, good mid-range power, the badass looks of an Evolution for a discount.

The Bad: Economy car interior, a backseat only children could love, and it’s not that much of a discount.

The Verdict: The Coke Zero Evo.

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The trouble with jacks-of-all-trades is, as the aphorism points out, they don’t usually master any of them. This is just as true in the automotive world as anywhere else. For example, minivans promise the space of a van and the driving experience of a car, but end up giving you a top-heavy ride and room for only seven people. Same with sports sedans – they promise the comfort and convenience of a sedan with the performance of a sports car, but often end up compromising on one of those goals in favor of the other.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart is a compound compromise. Not only is it a sports sedan, it’s the reduced-calorie version of Mitsubishi’s gonzo Lancer Evolution. The Evo gets a twin-turbo 291-horsepower 2.0-liter inline-four; the Ralliart makes do with a single-turbo version making 237 horses. The Evo also receives some heftier go-fast parts – bigger brakes, tighter suspension, and so forth. In exchange for all this, the Ralliart shaves a few grand off the sticker price.

However, Mitsu deserves a lot of credit for not shaving off two handy performance bits during the cost-cutting: the Evo’s all-wheel-drive system and its dual-clutch automated manual transmission, known at Mitsubishi by the Air Force-grade acronym TC-SST. While the former feature is rather common these days (see our featurette on all-wheel-drive), the dual-clutch transmission has mostly remained the provenance of high-priced sports cars; the Ralliart is the cheapest car in America to offer it as standard equipment. (Seriously, who ever thought of Mitsubishi as leading the charge to bring racing technology to the people?)

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It doesn’t take much time behind the wheel to see why Mitsu felt confident plopping this tranny into every Ralliart. (Sorry, RuPaul, not you.) While the transmission’s automatic mode isn’t as consistently smooth as a traditional torque-converter automatic transmission, I never had any problems with it, even in New York City stop-and-go traffic. It’s good enough you could leave it in auto all the time without complaint…

…but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. No, this transmission shines brightest when you slide the gearshift over into the manual notch and let your fingers do the driving. Steering-column-mounted paddles behind the wheel let you flick through the gears without taking your hands off the leather-wrapped rim; slap the right paddle to upshift, pull the left to downshift. Suddenly, merging onto the freeway feels like coming out of the pit lane at Indy – floor the gas and flick your right fingers three times, and you’re ten over the limit by the time you hit your blinker.

And if you forget to uphift, don’t worry; the transmission is smart enough to know you’d rather bounce off the limiter and upshifts all by itself rather than introduce your forehead to the steering wheel. Should you prefer the forearm-strengthening motion of a regular manual transmission, you can also shift with the lever. Whether you use the paddles or the gearshift, it’s a logical, intuitive system. Porsche could learn a thing or two from Mitsubishi here.

Wait, did I just say Porsche could learn something…from Mitsubishi?

BOOM! (That’s the sound of my brain exploding.)

Swiffering.

As a whole, the Ralliart performs impressively. Performance isn’t quite at the balls-to-the-wall level of the Evo, but the lesser Lancer grips turns like a 15-year-old grabbing second base for the first time and hurls itself down the road fast enough to put a devilish smile on your face. The sole turbo pumps the engine without significant turbo lag; unlike some cars, you won’t be constantly reminded of the engine’s forced induction by a sudden burst of whoa! halfway through the rev range. That said, strong midrange power is the engine’s best characteristic – you’ll never need to worry about whether you’ve got enough oomph for a (reasonably sane) passing maneuver.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend all your life driving switchbacks and idyllic back roads – and if you could, you’d buy a Lotus, not a sedan. And it’s when you start considering day-to-day life in the Ralliart that the luster starts to fade.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

Stock photo - my tester wasn't equipped with a navigation system.

For example, those optional Recaro front bucket seats that hold you so well in the turns start to get a little uncomfortable after a few hours in the saddle. It’s far from a dealbreaker – the seats are still awesome, and given that they come packaged with the 650-watt Rockford Fosgate stereo and xenon headlights, I wouldn’t buy this car without them. But my gangly-assed legs were too long to fit comfortably under the steering wheel, so I had to kink my throttle leg out to the side – causing the bolster to render much of my quadriceps numb. Those seats are nice, but they’re not worth getting deep-vein thrombosis over.

But bolsters aside, the Recaros are the best thing about the interior. Sadly, that’s not so much praise for the front seats as it is unhappiness with the rest of the inside of the car. The back seats seem better suited for the 12-and-under set; for the rest of us, its tight quarters will likely turn games of shotgun into scrums as people claw for the only decent passenger seat.

Interior quality needs some improving as well. The Ralliart’s hard plastics and fake-fur headliner would seem cheap in the $15,000 base Lancer; at twice that price, it just seems inexcusable. I’m glad Mitsubishi decided to spend the money on the performance bits, but it’s hard to justify a 30 grand car with this kind of interior.

The other major annoyance inside the Ralliart was the red, Atari-grade digital information cluster between the speedometer and the tach. It was perfectly legible, day or night – but the blocky low-fi graphics are so dated and cheesy, I half expected to find Pong in the trip computer functions.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that ALL secondary information (beyond speed and rpm) is displayed on this – including the gas gauge. Due to its pixellated nature, I was never sure how much gas I had left; the “miles to empty” feature on the trip computer would tell me I had used up three-quarters of the distance I’d started with, but the gauge seemed to be informing me I still had half a tank. Note to Mitsubishi: the gas gauge is probably not a good place to experiment with new ideas.

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Luckily, the outside of the car does a lot to restore the badass image Mitsubishi wants this car to have. Thankfully, they didn’t water down the Evo effect for the Ralliart; the two cars look similar enough to be easily confused (indeed, I overheard a few passersby who mistook it for the tougher model). The enormous grill is done right – it looks menacing and hungry, as opposed to some Audi models that sport the slack-jawed look of Luke Skywalker after Darth Vader dropped a certain paternity bombshell.

But the Ralliart’s similarity to the Evo just draws out the identity crisis this little Mitsubishi faces. It’s trying to be a cut-rate performance car, and to a large extent, it succeeds – it has all the performance anybody would ever need. Problem is, the people who buy cars like this want all the performance they can get; if they didn’t, they’d spend the money on a nice Camry instead. The people who would buy this car are probably gonna be people who aspire to an Evolution – but an Evo starts at $33,685, and my Ralliart cost $30,065. (All prices here and below include destination charges.) It’s hard to imagine people not trying to stretch into the Evo.

But intra-brand competition aside, it’s still hard to know where the Ralliart is trying to belong. At that price, it’s facing some pretty stiff competition on both the “sport” and the “sedan” ends of the spectrum. If someone were looking for a kickass performance car, a Ford Mustang GT with Track Pack runs $30,340, while a base Nissan 370Z goes for for $30,650. Sure, each gives up some back seat room, but they’ll both rip off 0-60 times at least half a second quicker than the Ralliart, and look much better doing it.

On the other hand, if someone’s looking for a sedan that happens to be fun to drive, an Acura TSX retails for $30,120. It’s not as fast as the Ralliart, but it’s tossable, fun-to-drive and comes with an interior that looks like it belongs in a car costing $50,000.

But of course, the Ralliart’s real foe lies in the Subaru dealerships. The Ralliart exists almost entirely due to the Subaru WRX; to put it in SAT terms, Ralliart:Evolution::WRX:STI. The STI and the Evo have been butting bumpers for half a decade, but until now, Mitsubishi hasn’t stacked up a challenger to the lesser WRX.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this first shot at the Rex will be the one to claim the prize. The WRX packs 265 horsepower, roughly 10 percent more than the Ralliart; Car and Driver ran one from 0 to 60 in a slightly ridiculous 4.7 seconds. In addition, assuming the WRX’s interior is like the Impreza I just drove (stay tuned for that review next week), it’s a far nicer place to spend time than the Ralliart. And the Subaru is cheaper to boot: the Premium model equivalant to my Ralliart goes out the door for $28,190, but a stripper model with all the go-fast bits can be bought for $25,690 – $1,475 less than the Ralliart. (Subaru also offers a choice between sedan and hatchback/miniwagon body styles).

So in the end, the Ralliart, in spite of its twin clutches and ripped shitless exterior, is all about compromise – between utility and performance, between econocar Lancer and bat-outta-hell Evolution. But in trying to compromise, it ends up looking like a perennial runner-up no matter what angle you’re looking at it from. To make this car a winner, Mitsubishi either needs to compromise a little less on the quality – or compromise a little more on price.

Base Price/Price as Tested (inc. destination): $27,165/$30,065

0-60: 5.4 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 17/25 miles per gallon

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Spy Shots and Curiosities

It’s been a while since we featured any spy shots here on CCO, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to throw a couple interesting ones your way.

First up, the 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour. Now, that name is still just a rumor at this point, but that will probably be what it’s called when it rolls into showrooms this fall. (At least it’s better than BMW’s name for their similar 5-series-based car, the Gran Turismo. Sorry, BMW – we love ya, but calling a wagon a gran turismo doesn’t make it a gran turismo. I can call myself Tom Brady all I want, but that won’t get me Gisele Bundchen.)

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Between this car, BMW’s Gran Turismo, and a few other examples, it seems as though the Next Big Thing in car design is to blend the hatchback/wagon bodystyles – much in the way the blending of coupe and sedan has proven popular since the Mercedes-Benz CLS appeared a few years ago.

Rumors have bounced around regarding the…miniwagon‘s platform and powertrain, but figure it’ll be pretty much based on the Accord beneath the skin – after all, the Accord’s platform serves as the basis for the Pilot SUV, so it’s proven quite flexible. As on the Pilot, all-wheel-drive will probably be an option. In terms of engines, we’d expect Honda’s corporate 3.5-liter V6, making somewhere around 275 horsepower; there have been rumors of a 200-hp turbo four as well, but seeing as how Honda already makes a 201-hp naturally aspirated I4 for the TSX, it seems more likely they’ll throw that under the hood.

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Next up, we have the BMW X1, part of the German automaker’s plan to craft a vehicle for every single niche, no matter how razor-thin. The aforementioned 5-series GT is another example of this phenomenon; when it is released next year, the 5-series line will include a sedan, a wagon, a miniwagon/hatchback, a coupe, a convertible, a sport-utility vehicle, and a sport utility coupe. Overkill: not just for nuclear weapons anymore!

Anyway, the X1 will be BMW’s smallest SUV, slotting alongside the 1-series coupes and convertibles at the cheap end of the lineup. Frankly, we’re not sure what the X1 is supposed to compete against, given the X3 already competes against the smallest SUVs offered by other luxury manufacturers; perhaps BMW is hoping they can steal away Subaru Forester owners. And given that Mini will soon be introducing their own tiny SUV, it’s hard to see how the X1 is worth the trouble.

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Still, it should be a hoot to drive, especially since it’ll be coming Stateside with a 272-hp 3.0L inline-six. (BMW offers a 204-hp diesel model in Europe that supposedly gets around 37 mpg; however, as usual, it hasn’t been confirmed for the States yet.) Expect to see it in BMW showrooms next year; a correspondingly larger X3 will probably be along less than a year later.

(By the way, those psychedelic swirls you see on these spy shots are all the rage in the car disguising business these days. They’re supposed to make it harder for the human eye to pick out distinguishing characteristics – though it seems just as likely to cause acid flashbacks in passing drivers.)P90047890

Our third and final spy shot of the day is of the long-rumored BMW M7. Now, for nearly the last decade or so, Mercedes-Benz has cornered the market on souped-up full-size luxury sedans with the AMG versions of the S-class. (They currently offer two – the V8-powered, 518-hp S63 and the turbocharged V12-powered, 604-hp S65.) Surprisingly, BMW hasn’t seen fit to challenge these cars directly through their M performance division as they do in the compact and mid-size luxury markets; rather, they’ve let their semi-affiliated tuner Alpina fight back with their B7 sedan.

However, with the M division (and BMW in general) moving towards turbocharged engines, it appears they’ve decided to pull up their lederhosen and man up by sticking the twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8 from the X5 M and X6 M into a 7-series. Expect 550 horsepower, a 0-60 time of under 4.5 seconds and some heated competition between it and the Porsche Panamera Turbo around the Nurburgring.

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Finally, we want to wrap things up with a couple of unusual vehicles. Galpin Auto Sports, or GAS (a.k.a the guys from Pimp My Ride) have just unveiled a pair of cars the Air Force commissioned them to make (for recruitment purposes, not warfare), and…holy shit. These things may be the coolest cars we’ve ever seen…and we’ve seen pretty much everything.

First up is the GAS X-1. As is pretty obvious, it’s based on a Ford Mustang – but it has about as much in common with those cars in the Hertz Fun Collection as Pierce Brosnan’s Vanquish in Die Another Day had with a stock Aston Martin. How badass is this car? Well, let me put it this way: in place of the twin buckets in most Mustangs, this one has a single ejection seat.

Yes. That’s right. An ejection seat.

USAF Theme Cars

There’s also a GPS transponder, night and thermal vision cameras with in-cockpit touch-screen displays, and an actual flight stick in place of the steering wheel. Oh, yeah, and the 4.6-liter V8’s been played with to make 500 horsepower, but that’s a footnote at this point. Nobody’s gonna listen past “ejection seat.”

USAF Theme Cars

The second car, based on the Doge Challenger, is called the Vapor – apparently because the Air Force wanted everyone to think they were building a lame, unsubstantial vehicle when they were actually putting together a car that could kick Optimus Prime’s ass.

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Take the matte-black paint job. Looks like the same stuff on every “murdered out” car on the road, right? Well, it’s too bad you can’t see radio waves – because then you’d realize this sucker’s paint job absorbs radar. It also packs a roof-mounted 360-degree-rotating camera with night and thermal visions, which can be displayed on the twin instrument panel screens.

Of course, there’s also the full-windshield head-up display, the proximity sensors, the dual yoke controls (yes, the passenger can steer the car too), a stealth exhaust that allows the car to drive around in complete silence, and an advanced computer system that allows the car to be driven remotely from anywhere on Earth using the Internet.

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We don’t know about the rest of you, but to us at CCO, this black bastard screams one thing: Batmobile. All it needs is some bulletproofing and a Hennessey HPE800 engine upgrade (800 horsepower should offset that added weight nicely), and you’re ready to clean the scum off the streets of Gotham City. \

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But what do you think? Let us know below!

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2009 New York Auto Show Review

This year’s New York Auto Show was, for the most part, notable for its lack of notability.

While the NYIAS usually ranks as America’s most heavily attended auto show, with around a million visitors a year, the automotive industry has never treated it quite with the gravitas they do for other shows – the Detroit Auto Show, for example. This is pretty sensible – Detroit is Motor City, while in New York, the people ride in a hole in the ground.

But even considering its location in one of maybe two places in the U.S. where having a car is treated less like a modern convenience and more like an annoying rash (“I have to treat it twice a week?”), this year’s NYIAS was rather listless. Or, as the kids might put it, meh. There were no spectacular new models revealed. The press conferences were quite reserved – no Jeeps erupted out of volcanic calderas constructed in the parking lot. (That happened in 2007. Seriously.) There wasn’t even any apocalyptic undercurrent to the affair – no Hail Mary concepts (“it’ll run on urine!”) or manic attempts to convince everyone that things were great. There was just a slight sense of melancholy draining the energy out of the place.

But that’s not to say the show was a loss. There were still quite a few manufacturers who availed themselves of the opportunity, in true New York tradition, to whip open their trenchcoats and flash the goodies for the world to behold.

The new Acura ZDX concept, for one, has the potential to prove reasonably successful – at least, by the standards of the “Four-door Utility Crossover Koupe” class. (If Kia can spell coupe with a K to be “cool,” I can do it for a cheap joke.) Sadly, boss company Honda’s decision to freeze development on its V-8 means the ZDX will be handicapped from day one against the competing Infiniti FX and BMW X6,  both of which offer six- and eight-cylinder models. Still, the Acura MDX crossover upon which the ZDX is based has done all right with just a V-6 – it offers top-of-the-class driving dynamics and quality. If the ZDX manages to improve on its brother while coming in around the same price as the six-cylinder Bimmer and Finnie, it should do well for itself.

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And while we’re on the subject of FUCKs, I’d like to point out that, mocking acronym aside, I don’t find them nearly as insensible as some others in the automotive industry do. While the idea of them as anything close to a proper coupe is hilarious (and not lame Jimmy Fallon hilarious, but seriously Tina Fey hilarious), they offer what people like about SUVs – high seating, ground clearance, all-wheel-drive, roomy interior – with a more attractive design and sportier performance. That sounds like a win-win.

Another example: the BMW X6 M, also unveiled at NYIAS. 555 horsepower, 500 lb-ft of torque, 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. All the straight-line performance of a BMW M5, and probably 95 percent of its handling capabilities – plus you can drive the bastard through a blizzard, carrying twice as much in the trunk. It’s the logical extension of convenient performance: the sport sedan gave us sports-car performance with room for four; the sports-FUCK gives us equal performance with room for four and all-road capability. In fact – and I may be going out on a limb here – I’d take an X6 M over a current generation M5, given the sedan’s unsatisfying choice between the harsh, grabby sequential gearbox and the performance-crippling manual.

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Volkswagen took the wraps off the American versions of the new Golf, complete with hot-to-trot GTI edition. The biggest news here is the new styling, which depending on the angle, can either make the car look tough or raccoon-eyed. Still, the sleeker lines are a definite improvement over the current, bland-looking car. VW’s betting heavy on their 50-state-clean diesel technology in this car – they guesstimate 30 percent of sales will be oil burners in the first model. Diesel Jettas, for their part, have been scooping up 30 percent of Jetta sedan sales and half of the Jetta wagon market, so this might be realistic. Still, will people want “sportier” gasoline engines in the cooler Golf?

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The other big news, of course, has nothing to do with the mechanics of the car; VW changed the car’s name from “Rabbit” to “Golf.” This marks the second time VW has executed this exact name change in America for the car, having done so decades ago. They switched it back to “Rabbit” for the new 2006 model – I can only assume to capitalize on some perceived nostalgia for 70s-era compacts. Judging by the reversal, I’d wager they didn’t find any.

Mercedes-Benz used the auto show to unwrap a somewhat surprising ML450 Hybrid – surprising because M-B seemed to be putting its eggs into the efficient diesel market, especially on its SUVs. Nevertheless, Benz fused a 3.5 liter V-6 to a pair of electric motors to make a combined 335 horsepower and 385 lb/ft, while eking out an estimated 21/24 mpg, city/highway. In contrast, their ML320 BlueTEC diesel pumps out 210 horsepower, 398 lb/ft and makes 18/24, city/highway.  Assuming they both cost about the same, the hybrid has a definite edge around town – factor in the cheaper price of gasoline than diesel and the cache of the “Hybrid” badge, and the new model will probably outsell the oil burner by a decent margin. But it’s good to see Mercedes taking the green thing seriously.

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Jeep, sadly, doesn’t seem to be following the same track, at least if the 2011 Grand Cherokee is any indication. It still limits your choices to gasoline six- and eight-cylinder engines –  a 3.0 liter diesel is only available outside of the States. (Strange, given that Jeep’s website lists the current model rocking the diesel six. Expect to see that remedied within the next three years.) The V-6 is all new, a 280-horsepower, 260 lb/ft 3.6 liter that’s supposed to deliver a whopping 11 percent improvement in fuel economy. Given the current 4WD model gets 15/19 with its V6, that should at least bump it over the 20 mpg mark – but being unveiled just after Mercedes’s 24-mpg hybrid M-class, and just before GMC declared the 2WD GMC Terrain will get 30 mpg, the Jeep’s figures hardly look like the sort of leap forward Chrysler needs right now.

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But thankfully, the Grand Cherokee’s physical figure comes damn close to making up for it. This is one good-looking truck. Previous GCs have bounced between ruggedly square and generically curvy, but this is the first one that could genuinely be called hot – er, in an automotive sense. In fact, pretty much the only reason this baby’s on this list instead of the Terrain is because of how it looks. The GMC gets 30 mpg on the highway, has a quality interior, is big enough for four of me (if you’re above 6’2″, you know how hard it is to find cars in which you can sit behind yourself), and will probably cost at least eight grand less when it comes out this summer – a full year before the Jeep. But the Terrain is a 5. The Grand Cherokee is a 9.

While the Honda Element continues on with its admittedly…homely styling, the new “Dog Friendly” package transforms the car from a utilitarian box to a utilitarian box every one of the 43 million Americans with canine companions will look at and say, “Aww…” In all honesty, I’m shocked that no one’s thought of this before. Car companies have made specialized models for all sorts of esoteric markets – wealthy ranchers,  yuppie outdoorsmen, extraordinarily rich socialites, and most notably, Frank Sinatra fans – but so far as I know, no one’s ever arranged such a simple, yet logical, package for such a wide market. (Well, Dodge did build a model called the LaFemme just for ladies, but it failed, in no small part because the idea was utterly moronic.)

Dog Friendly Honda Element Concept

Let’s face it – despite the fact that most of us love our dogs more than we love our second cousins (fine, first cousins), the vast majority of us simply let them hop into the back seat and drive off without a second thought. We don’t belt them in, transforming them into living cannonballs in an accident. We don’t buy them Powerades at the 7-11, and rarely consider the climate back there. The average American’s consideration for his or her dog’s well-being in the car probably extends to cracking the rear windows.

He's too darn cute not to see again.

He's too darn cute not to see again.

But when dog owners hear about this package, I’m willing to bet they’ll at least be intrigued enough to come in and take a look. And, sure, you could probably build your own version of the kit at Petsmart for far less than it’ll retail for, but remember, we’re lazy! Anyone motivated enough to do all that work must be some kind of weirdo. But buying a pre-made package…that shows love. I’ll bet you Honda won’t have a problem selling any of these – and I’ll bet every manufacturer you hear snidely deriding the option is working on copying it.

Speaking of plagiarizing Honda, a round of applause for Kia, ladies and gentlemen! If you slapped a Civic badge on the new Forte Coupe, not only could you pass yourself off as someone with classier taste in cars, you’d probably be able to score service at a fair number of Honda dealerships across the nation. I mean, you couldn’t have your catalytic converter replaced without being noticed, but you could probably snag an oil change.

2010_kia_forte_koup

Though in all honesty, you’ll probably be getting a fair number of complements from Honda owners, because this new coupe is…alluring? Wait a second – has Kia actually made a cool car? Remarkable, but true. Kia quality has been steadily increasing since the brand’s arrival (not like it had anywhere to go but up); that, combined with their T.J. Maxx pricing, has been their ace in the hole these last couple years. Throw in eye-catching styling and halfway decent performance, and we may have ourselves the automotive equivalent of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays – an upstart franchise without any big names that surprises the hell out of everyone.

Now, astute readers (or Kia fans – do they even exist?) will point out that I have the two-door Forte’s name wrong, and that it’s actually called the “Forte Koup.” My misspelling is entirely intentional.  Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a professional writer) about when it’s acceptable to change the spelling of a word for artistic reasons. He pointed out that while it often looks better, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to spell it right. Kia ought to know better – and I’m not going to disgrace all the hard work of the engineers and designers by referring to it by a bastardized moniker.

That, and I simply can’t stand typing “koup.”

Finally on our list of noteworthy NYIAS debuts comes a pair of cash cattle from Subaru – the brand-new Legacy sedan and Outback wagon. If you’ve ever ventured into one of the New England states, you’ll understand what this means. Up there, the arrival of new Subarus is celebrated in much the way a bountiful harvest or the birth of a new child is. Farmers and their families congregate in the village green, often traveling ten or twenty miles along muddy, washed-out excuses-for-roads in their old Subies to reach the festivities. The local minister leads everyone in a prayer, glorious odes are sung, then everyone sits down for an enormous potluck supper. Afterwards, the assembly examines every inch of the new models; questions are asked and answered, brochures poured over, Subaru salesmen toasted with cider and beer. Eventually, the masses place their orders for the vehicles that will carry them through the worst God and nature can throw at them through the next four to eight years of their Rockwellian existence.

Though they mask it well, the hearts of stoic New Englanders warm for this car.

Though they mask it well, the hearts of stoic New Englanders warm for this car.

So, yes, this is a big deal.

But aside from the joyful noise arising from parts north, it was a pretty low-key auto show. It seems like most people in the automotive industry are just trying to ride things out as best they can. Perhaps one of the most surprising turn of events was the number of new SUVs – even with gas prices reduced from last year’s highs, “green” remains the color of choice these days, so it seems a little odd that out of this list of notable, five of the nine vehicles are sport-utes (not including the Outback, whose impression of one has gone from Frank Caliendo quality to Sasha Baron Cohen caliber). Here’s hoping next year’s show finds the industry on more stable ground – so we can drool over something better than a new Jeep.

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2009 New York International Auto Show – Day One Unfiltered

We’ll have a comprehensive piece in a few days summarizing and analyzing the 2009 NYIAS, but in the meantime, content yourself with our raw notes from the Javits floor. We’re goin’ gonzo!

Mercedes-Benz, 9:30 a.m. Little sign of the recession here. Look, a $545,000 Mercedes-Benz SLR 722 convertible! A $300,000 SL65 Black Series on a goddamn pedestal! Thankfully, the espresso bar is still there. Also, a live jazz band stage-side. The pianist’s playing a Steinway. Heh. Pianist.

Mercedes always has the best countdowns – giant chrome numbers ticking off on the screen above the stage, flying by to a bombastic orchestral soundtrack via tachycardia-inducing subwoofers.

And here we go! The theme: “Road To The Future.” Is it in the sky?

And the first new car is…the ML450 Hybrid SUV. Their first full hybrid – Prius style! Developed exclusively for the U.S. and Canada. We’re special. Hmm, 335 horsepower, 381 lb/ft, and 21 city/24 highway. This actually doesn’t sound so bad.

Also an updated GL-class. And the new E-class!

Ooh, here’s Grammy-winning jazz singer Dianne Reeves to sing a new song “dedicated to the launch of the new E-class!” What a good use of cash reserves in these lean times – a famous vocalist! What, they couldn’t get Billy Joel?

"Better than sex! Better than drugs! Better than ice cream!"

Dianne's will have a Grammy on the hood in place of the three-pointed star.

“Better than anything except being in love,” goes the song. So…we’re not going to fall in love with this car?

E320 Bluetec diesel makes 23 city/32 highway, along with 210 hp and 400 lb/ft of torque. Sweet. Why can’t Ford put an engine like this in an F-150?

The E-class coupe is “the most aerodynamic production car in the world.” Seems random.

And here comes the hairy nutsack – the E63 AMG! Unveiled to clashing guitars, no less! Kick-ass! 518 horsepower, 465 lb/ft! And a staggering 12 percent improvement in fuel economy! Holy shit! Call the president – the auto crisis is over!

Mercedes-Benz's giant balls

Mercedes-Benz's giant balls

Chrysler, 10:00 a.m: Here comes jolly hunchback and Chrysler vice chairman Jim Press. He’s driving out in a Fiat 500! That’s like half a step away from out-and-out blowing Obama’s automotive taskforce!

Okay, Press has spent about five minutes talking about how wonderful a “marriage” with Fiat would be. This is fuckin’ trippy. The official spokesman of Chrysler – CHRYSLER! – is admitting his company is so screwed, they’re happily accepting a forced marriage…to FIAT. The mighty have gone subterranean.

But their first electric car will be out by 2010! Yay! Sunshine and puppies!

Finally – the new Jeep Grand Cherokee bucks onto the stage. It bounced up the steps on the edge of the platform. That was pretty cool.

And it’s surprisingly good looking! Seriously, wow! I’m impressed! It’s almost…sexy. (Warning: maybe NSFW, definitely emotionally scarring.)

Sexy Jeeps? Please, God, let's keep it from going this far.

Sexy Jeeps? Please, God, let's keep this from going too far.

A 146 percent increase in body stiffness over the old model, which was apparently made entirely out of duct tape.

Land Rover, 10:30 a.m.: Three models hidden under sheets, then again hidden behind giant LCD screens. And here goes another fancy countdown – ooh, numbers plunging into water! Kinda makes me have to pee.

More generic-brand rock music, another video montage…and here they are! Three all-new – wait, those cars look exactly the same as the old models.

Apparently the LR3 has now been replaced by the LR4, which looks pretty much identical. Quick note to Land Rover – if automotive journalists can’t tell it’s an all-new model, you might want to try something a little more revolutionary. Like, say, curves.

The LR3. Er, the LR4. Oh hell, why can't we still call it the Discovery?

The LR3. Er, the LR4. Oh hell, why can't we still call it the Discovery?

Ooh, they’re preparing a compact Range Rover “cross coupe!” I wonder if it will be anything like…

Acura, 11:00 a.m.: …the new ZDX crossover! Or four-door coupe, or sports-activity coupe, or elevated sports sedan, or whatever they’re calling this niche this week. True fact: they change the category’s name every time Glenn Beck cries.

When you leave the car idling for more than a minute, those lights pulse like a Mac.

When you leave the car idling for more than a minute, those lights pulse like a Mac.

Acura’s Jeff Conrad claims it’s “an entirely new category of luxury vehicle.” Except for the BMW X6. Or the Infiniti FX. Yeah, nice try.

Two models (the blonde on the right is hotter, just so you know) peel off the cover, to reveal…THE IRON MAN MARK 2!

Oh, no, it’s the ZDX. It’s just all burnished metallic with glowing blue concept-car headlights. Damn. I was really excited to see it fly through the roof.

Man, Iron Man was a great movie.

Man, Iron Man was a great movie.

Very Japanese up front – headlights like the new Mazda6. Those’ll change for production. Otherwise, looks like an Acura TL nose and MDX tail grafted onto a BMW X6. Not bad, really. But I need to see it with production lamps before rendering final judgement.

It’s for “active and adventuring individuals,” they say? That’s me! Excuse me while I take take a ten-mile jog while reading up on sub-Saharan parasites for my trip to the Congo next month.

Only a V6? Oh, right – they killed their V8 engine program. Bad move, Honda. You’re gonna need that. Or chop half a ton out of the thing if you want to fight BMW and Infiniti on their turf. (Or I guess they could turbocharge it…)

Production models – all with a panoramic glass roof! – hit dealerships this fall. Gonna have to see how it drives.

General Motors, 11:30 a.m.: “Gone, Gone, Gone,” by Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, is playing in the background as we wait for the conference to start. Someone has a black sense of humor.

Three models being shown off, two of which are already out on stage, since they’ve been around the block a few times already. Pontiac G8 GXP? Seen it. Buick Lacrosse? Does the name still mean masturbation in French-speaking Quebec? Because otherwise I don’t care.

Apparently GMC is the General’s “premium truck brand.” No, Cadillac is your premium truck brand. They sell the Escalade, the Enzyte Escalade (it’s several inches longer), the Farmer’s Escalade (it has a truck bed, so it’s clearly intended for hauling manure), and the SRX mid-size sport-ute. GMC is a neglected brand that hasn’t had a proprietary model since Obama stopped using pot.

But wait – here’s the GMC Terrain! It’s a small SUV that gets 30 mpg highway and arrives this summer! And I actually fit in back! Wow! Why isn’t it a Chevy?

The GMC Terrain is made entirely of journalists.

The GMC Terrain is made entirely of journalists.

Scion, 12:05 p.m.: The whole ballroom is lit up like a techno club. If Scion reps start asking us if we “roll,” I’m not sure which answer I should give.

Today’s concept, they claim, is for today’s “urban youth” who embrace “urban culture.” Not sure if they’re talking about Gossip Girl or The Wire.

“A microsubcompact car is perfect for their progressive lifestyles.” Because the smaller the car, the thicker the pot smoke inside.

And the iQ Concept lowers itself from the ceiling. It looks like a Smart car with mutated, Sideshow Bob-like feet. It’s radioactive green. Amazingly, this looks cool.

Next week, Serena and Blair try to score rock in their iQ.

Next week, Serena and Blair try to score rock in their iQ.

Holy shit, the name of the paint color actually is “radioactive?” I thought of that in half a second. Maybe I should go into PR instead.

And it comes with a 10″ LCD screen inside that folds into the console and projects rave lighting when turned off. Does this seem, in any way shape or form, like a good idea?

Wow, up close, this thing has a serious wide stance. Like, a Senator Larry Craig wide stance.

WITH HIS HAMMER PANTS DOWN!

WITH HIS HAMMER PANTS DOWN!

Volkswagen, 12:40 p.m.: Stefan Jacoby, President of VW of America, says they don’t expect to match the gains they made in 2008. Dude, we came here to dream about shiny new cars, not get gut-punched. Why not tell us the Easter Bunny isn’t real, too?

The covers come off the new Golf and GTI – and they’re not very different. Except the Rabbit is now the Golf again.

Sweet. Can we eat now? I'm hungry.

Sweet. Can we eat now? I'm hungry.

The design director’s been talking about the car’s styling for five minutes. Fuck it – I’m going to lunch.

Lunch, 1:05 p.m.: Well, at least it’s free.

BMW, 2:00 p.m.: Seven new Bimmer models go on sale this year, and eight in 2010. How many ways can you split a Bavarian creme pie?

Ahh, the world premiere of the BMW X6M. 555 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of delicious absurdity. 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds? Man, I can’t wait until they strap this engine into the next-generation M5.

Tim Allen says: "Arf Arf Arf!" (No? I though the 90's were coming back.)

Tim Allen says: "Arf Arf Arf!" (No? I though the 90's were coming back.)

But because cosmic scales must be balanced, BMW’s karma is evened out by introducing the X6 Active Hybrid for later this year. Any Buddhists at BMW these days?

I'm blue, abu-dee abu-dye...really? They're not back yet?

I'm blue, abu-dee abu-dye...really? They're not back yet?

Apparently 63 percent of power for their Spartanburg, S.C. plant comes from sucking methane out of a nearby landfill. The other 37 percent comes from harvesting methane farted out by the employees.

Wandering about, 2:20 p.m.: Props to Porsche and Land Rover/Jaguar for rocking the lounge setup – each one has leather couches, munchies and beverages. But LR/Jag with the win for the open bar and hors d’oeuvres. The Germans only have Coke and communal M&M bowls.

Bentley, 2:30 p.m.: Hip, James Bond-ish music blares from suspended speakers – surprisingly hip for someone proudly portraying the symbols of HM The Queen and HRH The Prince Of Wales on the wall.

Today’s launch is “one of the most important cars in our history,” they say? Well, unless you’re hiding a surprise plug-in diesel hybrid – oh, no, it’s just the Supersports you showed at Geneva. I mean, biofuel capability is nice, but is a slightly faster, sportier Continental GT really THAT important just because it runs on moonshine? I mean, outside of Brazil.

It runs on gasoline, E85, or Hennessy XO.

It runs on gasoline, E85, or Hennessy XO.

But kudos to the Bentley spokesman for going old-school and forgoing the teleprompter for a paper copy of his sheet. Well done, old chap.

Porsche, 2:55 p.m.: Porsche unveils the newest version of the 911 GT3. That’s all. It’s light, it’s fast, it makes more power than any naturally aspirated six-cylinder does. I want one.

I think that's a good image to leave you with.

I think that's a good image to leave you with.

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