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New York Auto Show – Thoughts and Judgements (Oh So Much Judgement)

The grueling two days making up the New York Auto Show press preview have finally come to a close (so many free cappuccinos…), so it’s time to reflect on just what happened. Overall, it was a pretty average show, but my gut seems to indicate the overall event was actually one of the more exciting, involving shows of late. Maybe it’s because of the infinitesimal indications that the economy is starting to climb out of the pit so large, Gerard Butler uses it for overly dramatic drop-kickings. Or maybe it was just the free beer.

Let’s talk press conferences. There were a few notable stunts and oddities this year. Mercedes-Benz chose the American 2010 Olympic gold medalist bobsled team to drive out their new, mildly updated R-class. Sadly, this was the first I’d heard of the U.S. victory. I just assumed the Jamaicans always won.

"If they make one Cool Runnings joke, we're getting back in and driving away."

Infiniti put on a brief Cirque du Soleil show before yanking the sheet off their new truck-based QX56 sport-ute. At first, I thought it was just some CDS-style dancers, but, nope, turns out Infiniti actually pulled some real performers from the famed Canadian dance-circus. All they had to do was pay a shitton of money and become the official vehicle of Cirque du Soleil, as both the dancers and the car company represent “inspired performance.” (I couldn’t make that up.) I don’t know about anyone else, but the whole thing gave me a wicked acid flashback.

Scion unveiled their new iQ and tC coupes in what can best be described as a rave setting, if most raves featured a thirty-foot tall mesh projection screen with a car behind it and house music imploring the listener to “jam it in your hole” over and over again. (Then again, maybe raves do these days. I haven’t been in a while.)

Roger Sterling takes a minute from banging his secretary to introduce the new Scions.

Unsurprisingly for anyone who’s seen one of their “cheeky” ads, Mini took full advantage of the date of their press conference to play an April Fools Day prank on the audience; touting their square, cloaked concept as a concept called the “Mini Excel,” the sheet was ripped off to reveal a large SUV-shaped plywood box with “April Fools” written on the sides. Then several roadies (Minies?) converged on the stage, each grabbing a piece of the box and removing it to reveal the Mini Countryman underneath. Incidentally, Mini’s spokesperson was the only one of the days not wearing a collared shirt; beneath his suit coat was a black T-shirt with MINI written in white print. However, his closed jacket concealed about half the word, so I spent most of the show thinking he was just a big Nine Inch Nails fan.

Of course, at any event involving a large group of competitors, there will be winners and losers. In many cases, determining which is which is pretty easy; in the event of an auto show, it’s entirely subjective. Which means it’s perfect for this site. Presenting the 2010 New York Auto Show Winners and Losers!

Winner: Hyundai. Five years ago, the idea of a Hyundai competing against Mercedes-Benz would have been much, much funnier than anything Dane Cook had ever performed. But unlike Cook, Hyundai has spent the last few years improving themselves. The Genesis sedan introduced the world to the concept of a luxury Hyundai – and the new Equus sedan sets that idea in stone.

Offering quality nearly even with Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the Equus sets out to fight the luxury brands’ top-level sedans at a much lower price point. Fun-to-drive isn’t really the game here – leave that to the Panamera – but for those looking for a relaxed, brisk full-sized luxury sedan with oodles of comfort (and yes, an oodle is the basic unit of comfort), this Hyundai will probably be a perfect fit. It’ll probably poach Lexus LS sales like an ivory hunter with a Holland & Holland .600. Starting between $50,ooo and $60,000, and with features its competitors either charge heavily for (reclining rear right-side seat, rear fridge) or don’t offer at all (nose-mounted camera for seeing around corners, standard iPad in lie of a paper owner’s manual), the Equus will almost certainly clean up the lower end of this market.

You know how Hyundai is serious about this car? Their traditional “H” doesn’t appear on it. Instead, buyers get an abstract Y-shaped logo that looks like a weird-but-I’ve-seen-weirder sex toy.

Recline function, yes. Legroom to use it, no.

Loser: Dodge/Chrysler. Unable to muster up the energy for a press conference, the closest thing the company managed to excitement were a pair of tiny Fiat 500s from their new parent company, along with a duo of identical twins to show them off.

Otherwise, the whole display was pretty flaccid. (Yes, folks, that’s a dick joke.) Chrysler’s business plan these days seems to consist of trying to sell two-tone special editions of the 300, while Dodge is relegated to selling musclecars to the Provincetown set.

Come on, Chrysler! You used to make such great concept cars. Even had a good stretch of production models there, with the PT Cruiser and the 300. This is just sad. If Hyundai can throw two separate press conferences, you can summon up five minutes to show off something. Subaru threw a new wing on the STI and called it a day – can’t you do that to the Viper?

The model budget doesn't seem to have taken much of a hit.

Winner: BMW. Pulling the sheets off five models at the show is a pretty good way to get on this list. (Not four, Kia. Five.) Consistently building some of the most fun-to-drive cars on the road helps, too. Granted, three of the reveals were just tweaks, but if loading a 3-series with 20 extra horses and a seven-speed DSG is what ladies call “freshening up,” I understand why they do it so often and it takes so long. Same goes for the mods to the Z4 and X5. Improvements on the 7-series – like the road-going ICE train called the B7 Alpina, now brilliantly available with xDrive AWD, and the ActiveHybrid 7 capable of going 0-60 in 4.7 seconds while still allowing you to be incredibly smug – are more than appreciated as well.

Who wants to race to Alaska?

But the new 5-series could be my new “realistic” dream car. Especially in 550i form, equipped with the company’s magical 4.4 liter twin turbo V8 cranking out 400 horses – an engine capable of moving the 5200-lb X6 from 0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat – and the available six-speed manual! (Though living in the city, I might just test-drive that eight-speed automatic. Though I’d feel like a poseur every day if I bought one.) The new 5 is handsome (much more so in person than in pictures), exceedingly comfortable, and quite big inside – big enough I could fit quite comfortably in the back seat, even with my 36″ inseam. (And I’ll just say it – comfier back seat than the new Bentley Mulsanne. No one else will say it, ’cause they don’t want to get booted off the Bentley gravy train, but I speak the truth!) Hell, the trunk is huge, too. I’ll take mine in Deep Sea Blue, please.

Winner: Cadillac. They surprised all of us with a CTS-V Sport Wagon, going on sale this fall by order only. I just need a nice juicy raise by Christmas.

Loser: Toyota/Lexus. Apparently shamed by the whole “AAAAAAUUUUUUGGGGHHHH!!!” problem (also known as JESUSFUCKINGCHRISTTHECARWON’TSTOP-gate), Toyota and its luxury brand were silent for the whole show. No apologies, no on-stage seppuku, no carefully choreographed bawling. Which was unfortunate, because at the very least, Lexus had a couple models worth mentioning. The LFA supercar made its New York debut in a matte-black shade that suggests Lexus is courting Bruce Wayne and the rest of the billionaire vigilante market. The CT 200h hybrid compact showed up for the first time too, complete with an ad for an interactive BMWFilm-like promo featuring a “Driver” played by the Boondock Saint Who Isn’t Young Indiana Jones. But no one told us anything about it.

Winner: The Lotus Elise. Because I discovered, while it takes about 30 seconds of gymnastics, I can actually fit inside it. Even with the hard top on.

Loser: The Subaru WRX STI. First, Subaru bumped up the power of the regular, cheaper WRX so it actually became quicker than the big-ticket STI. Now, the company has outfitted the WRX with a new, tough-guy look rendering it all but identical to the STI. Granted, four-door STIs (a new model, by the way) receive an Airbus-grade wing on the rear spoiler, but how long ’til some dude in an Ed Hardy T-shirt sticks one on his WRX?

While fun to drive, the WRX STI can result in other people correctly assuming you're a douchebag.

Winner: The backseat of the Rolls-Royce Ghost. It’s like sitting on a cloud made of dead cattle. (Wait, that came out wrong.)

"Would you like to see my Rolls-Royce?" is ranked #6 on the list of Top 10 Pick-Up Lines.

Loser: the asshole cameraman who spent a good five solid minutes filming the back seat of the Hyundai Equus through its open door, preventing the rest of us from sitting in it. Then, when I asked him if he was going to be much longer, simply snarked, “Yes.” By far, biggest loser of the show.

We’ll have more photos – and probably some snarky remarks of our own to go with them – coming soon! So stay tuned.

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Review – 2009 Audi A5 3.2 quattro

The Good: Playful chassis, movie-star looks, surprisingly versatile.

The Bad: Needs more power, S5 only a few grand more expensive.

The Verdict: About 100 horses shy of being a great sports coupe.

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Just like people, some cars are destined to stand in the shadows of their siblings. The Porsche Cayman may be considered by many to be the superior driver’s car, but the 911 will always be the car that stirs the hearts of 12-year-olds of all ages.

Likewise, the Audi A5 is doomed to sit one row behind its brother, the S5. Rocking a 354-horsepower V8 and aggressive bodywork, the S5 is a sinfully lustful piece of machinery, capable of dropping jaws and seducing women with a glimpse.

And then there’s the (barely) more prosaic A5, waving, “Hey, I’m cool too! What about me?”

To be sure, without an S5 nearby for comparison, the A5 will suck in gold-digging women and midlife-crisis-afflicted men for blocks around. With its long hood, taut lines, narrow headlights and wide grill, there’s a predatory mien to the A5, as if it fuels itself by stalking the streets at night, hunting for unlucky deer and pedestrians.

The car is so good-looking my tester’s black paint job seemed detrimental, hiding the car’s creases and blurring its crisp lines. Anyone purchasing an A5 ought to consider something a little more vivid. I mean, you’re not buying this car to blend in.

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Anyone with experience sitting in an Audi (or frequent readers of this blog, for that matter) won’t be surprised to hear the interior continues the stylish trend set by the sheetmetal.  Controls and materials are Audi standard – which is to say, top of the class. The interior is a feast for the senses, and controls fall easily to hand. The only variations from the Audi status quo are the sport seats partially upholstered in Alcantara (fake suede) that came along with the sporty S-line package.

Those seats lived up to their name, proving supportive while I wound the car through the twists and turns of north central New Jersey. Highway slogs, however, weren’t quite as ideal in the chairs; while comfortable at first, a not-quite-pleasant case of numb butt seemed to creep in sooner than one would like. Still, given they were designed more for spirited driving than cross-country expeditions, it’s a minor complaint.

The rear seats, however, proved another story. I’ve always been of the view that people ought to only buy as much car as they’ll need most of the time – that is, if you usually only drive around with one passenger or by yourself, you should get a coupe, not an SUV or sedan. But the backseat of the A5 was…well, let’s just call it inconvenient. It proved quite suitable as a parcel shelf, helping me and my girlfriend move most of her possessions from one apartment to another across Manhattan; however, any living creatures you want to put back there had better either weigh less than 100 pounds or lack limbs. Even large anacondas and Mini Me-sized amputees will probably want out of there before too long, as the scarcity of headroom and lack of view makes for a claustrophobic ride.

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But stick to the front seats – especially the one on the left – and the A5 makes for a pretty thrilling ride. It only takes a couple of turns to realize this is a true sports coupe – not a luxury sedan given a stylish makeover, but a two-door car aimed at people who love to drive.

Toss the Audi into a curve, and it claws its way around the bend with glee. Body roll is minimal, and the suspension doesn’t give in easily. This car wants to play, wants to dance around slower vehicles and through weaving two-lanes. As in the best cars, when you’re driving the A5, those yellow “winding road” signs are less a warning and more an invitation.

And, lo, what’s this sprouting from between the seats? Why – it’s a stick shift! Praise the Lord and pass the gasoline! Yes, while the A5 can be had with the six-speed automatic common to nearly every Audi, my tester came with a six-speed manual with a baseball-sized shift knob that fell right into the palm of my right hand. While shifts aren’t quite as crisp as those of BMWs or Hondas – who tend to set the standard for pleasant shift feel – it’s still a joy to use, and further indicates the Audi’s goal of being perceived as a sports coupe, rather than a two-door luxury car.

Paradoxically, though, choosing the manual also forces you to deal with a frustrating indicator under the speedometer telling you to upshift. As if its existence alone weren’t bad enough, the light often starts blinking ridiculously early – often telling me to shift up to the next gear at a mere 1800 rpm. Clearly, it’s designed to maximize fuel economy – but follow its guidance, and you’ll find yourself frequently outaccelerated by passing scooters. Razor, not Vespa.

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(Devastatingly, though, as of the 2010 model year, Audi no longer offers the six-speed stick on V6-motivated A5s. You might be able to find some new ‘09s still on dealer lots if you look, but finding them might be hard, given the American preference for slushboxes. However, Audi now offers their torquey 2.0 liter turbocharged I4 in the A5, and it’s still available with a manual.)

Unfortunately, even winding the most out of the A5’s 3.2 liter V6 won’t result in earth-shattering acceleration. Five years ago, 265 horsepower would have put the Audi at the top of its class; these days, however, it just can’t hold its own against engines like BMW’s silky smooth 300 horsepower twin-turbo inline six or Infiniti’s snorty 330 horsepower V6. And given that the S5 starts at $1,490 less than my tester, the A5’s place in the lineup becomes a little unclear.

Still, my loaded model was strapped down with nearly 14 grand in options, which cost-conscious customers could consider chopping (alliteration five!).  The S-line package (including sport suspension, tires and the aforementioned sport seats) is probably worth the $2,900 if you’re a performance driver; it also makes the $2,950 adjustable suspension seem somewhat redundant.

Likewise, the technology package ($2,200 for a rear parking camera and sonar, turning headlights, a blind-sport warning system and keyless entry) and the rockin’ Bang & olufsen sound system ($850) seem worth the money for a choice ride like this; however, I for one could do without the $1,900 premium package (though it does include those badass LED daytime running lights) and the navigation system (handy, but not worth $2,390 – not when a top-of-the-line Garmin GPS system costs $500).

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The Bottom Line: The Audi A5 is an honest sports coupe – a two-door vehicle bigger than a real sports car, but still capable of handling itself with as much glee as Fox’s Wednesday night lineup. Sadly, though, there’s little to distinguish it from its faster, sexier sibling, the S5, beyond a smaller engine.

The A4 and S4 sedan manage to stand apart because of their more utilitarian nature; there are plenty of people out there who want a capable luxury sedan, but don’t crave driving the way David Duchovny does poontang. Coupe buyers, though – especially ones looking at performance-oriented ones like the A5 – are more likely to be interested in the extra grunt of its V8-powered sibling.

But if you can’t stretch to the S5 and are forced to make do with the A5, you probably won’t regret it. After all, they say it’s better to drive slow cars fast than fast cars slow. And that way, you give the bystanders more time to stare.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $40,700/$54,715

0-60: 5.8 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 16 city/27 highway (EPA estimates)

Key Competitors: BMW 3-series coupe, Infiniti G37 Coupe, Audi S5.

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Review – 2009 Infiniti G37 Coupe AWD

The Good: Stylish enough to be Italian, powerful enough to be American, and packing enough geekery to be true to its Japanese heritage.

The Bad: A little soft in the turns, can’t have Sport Package and AWD, audio overkill.

The Verdict: The poor(er) man’s Maserati.

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In the analog automotive world, the term gran turismo usually refers to sleek, powerful cars designed for crossing continents. The term hearkens back to an age when road trips were romantic things, before the minivan and the rear-seat DVD player turned thousand-mile drives into things to be endured, rather than savored.

But those great touring cars are still around today, and while the term is usually thrown around in the context of six-figure exotics, there are plenty of less expensive cars ideal for endless road trips along both highways and byways.

The Infiniti G37 coupe is one of those cars. Leave its four-door brother for the “responsible” middle-managers with kids and jobs they detest; the two-door G37 is for those whose souls cry for the endless road trip, wanderers who need only a fine machine around them and an endless supply of rock and roll to be happy.

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And the G37 coupe delivers on both those counts. Equipped with the Premium and Navigation Packages, as my tester was, the G37 offers as many varieties of audio as your local Best Buy – AM/FM radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, CD player, iPod-specific connector, internal hard drive, and flash memory slot. Play it right, and you won’t hear the same song twice until James T. Kirk is left fatherless after birth, causing him to develop into a more dickish yet more svelte adult than he would have been otherwise.

All those tunes flow through an 11-speaker Bose audio system dubbed the “Infiniti Studio on Wheels.” While this “studio” won’t let you cut an acoustic version of “Waking Up In Vegas” (thank God), it will let you properly memorialize Michael Jackson with clean, crisp sound. Whether it’s worth the $3,000 for the Premium package is up to you; however, if it makes the choice any easier, it comes bundled with a moonroof and Bluetooth (which refused to work in my car, for some reason).

But to spend all your time listening to the radio would deprive you of the roar of the 3.7 liter V6 – and that would be a shame. Floor the throttle, and the engine (shared with pretty much every vehicle in the Infiniti lineup, and quite a few in the Nissan line as well) cuts loose with a throaty growl certain to make teenagers and dogs look your way. If you blindfolded the average person and asked them to identify what sort of car it came from, they’d probably be more likely to pick something from Italy than Japan.

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However, pull that blindfold off, and they might still make the same mistake. With curves and lines that could have been penned by Pininfarina, the G37 Coupe oozes the sex appeal of a much more expensive car. Admittedly, the tail end looks may have gone under the knife one time too many, but the front view sends blood places usually reserved for a Maserati – or Megan Fox – sighting.

The stylishness continues inside the cabin, where brushed aluminum sweeps across the dashboard and down the waterfall-like center console. It’s a good thing that console looks so nice, because your eyes will be glancing that way quite a bit; housed atop it is the large, vivid touchscreen display for the navigation and stereo.

The navigation system offers no fewer than three ways to control it – by touching the screen, using the control buttons below the screen, or via voice commands. While three control methods might seem redundant, they each have distinct benefits – for example, scrolling is best accomplished with the physical scroll knob, while voice control is great for times when you need both hands on the wheel.

The nav system itself is easy to follow and loaded with helpful features, such as real-time traffic conditions and lane diagrams to point you in the right direction during complex intersections. However, the system isn’t flawless – driving up the New Jersey turnpike, it inexplicably directed me through the long-term parking lot at Newark Airport on the way to the Holland Tunnel. And is it really necessary for the system to tell you not to take every exit on the highway?

Aside from the navigation, the other big techno gun in the G37’s road-trip arsenal is its laser cruise control. Sadly, this doesn’t involve vaporizing slower-moving traffic, but rather using an invisible laser beam to judge the distance from the car in front of you. If the Infiniti gets too close, it automatically slows to maintain the set distance.

The default, longest setting is strictly for driver’s ed class; people will be cutting in front of you so often, you’ll be in a constant state of slowing down. (Though as George Carlin said, given all the toll booths, that’s really all you do in New Jersey anyway.) Luckily, there are two shorter settings – or you can turn the laser off altogether.

But with 330 horsepower under the hood, you probably won’t want to use the cruise control very much. Putting it simply – this baby hauls. Car and Driver recorded a 0-60 time of 5.3 seconds for the Sport model, and you’ll probably want to try and break that every chance you can. It almost made the $45 I spent on tolls driving from NYC to D.C. worth it, just the floor the car out of the gate and rip up to speed across the broad post-toll expanse.

However, the stock suspension doesn’t live up to the engine’s promise; the tires squeal around cloverleaves, and while “sportiness” is obviously on the car’s list of priorities, it’s a couple slots lower than enthusiasts would like. The Sport Package, which gets a 6-speed manual (or paddle shifters for the 7-speed auto, if you fail at driving), sport suspension, and stronger brakes, would probably make all the difference; however, my tester instead came with all-wheel-drive, and Infiniti doesn’t offer the two packages together. (BMW lets you get AWD and the Sport Package on the 3-series – so what’s up, Infiniti?)

The AWD certainly increases the car’s capabilities as a real-world vehicle, rendering it all but unstoppable; the car never slipped or faltered, even taking a tight uphill turn in the midst of a torrential rain storm. Personally, I’d rather grab the Sport package and drive a little more carefully during bad weather in exchange for the added performance and fun most of the time; but if you live somewhere where inclement weather is a concern, the AWD would make the G37 an ideal two-person car.

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Two people, mind you, not more – at least, not on a regular basis. Calling the car a four-seater isn’t quite a lie, but you might want to think twice about saying that in court. While there are two seats in back, they’re best reserved for people you really don’t like. Legroom is tight for anyone over 5’6”, headroom even tighter, and the low roof and small windows render the space rather claustrophobic. Four adults could squeeze into the car for a crosstown jaunt, but anything beyond ten miles would be cruel and unusual.

Cargo space is surprisingly adequate; I was able to squeeze most of a two-person Costco run into the trunk, with the rest comfortably residing in the back seat. And anyone who’s ever had a cat will appreciate the G37’s “butt button” – press it, and the trunk lid rises, just like when you touch the base of a feline tail.

Bottom line, the G37 Coupe makes for a great gran turismo; it’s gorgeous, flies along open roads, fits two people’s luggage easily, and offers enough music options to allow you to drive from Bangor to San Diego without hearing the same song twice. The AWD is a nice insurance policy, but by making it and the Sport Package mutually exclusive, the Infiniti lacks the performance bits needed to make the car into a true sport coupe.

If you consider yourself a real driver – someone who owns dedicated driving shoes and knew Clive Owen before he was cool from the BMW Films – you’ll want to take the Sport Package. However, anyone with a love for the open road (and $39,515) won’t be disappointed with the G37 Coupe in any form. It’s the sort of car you could drive forever and a day, from one new town to the next on an endless adventure. And for all the fun there is to be had on a race track, isn’t that the real magic of the automobile?

Base Price/Price As Tested: $39,515/$46,195

0-60: 5.3 seconds (Sport model; courtesy Car and Driver)

Fuel Economy: 18/25 city/highway (EPA)/ 22.6 (observed)

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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.

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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 Geneva Auto Show Recap

To many of us here in the States, Switzerland seems like the land of the sweet life. Lax banking laws, delicious chocolate, heart-stopping cheese, and watches so precise you could set a cliche by them. However, as any car enthusiast with a reasonable proficiency at geography knows, Switzerland also boasts proximity to three countries with some of the greatest roads and spectacular automotive legacies on Earth – Germany, Italy and France.

But whether it’s the country’s tax haven history, distance to automotive nirvana, or simply because most automakers love a good Toblerone, the Geneva Auto Show always is good for some fascinating, exciting, and potentially arousing reveals. This year saw well over 20 new and improved models just by luxury, superyluxury, hyperluxury and so-fancy-even-Diddy-hasn’t-heard-of-it nameplates; we culled it down to 10 notables.

Aston Martin One-77

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James Bond’s DBS too common for you? Did you fancy a Ferrari Enzo when they came out, but you were waiting for those stocks you were shorting to pay out? Fear not, Bizarro – your steed is here. Aston Martin is making a mere 77 of the baddest car to come out of Gaydon (hence the second part of the name), each one tailored to its individual buyer (hence the first). Packing a 7.3 liter V12 with at least 700 horsepower (Aston hasn’t released specifics yet), this sleek machine will supposedly run the dash to 60 in 3.5 seconds. And how much for the privilege of owning the most exclusive Aston? The automaker isn’t saying anything officially, but rumor has it priced to sit on the showroom floor and gather dust at around $1.5 million. Here’s hoping they find at least 77 people with that kind of disposable income (somehow, I think they will.)

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Aston Martin Lagonda Concept

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From the most beautiful Aston Martin to the…uh…one with the best personality, I suppose. The Lagonda nameplate was slapped on a smattering of Aston Martins during the latter half of the 20th century, often on sedans and other less-traditional Astons; it appears the company is looking to extend the tradition with the new usage of the name. Believe it or not, this little duckling rides on the same platform as Mercedes-Benz’s Escalade-wrestling GL sport-ute, making it the first recipient of a sharing agreement between the two companies. Odds probably aren’t good that the GL will, in return, get the concept’s honkin’ V12 – but given Aston’s boasting that the Lagonda can use any numbr of more environmentally friendly propulsion units, we might not see it in this guise, either.

Bentley Continental Supersports

Bentley Continental Supersports

As part of their move to be more environmentally friendly, Bentley has unleashed their fastest, most powerful model in history. Oxymoronic? Almost, but not quite. The Supersports ‘s W-12 engine is designed to run on E85 or gasoline, a move so incrementally evolutionary, even glacial GM started doing it years ago. Using higher-octane ethanol, the new Conti puts out 621 horsepower, which, combined with a faster-shifting transmission and a 240-lb weight reduction, yields 0-60 runs of 3.7 seconds and a top speed of 204 miles per hour. Bentley claims the shift to biofuel yields a 70 percent reduction in what they call “well-to-wheel” CO2 emissions, which spans from the moment the fuel comes out of the ground to the moment the engine burns it up. So far, biofuels haven’t proven very effective at stopping global warming – it usually takes around as much energy to process it as it produces – but this will likely improve in the future. Who knows? Maybe this is the first Bentley to come ahead of its time.

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BMW Concept 5-Series GT

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Once upon a time, there was a beloved sedan named the BMW 5-series. It wasn’t too big, wasn’t too small, wasn’t too wimpy – it wa just right. And people loved it. But some people wanted more room. BMW saw this, and created the 5-series wagon. It was just like the sedan, but had a little more room in back. And people liked it. But some people didn’t like the lame image of a station wagon. BMW saw this, and created the X5 SUV. It was about the same size as the 5-series wagon, but was bigger and heavier, and had all wheel drive. And people still liked it. But some people didn’t like the frumpy, family stigma of an SUV. BMW saw this, and created the X6. It was an SUV like the X5, but smaller inside and with “four-door coupe” styling. And people said, “Okay, this is getting a little ridiculous.” BMW saw this, and created the 5-series GT. It had a slightly raised chassis and it looked like the missing link between a hatchback and a station wagon. It would only seat four people. It previewed the styling of the new 5-series. And BMW hoped there would be enough upper-class people out there to buy them without cutting into the margins of the 5-series sedan, the 5-series wagon, the X5, or the X6.

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What do you think?

Smart ForTwo Brabus electric-drive

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The Smart car has always been an odd little compromise; while small cars are usually known for fun handling and good fuel economy, the Smart doesn’t provide the levels of either you might expect from a high-top Chuck Taylor on wheels. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of Mercedes-Benz tuners out there willing to take a stab at fixing the former – but now, Brabus is trying to knock down both targets at once. So far, Brabus and Smart aren’t discussing production specifications, but an electric Smart seems like a no-brainer, so long as there’s a place to plug it in on the city streets. And a Brabus-tuned version, combined with the instant torque of an electric motor, would be quite the eco-toy for urbanites everywhere.

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Bugatti Veyron Bleu Centenaire and Mansory Bugatti LINEA Vincero

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They what? Bugatti 16.4 Veyron? Sigh. It’s so hard to care anymore. I mean, I’d almost forgotten about the fastest, most powerful, most expensive street car ever created. If it wasn’t for the fact that Bugatti cranks out new limited-edition versions like variant-costumed Batman action figures, I doubt I’d even be able to remember the name. Now I guess I have to decide which one will look better in my garage. Is it the Centenaire, with its two-tone single-color paint job? (Flat and glossy!) Or the Vincero, with an extra 100 horsepower (almost eleven percent more!) and LED daytime running lights? You know what? I’ll just get both. They’re only $1.5 million or so each.

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Ferrari 599XX/HGTC

Courtsey Asphalte.ch

Courtesy Asphalte.ch

It’s no secret among carnoscenti that Enzo Ferrari considered his street cars as a means to support his one true love – auto racing. While these days, the Powers That Be at Ferrari HQ have shifted their priority towards street-legal vehicles (they kinda tend to be more profitable), they still haven’t lost sight of their racing roots. In addition to fielding a multimilion-dollar F1 team every year, Ferrari on occasion will roll out a racetrack-only version of one of their road stable. In this case, the Ferrari 599XX. Only one “x” away from being awesome enough for Vin Diesel, the XX’s V-12 has been allowed to rev up to 9,000 rpm, one of a number of changes that boost output to 700 horsepower. Between the engine, the extensive weight savings and a faster gearbox that shifts in less time than it takes for Joaquin Phoenix to make an ass out of himself, within a year or two the uber-599 will be wowing those few customers lucky enough to be “invited” to buy one on a private racetrack nowhere near you.

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However, if you’re not privileged enough to be allowed to blow a million bucks on an XX, Ferrari would still like to talk to you about their new HGTC handling pack for the “common” 599GTB. Designed to improve acceleration and handling, the HGTC will presumably offer incremental improvements for a monumental price. Ask me, the regular 599 already strikes an ideal balance between performance and roadworthiness; still, there’ll no doubt be quite a few people willing to fork over the cash just so they can say their 599 is that much better than their neighbor’s. (Okay, like five people.)

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Infiniti Essence concept

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Sadly, this supercoupe concept is not an Infiniti version of Nissan’s kaiju-car, the GT-R. The good news? It’s a 592-horsepower monster all its own. As part of a move towards an all-hybrid lineup, the Essence features a twin-turbocharged 434-horsepower 3.7 liter V6 coupled with a 158-hp electric motor, all driven through the rear wheels. Infiniti claims the performance offers the best of both worlds – emissions-free electric driving around town combined with massive acceleration on demand. It also offers a new, 360-degree anti-collision system that senses rapidly approaching vehicles and activates the brakes individually to veer away from danger. Infiniti claims it’s one step closer to the collision-free car, though it sounds more to me like a driver-free car – and as anyone who’s seen either “Knight Rider” or I, Robot knows, they tend to crash even more than the rest 0f us. But that hybrid drivetrain would be a revelation for the next-generation GT-R – imagine 0-60 in 3.0 seconds and 25 mpg in town…

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Lamborghini Murcielago LP 670-4 SuperVeloce

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If they have karaoke competitions in heaven, it’s safe to say Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini engage in regular duets of “Anything You Can Do.” Their companies certainly do. Ferrari wheels out a V8 model, Lamborghini whips up a lower-end model with a V10. Ferrari brings out racetrack-ready and tighter-handling version of its 599 flagship – Lamborghini creates a single model offering a comfortable compromise between race car and your run-0f-the-mill Lambo. With a new rear spoiler, a power bump from 640 to 670 horsepower, and a 220-lb. weight reduction, this Murcielago rips from 0 to 60 in 3.2 seconds on the way to 212 mph. Sadly, the 670-4 marks the last gasp of this family of Italian bulls named after Spanish bats; believe it or not, the Murcy has been around since 2001, and the time has come for a replacement. But until then, the son-of-Countach-looking SuperVeloce should be more than adequate to satisfy the needs of both wealthy auto enthusiasts and raging egomaniacs.

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Pagani Zonda R

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If you live Stateside, you might not be familiar with Pagani. Founded in 1992 by a contractor to Lamborghini, the small Italian company has been putting out some of the most exotic-looking cars in the planet’s history since around the year 2000 (they only began bringing the to the U.S. in 2007). Crafting less than 100 cars per year, the company’s sole model, the Zonda, has progressed through several generations since its inception. Its newest model, the Zonda R, represents the best and brightest the brand has to offer. With a 90 percent new body designed for the track, a paddle-shift gearbox and a 6.0 liter, 739-horsepower twin-turbocharged Mercedes-Benz AMG V12, the R boogies to 60 in 3 seconds flat and tops out at 233 miles per hour. Whether it’ll be available over here is anybody’s guess, but even if they do sell it in the States, good luck spotting one; only 15 will be made, they cost $1.8 million each, and there’s no way in hell they’ll be road-legal.

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