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New York Auto Show – Volkswagen

Volkswagen’s press conference wasn’t exceptionally exciting; the company gave U.S. audiences their first look at the Touareg Hybrid, but coming immediately after the very similar Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid…it was rather anticlimatic. (I can see the ad campaign now: “Love the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid? Settle! For the new Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid.”)

I honestly wandered away. Way to hold my attention, VW. I’m a simple man, it doesn’t take much to keep me captivated. Some pyrotechnics, a wild animal or two. Have somebody try and pull donuts in the Touareg on your giant, empty stage. They probably won’t succeed, but at least it would entertaining!

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2010 Detroit Auto Show Recap

Well, it’s mid-January again, and all you car nuts out there know exactly what that means – it’s Detroit Auto Show time! Because as the Detroit Tourism Board will tell you, there’s no better time to venture to America’s home-grown Thunderdome than when it’s cold enough to freeze mercury.

Still, so long as the heat in the Cobo Center works, journalists from across the globe will cram their North Face parkas and .357 Magnum Colt Pythons into overnight bags and journey to Motor City for one of the largest auto shows in the world. This year was a bittersweet one for the three home-team automakers: bitter for GM, who saw four divisions exorcised from its corporate ranks after tossing all its self-respect into Lake Michigan by declaring bankruptcy and taking federal bailout money; but sweet for Ford, who managed to avoid Chapter 11 and saw its first profitable quarter in nearly two years.

And Chrysler? Well, they’re owned by Fiat now. Actually, do they even count as one of the Big Three anymore?

Regardless of whether Chrysler considers their home in The Boot of Italy or The Mitten of Michigan, in the minds of most people, they still count as a good ol’ American boys. Unfortunately, Chrysler/Fiat considered new model revelations and press conferences excessive expenditures this year, and simply left their models out on the floor for perusal. (At least they showed up, unlike Porsche and Nissan. Uncool, guys.) Luckily, though, plenty of other new models and concepts came into the light at the show. Here are the best.

Audi e-tron concept

Astute readers of this blog may be thinking, “Didn’t I already see the e-tron?” And the short answer is, yes, you did. But not this one. Audi has, somewhat inexplicably, decided to use the exact same name for this smaller electric sports car concept as they used for their larger, R8-based version. The difference, you see, is that the R8-based original is just called “e-tron,” while this new concept is…the “e-tron.” Come on, Audi! You’re German – Germans make up new words all the time by smashing them together. Couldn’t you call it the “Smallersilverelectricsportscar?”

Regardless of what you call it, the baby e-tron will reportedly run from 0-60 in 5.9 seconds with a top speed of 124 mph, thanks to a pair of electric motors with a combined output of 204 horsepower. Of course, since the baby e-tron is just a concept, this could be entirely hypothetical; the show car may well be powered by a hamster on a wheel for all we know.

More importantly for car fans, the e-tron 2-seater’s design may be a preview of Audi’s rumored upcoming R4 sports car. There’s no way to know for sure, but Audi could do a lot worse than pattern the R4 on this aggressive-looking concept. Slap the S4’s 333-hp supercharged V6 in there and stack it up against the Porsche Cayman (Whoops! VW owns Porsche now) – er, BMW Z4, and they could have a winner on their hands.

2011 BMW 740i/740Li

This isn’t the first time BMW has sold a 740i in the States – two generations of 7-series ago, it was the mainstay of the lineup – but it is the first time since 1992 that Americans can order a six-cylinder engine in the car. The last version, the 735i, made do with a mere 208 horsepower; the new 740i packs BMW’s sublime turbocharged 3.0 liter inline six making 315 horsepower.

The 740i looks pretty much like any other 7, so feast your eyes on the 500-hp BMW Alpina B7.

Presumably, Bimmer is bringing the six-cylinder 7 our way in order to improve its fuel-economy standings; odds are, if you can afford the $71,025 base price, you’re probably not too concerned with saving cash at the pumps, and if you really wanted to be green, you’d buy a loaded Prius and pocket the extra $40,000. Still, for the handful of high-powered executives who don’t care about power (Do I see one standing in the back? No? Okay.), the 740 offers pretty much all the luxury features of its pricier brethren for a nice discount.

Buick Regal GS Concept

From the land of seemingly oxymoronical concepts comes this high-performance Buick. Okay, “high-performance” is a bit of an exaggeration – the all-wheel-drive GS runs with a turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder making 260 horsepower, a mere 40 more than the current top-of-the-line Regal. But the GS has a six-speed stick shift! I don’t think there’s been a manual Buick since Clint Eastwood was a sex symbol.

Buick promises the GS achieves 60 in less than 6 seconds, which probably means 5.9. What they haven’t promised is a production version; however, it seems pretty likely, as it would give Buick a strong card to play against Acura and Lexus. Buick has made impressive strides in the last few years in making their cars more attractive and elevating their quality towards the levels of other luxury makes; adding high(er) performance models would be a logical next step. It’s probably safe to expect the GS in the showrooms by spring 2011.

2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of a high-performance Caddy would have seemed just as paradoxical as a fun-to-drive Buick; however, since the first-generation CTS and the introduction of the V-Series line of kickass Caddies, the idea has latched onto the car enthusiast population like an alien face-hugger.

U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

And the new CTS-V Coupe is probably the sweetest Cadillac yet.

Everything you love about the regular CTS-V, just in a sleeker two-door package. Same 556 horsepower supercharged V8, same choice of six-speed stick or auto – just two fewer doors. Sure, there’s less room in the back, but come on – how often do you use those rear doors anyway? Besides, chicks dig coupes. Just ask Batman.

Pricing will probably be a few grand more than the CTS-V sedan, so figure a base one will set you back around $67,000 when they land in showrooms this summer – a few grand more than its main competitor, the BMW M3. But the Caddy has 142 more horses. And, like George Thorogood, it’s American Made. So give it a little love.

Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept

The last ten years or so have been lean times for folks interested in full-sized American luxury cars. Mafia dons, Fortune 500 executives, and your Grandpa Larry have watched with sadness as their beloved Town Cars, Park Avenues and DeVilles drifted off into the ether, leaving them with a difficult choice – buy European (I ain’t buying no Nazi car!), downsize (I don’t feel safe in this thing!) or move into a luxury mega-SUV (I can’t see my grandson behind me in the driveway!).

Luckily, it looks like CEOs and coots alike will be able to breathe a sigh of relief soon. While technically a concept, the XTS is likely a very strong indicator of Cadillac’s upcoming full-sized sedan, slated to replace the STS and the DTS – both of which, remarkably, are still available at your local Caddy dealership.

In concept form, the XTS is powered by Cadillac’s 3.6 liter V6 direct injection V6 coupled to a plug-in hybrid system; combined, the car puts out 350 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed auto. It’s unclear from the press release how the electric and gasoline powertrains interact exactly, but we’d bet both can be used to drive the wheels – unlike the Chevy Volt, where the gas engine is used simply as a generator for the batteries and electric motor.

Hopefully, any production version of the XTS won’t differ significantly from the show car’s sleek lines, which (in our eyes) meld the CTS with the Mercedes-Benz S-class. Plan on a choice of V6 and V8 powerplants upon launch, with a hybrid option soon afterwards. As for when it lands in dealerships – summer or fall 2011 seems like a safe bet.

And on a side note, GM’s vice-chairman and Main Car Bro Bob Lutz announced Cadillac will indeed be producing its own version of the Chevrolet Volt, based on the Converj. It won’t be hitting the streets until sometime after 2012 (assuming we’re still alive by then! DUM DE DUM!), and will probably be pretty faithful to the concept – two doors and edgy styling over the Volt’s four doors and slightly bland looks. And it’ll probably cost more than $50,000. But I’d still buy one.

Mmm...eco-friendly.

Chevrolet Aveo RS Concept

Like the looks of this Aveo RS? Then you’ll probably like the regular Aveo when it hits the ground next year. Just strip off the spoilers, the ground effects, and throw on some more conventional headlamps. With its sights locked squarely on the Honda Fit, the Aveo will take the bottom rung in Chevy’s lineup.

The concept has a turbocharged 1.4 liter inline four-cylinder engine under the hood pumping out 138 horsepower, and routing it to the front wheels through a six-speed manual. If they’re smart, Chevy will actually produce a high-performance version of the Aveo; we’ve been wishing Honda would do a Fit Si for years, and if the Chevy is anywhere near as fun to drive as the Fit, they could sell a boatload. Hell, we’d probably buy one.

2012 Ford Focus

Not to be outdone in the small-car department by their arch-foes at GM, Ford unveiled the next-generation Focus in Detroit – and as Peter Griffin would say, it seems freakin’ sweet. For the first time, the Focus sold here in the States will be nearly identical to the version sold in Europe, which should mean European-style (i.e. better) handling and materials when it lands here early next year.

Equipped with a 2.0 liter inline four-cylinder making 155 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque, the Focus comes with your choice of six-speed transmissions – manual or “dry-clutch automatic,” which is just a fancy term for the sort of dual-clutch gearbox found in everything from the Ferrari 458 Italia to the Volkswagen Golf. Ford also announced a electric-powered version, which should be coming our way in later 2011.

Coming in both five-door hatchback and four-door sedan forms, the new Focus boasts a bevy of cool features most people probably wouldn’t expect on a compact car, from an assisted parallel-parking system (complete with rearview camera) and an eight-inch dash-mounted touch screen. Pricing hasn’t been announced, but expect it to be pretty much in line with its competitors – the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and upcoming Chevy Cruze.

2011 Ford Mustang GT

Hot on the heels of upgrading the V6-powered Mustang to 315 horsepower, Ford is throwing a new 5.0 liter V8 under the hood of the ‘Stang GT, bumping power up to 412 horses. While still down a few ponies  to the Camaro SS and Challenger SRT8, the revised ‘Stang should be lighter than its fellow muscle cars, giving it an edge in the curves (and probably on the straights too).

Pricing is still unknown, but since the installation of the new V6 didn’t jack up the base Mustang’s price very much, expect to pay around the same amount for the 5.0 as the old 4.6 liter V8. (Anal-retentives, please not the emphasis placed on the word around. There, did it once more just to ensure you understood.)

GMC Granite Concept

As the first American entrant into the “funky box”category of small cars pioneered here by the Scion xB, the Granite raises the style bar a few notches higher. Up ’til now, the small boxes like the xB, Kia Soul and Nissan Cube had convenience in spades, but good looks weren’t part of the deal.

But the Granite manages to make boxy look badass. Running the same engine as the Aveo RS Concept in a more utilitarian package, performance isn’t really the name of the game here – 138 horses is adequate, nothing more, nothing less.

However, GMC insisted on extolling the Granite as a “flexible, functional social space…equally at home at the cabin or the club.” News flash, PR flaks – any place with more than one person is a social space.

2011 Honda CR-Z

Though we’ve already seen it in leaked brochure photos, it was nice to finally see Honda’s new sporty hybrid coupe in the metal for the first time at the show. Looking pretty much like what you’d expect the Insight to be had it remained a coupe,  the tiny Honda promises to be a pretty fun drive.

While we're not entirely sure this image isn't a computer graphic, rest assured, the real CR-Z is probably solid.

With a 1.5 liter inline four under the hood connected to Honda’s “Integrated Motor Assist” hybrid bits, the CR-Z (the “Crazy?”) puts down 122 horsepower and either 128 or 123 lb-ft of torque, depending on whether you choose the six-speed manual or the CVT. (The manual has the higher torque figure, because manuals are awesome that way.) Fuel economy is estimated at 31 mpg city/37 mpg highway for the stick, and 36/38 mpg for the CVT – so if you do a lot of city driving, it might be worth it to go auto. Maybe.

The CRaZy will go on sale here in the latter part of 2010, in two forms – base and EX. The base model will hardly be a stripper, as it will reportedly feature a six-speaker CD/USB stereo, automatic climate control, stability control, power everything, keyless entry and cruise control. Should you feel compelled to move to the EX, you’ll add a 360-watt seven-speaker stereo, xenon headlights, and Bluetooth, among other features. The base sounds pretty good to us, honestly. No details on price yet, but our fingers are crossed for the base model to land under $20,000.

2012 (?) Mercedes-Benz CLS

Sadly, the next-generation of Mercedes’s four-door “coupe” wasn’t really at the show. However, M-B did have a model showing off the basic shape of the new CLS. From the looks of it, it seems Mercedes was trying to replicate the shape of the car under a sheet; however, the guys at egmCarTech thought it looked more like Robert Patrick’s liquid-metal T-1000 oozing into the shape of a car, and quite frankly, we have to agree. But if the car is as pretty as the display implies, it won’t need to shape-shift to snare people’s attention.

Image courtesy Omar Rana - egmCarTech

Mini Beachcomber Concept

Do you miss the Mini Moke? (Hell, do you even know what the Mini Moke is?) Well, for those of you with a fondness for the old pseudo-off-roader still found carving up beaches on St. Barts, Mini has just the car for you.

Well, you can’t actually buy the Beachcomber. It’s more of a concept version of Mini’s upcoming small SUV, which will probably be called the “Countryman.” (We’re still pulling for the “Countrymouse,” but only if they rename the Cooper the “Citymouse.”) When the actual Mini-SUV hits the dirt roads, don’t expect to see the Beachcomber’s removable doors or spare-tire-like “backpack;” do expect the elevated ride-height, knobbier tires and available all-wheel-drive. Hopefully we’ll be seeing the production version sometime this year.

Volkswagen New Compact Coupe Hybrid Concept

No, we didn’t add the “new” to the name – Volkswagen did. Frankly, we’re not sure why, since so far as we remember, there wasn’t an Old Compact Coupe Hybrid Concept. But whatever they call it, we’re grateful, because the NCCHC promises to be a pretty sweet little ride.

Coming across like a Honda CR-Z Plus, the NCCHC packs a 1.5 liter turbocharged and supercharged inline four connected to enough hybrid pieces to provide a combined 177 horsepower and 45 miles per gallon. I believe the technical term for that is “win/win.”

While the car may be called a concept, it looks pretty damn production ready to us. Of course, VW’s thrown us curveballs before – remember the Nardo supercar concept? – but there’s a world of difference between producing a quarter-million-dollar supercar and an inexpensive hybrid sports car. Hell, just ask Honda – who canned the new NSX most of the way through its production cycle. Luckily, rumor has it the NCCHC will be heading stateside as a coupe version of the new Jetta – hopefully with hybrid powertrain intact.

All in all, it wasn’t a huge year for the Detroit show. No show-stopping concepts, no earth-shaking revelations – just a whole bunch of pretty exciting new cars. And to be frank, we’re okay with that. Given the last couple years in the automotive world, a little piece and quiet seems rather nice, doesn’t it?

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Review – 2009 Audi TT-S Roadster

The Good: Sweet-shifting transmission, stellar handling, looks like a roadster should.

The Bad: Turbo lag kind of a bummer, flatulent exhaust can be grating.

The Verdict: Convertible fun in a balanced package.

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While automotive journalists and racing drivers alike often extol the virtues of closed-roof sports cars, there is simply no substitute for the experience of a convertible. Sure, chopping the roof may give up some structural integrity and motorized tops may add weight, but no amount of lightness or strength can replace the feeling of racing along with the wind in your hair, nothing between you and the sky. For most of us, driving a convertible is as close as we’ll ever come to flying.

That said, the Audi TT-S Roadster is a wonderful substitute for a jetpack.

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Thankfully, little of the TT coupe’s clean, elegant styling is lost in the transformation from hardtop to softtop. The styling modifications baked in with the high-performance S package thankfully avoid the gaudiness all too often associated with “sportier” models; if anything, the front lip spoiler and raised wheel arches draw a strong link to Audi’s outstanding R8 supercar. And while “Brilliant Red” might not be the best choice for every car, it sat on the TT-S’s hull like the car was born to wear it. Put it this way – pull up in this car at a party, and you won’t have any trouble snaring some ass. And I don’t mean farm animals. (Unless that’s how you roll.)

The car’s expensive looks and feel are all the more impressive, given that under the skin, the TT-S is little more than a Volkswagen Rabbit (nee Golf), sharing its chassis (hence the car’s rather diminutive size) and engines – in the case of the TT-S, an uprated version of the GTI’s 2.0 liter turbocharged inline-four cranking out 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.

All this juice is routed to all four wheels through the Volkswagen Group’s dual-clutch gearbox, formerly known as DSG but currently called S tronic. Whatever you call it, the dual-clutch box operates almost seamlessly. As with the dual clutch tranny of the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, the TT-S’s gearbox offers multiple ways of choosing your next gear.

Leave it in automatic, and it’ll shift itself without a second thought. Slap the shift lever sideways into Sport mode, and the car assumes you’re trying to recreate Ronin, holding gears close to the redline to keep the engine on the boil. And if you prefer manual override, you can pick your own gears using either the lever or the small metal paddles affixed to the back of the wheel, which feel great but can be hard to find during turns. In automatic mode or under hard acceleration, it snaps off shifts like rifle fire; driving sedately in manual mode, there can be a pause between toggling the shift paddle and the desired effect, but the gap is short enough to effectively be a non-issue.

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Slightly more annoying than the transmission’s quirks is the tendency of the quite exhaust pipes to burp quite loudly on every upshift. While it certainly adds a welcomed sense of fuck yeah! during hard-charging acceleration, it can grow a little tiresome while tooling around town. A system that restricts the belching to hard-core acceleration would certainly be appreciated.

Still, there’s little to complain about in regards to the car’s performance. Acceleration runs towards the back of the sport roadster class – not surprising, as the TT-S is quite a bit less powerful than competitors like the Porsche Boxster S, the awkwardly named BMW Z4 sDrive35i, or even the Chevrolet Corvette convertible. However, unless you’ve got the car’s competitors at hand for direct comparison, you’ll only be disappointed with the TT-S’s acceleration if you’re trading down from a Ferrari.

To access that power, though, you’ll have to punch through some turbo lag early on. Below 3000 rpm, the four-cylinder feels a touch anemic; once past that point, though, things stay interesting all the way up to the redline. Still, driving around New York City, I often found myself dropping a gear in order to keep up with traffic. (Then again, if all you need to deal with traffic in New York is a downshift, consider yourself lucky. I usually need something in a 12-gauge Remington.)

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Plus, when the roads start winding, the Audi grabs hold like an angry cat on carpet. Compact car or not, the Rabbit/Golf’s capable handling has often been celebrated, and the lowered ride height and AWD of the Audi only add to it. Should you desire, you can turn cloverleafs into G-force simulators with relative ease (but make sure your soda lid is screwed on tight).

Unfortunately, all that performance makes for quite a bit of temptation, and even if you’re lucky enough to avoid speeding tickets (good luck with that), playing with this Audi can cost you at the pump. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 21 city/29 highway; however, achieving the higher figure likely requires driving with the top up at 55 miles per hour, and if you’re driving your TT-S like that, you should just pull over and give the car to the nearest teenager. My tester’s low fuel light popped on after just 330 miles.

Inside, the TT-S boasts the same sort of quality seen all along the Audi line. You sit low in the car, with the high doors creating a mild case of “bathtub effect.” In keeping with the nature of the car, sporty touches abound, from the snug seats to the metallic finish on the shift lever and paddles and the thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel similar to the one in the Lamborghini Gallardo. (Lamborghini, like Audi, is owned by the Volkswagen Group – along with Bentley, Bugatti, and a host of European carmakers American audiences have probably never heard of.)

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Of course, no matter how committed you are to soaking up the sun – or in the case of Irish people like myself, risking melanoma – eventually some sort of event will occur (thunderstorm, hole in the ozone layer, Mothman attack) that will cause you to raise the top. Thankfully, the TT-S makes it easy; press and hold one button, and the top will rise or fall as you desire, even while driving at low speeds. While power hard tops have come into vogue in the last several years, the TT-S doesn’t suffer for choosing canvas over metal; the top boasts a glass rear window, feels nearly as strong as a hard one, and was just as effective at keeping warmth in and noise out.

The Bottom Line: From its humble roots in the Volkswagen family, the TT-S has grown into a genuine sports car. While it may lack the mid-mounted engines or hefty V-8s of other roadsters, the little Audi still kicks ass and takes names while making you feel like an action hero. Sure, it’s not the perfect convertible for everyone – there are faster roadsters, more convenient roadsters, flashier roadsters and cheaper roadsters – but the TT-S strikes a nice balance between value, size and style. Lay your eyes on one, and it’s hard to look away; drop the top, crank up your favorite Foo Fighters song and floor it through a couple of gears, and you’ll be hooked.

All figures are for 2010 models; the car is effectively unchanged from 2009.

Base Price/Price As Tested: $54,950/$54,950

0-60: 5.1 seconds (courtesy Car and Driver)

EPA Fuel Economy: 21 city/29 highway

Key Competitors: BMW Z4 sDrive35i, Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz SLK350, Chevrolet Corvette.

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Ford’s Fiesta Movement

No, this has nothing to do with your toilet habits on Seis de Mayo. Get your mind out of the gutter. (Though I’ll admit that’s where mine resides about 85 percent of the time.)

You see, everyone, while Ford may simply be seen as Those Guys Who Make Your Mom’s SUV here in the States, elsewhere in the world, they actually make some pretty sweet cars. In Europe and Asia, Fords are well-made, popular vehicles that proudly stand up to any Honda, Toyota, BMW or Mercedes in their price bracket.

Here, however…well, the best news to come out of Ford in the last few year is that their finances are just good enough and their sales just high enough to avoid a government bailout. Which is sort of like bragging that your pay was cut to minimum wage instead of going on welfare – sure, it’s better, but when the guy next to you is still making most of what he used to, you kinda look like you’re clinging to some pretty thin straws.

So what’s the obvious thing to do? Try and rub some of that high-quality European image off on your American product, of course. Beer companies have been doing it for years, and isn’t that who car companies should be associating themselves with?

In Ford’s case, this means bringing over one of their most popular European cars, the Fiesta. (It was Europe’s best-selling car in March, and anything popular in Europe must be popular here!) It’s a small hatchback, around the size of a Honda Fit, and like the Honda (and unlike most of Ford’s U.S. lineup), it’s proven surprisingly fun to drive. Power isn’t great – U.S. specifications haven’t been released yet, but expect around 120 horses – but it should be fine for day-to-day driving, and the suspension keeps its European tuning (read: fun). Plus, an estimated fuel economy of high 30s/low 40s will make the Obama administration happy (and allow Ford to keep making Mustang GTs).

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The Fiesta will be showing up in U.S. showrooms in summer 2010 if all goes according to plan. (This probably means we’ll see it sometime around the next presidential election, but we can hope.) However, not content to twiddle their thumbs and watch America’s youth snatch up Fits and Scions in the meantime, the marketing gurus at Ford decided to raise awareness of their new car by putting 100 of them in the hands of their target audience – young, trendsetting people like you – and having them fulfill “missions” and post online about their experiences.

Does this mean there’s Twitter involved? How did you guess?

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Yes, the world’s most idiotic fastest-rising social medium plays a key role in the Ford Fiesta Movement. The “agents” frequently post on their own Twitter accounts, being sure to throw in the requisite “#fiestamovement” tag –  so everyone knows they’re not part of an unauthorized Fiesta movement. (That one is sponsored by GM, and does involve what you do on the toilet.) Luckily, you don’t need to go to Twitter to follow their feeds – you can catch all the Fiesta fever on the movement’s homepage, letting you sample such brilliant observations as, “Utah!” and “I peed on a mountain!” (Those courtesy of @BrooklynHilary and @supricky06, respectively.)

The “missions” vary from month to month; this month’s theme is travel (way to stretch there, Ford – what do you expect people to do with cars?) and the missions range from cliche to corny to cool. “Take a road trip with three of your friends” is pretty trite, and “Have a party in your car” sounds like a dare in Truth Or Dare Jenga – but “Go to farmers (sic) market, visit one of the stands’ farms, and milk an animal” takes some serious guts.  (Note: they don’t specify whether it has to be a farm animal.)

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I stumbled upon one of the Fiestas two blocks from CCO’s East Village offices here in NYC yesterday, so these people are really out there. (If you happened to be the driver of the maroon Fiesta parked on 5th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues on May 19th, shoot us an email at collegecars@gmail.com, or tweet us @collegecars.) They’ll also be holding ride and drive events across the country throughout the summer, which you can find out about via the program’s website.

Personally, I hope the Fiesta finds healthy sales here in the States. If it does, it will hopefully convince other automakers to send us their affordable Euro-candy (Damn it, Volkswagen, I want a Scirocco!). If you happen to be part of the Fiesta Movement, score a drive in one, or even just see one on the streets here in the U.S., let us know. We’ll keep trying to score a drive in one so we can let you know what we think of the car firsthand.

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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.

2010_bmw_x6_m

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?

2010_volkswagen_golf_gti

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.

mercedesbenz_ml450_hybrid

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.

2011_jeep_grand_cherokee-thumb

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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