Friday, September 27, 2013

If Alfa Romeo Returned to the US, Would Anybody Care?

Like a tree falling in the woods, if Alfa Romeo returned to the U.S., would anybody care?

Outside a few thousand die hard Alfa fans, the ones who wear silk jackets with Alfa's cross and snake emblem and drink Peroni, I doubt it.  And that lack of interest is unfortunate.  Alfa has a long, storied history of racing and producing beautiful cars like the original 8c, the Montreal, and the new 4c.  It's also produced some great, affordable cars like the Giulietta,  GTV, and Spider.  And until recently it's modern lineup included the lovely Brera and 159.      

Since Alfa Romeo left our shores in 1995, it has announced and delayed its return more than a dozen times.  This fact makes the Alfisti, or die hard Alfa Romero enthusiasts, the automotive equivalent of Cubs' fans.  Every year there's a small chance something will happen... and... nothing.  Then it's "wait 'til next year."


For most people in the U.S., Alfa Romeo is long forgotten, like Renault, Citroen, or Lancia.  Even Studebaker gets more recognition than Alfa.  But not surprising seeing how Alfa's most popular car was named after a Dustin Hoffman movie in the 1960's, where he cavorted with Mrs. Robinson.

But Alfa's biggest problem is not brand recognition.  It's a lack of products.  If Hyundai and Kia can rise from humble beginnings, then Alfa, with its history and access to Chrysler's dealer networks should be able to market itself as a premium brand and sell as many cars as BMW.  But it needs a viable lineup that appeals to mainstream car buyers, not just the handful of Alfisti still clinging to their Milanos and 164s.  They have to lure the kinds of people who buy the Acura ILX or Mercedes CLA.  But other than the 4c, which competes with the Porsche Cayman, Alfa has nothing to offer.  The 159 and Brera are gone and Alfa's only platform is already on sale in the US.  It underpins the Dodge Dart, a car lot wallflower which seems to only drive sales toward the lowly and heavily discounted Dodge Avenger.

In fact, if Alfa Romeo finally does return to the U.S. it may find its place already taken.  There's already a car manufacturer offering good looking, affordable, fun to drive cars.  That company is Mazda.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Jaguar XK8

File:Jaguar XK8 Convertible - Flickr - The Car Spy (10).jpg

To my eye, one of the best looking cars of the past 15 years is the Jaguar XK8, and its successor, the XK.  They are not hard core sports cars like the new Jaguar F-Type, but built for grand touring.  It's a car meant to transport two people and a week's worth of luggage across vast distances.  London to Monaco for the Grand Prix.  San Diego to Sonoma Valley or up the Oregon Coast.  "Grace... Pace... Space..." as the old Jaguar advertisements promised.    

File:Jaguar XK8 012.jpg

Thanks to the depreciation gods, there are a number of Jaguar XK8s for sale under $15,000, most of which have low mileage and appear to be in excellent condition.  However, since it is a Jaguar, the XK8 can also come with more than its share of problems, most of which can be minor but expensive to fix.

File:DB7 Volante.jpg

Think of it as a poor man's Aston Martin, which in a way it is.  Both the Jaguar XK8 and Aston Martin DB7 shared the same platform, which evolved from the Jaguar XJS.

But if the Jaguar XK8 is good enough for Austin Powers, why would anyone pay more for an Aston Martin?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Peter Egan and Side Glances

One of my favorite Saturday rituals is reading Road and Track.  Once a month, for the past twenty odd years, I'll sit down with the latest issue and a cup of coffee and turn immediately to Peter Egan's "Side Glances" column.  This month was no different.  I opened the magazine to his column and begin reading about his latest purchase, a VW Jetta TDI Sportwagen.  That's when I found out he was retiring.

I've been a subscriber of Road and Track for the past 30 years, in large part because of Peter Egan's writing.  The first story I remember reading was about buying an Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite, one which he'd owned previously, and driving it from Wisconsin to California.  After that I was hooked.  Over the years I read about driving a Ferrari Dino in the snow, travel by Ford Model A, and taking a couple of old Cadillacs along the blue highways.  I've followed along as he's rebuilt various cars like MGBs, Lotus Elans, a Porsche 356, and Jaguar E-Type.  He's also owned several modern cars that are on my short list, including a Jaguar XK8 convertible and Porsche Boxster.

What makes Peter Egan's writing so appealing to me is his combination of wit, clean prose, and ability to tell a good story.  He also explains what I find compelling about cars, like this paragraph from a recent column titled "Cars of Occasion":

There's something in most of us (if we're car buffs) that likes owning at least one vehicle whose emergence from the garage makes us feel as if we're rolling out the big guns. It's the automotive counterpart of opening a hangar door and pushing an airplane into the sunlight, a sense that something slightly sacramental is taking place. It doesn't have to be a large or expensive car, as long as it sidesteps the casually assured perfection of the modern SUV, minivan, or family sedan.

Peter Egan has made a career writing about "cars of occasion," and taking vehicles that sidestep the casually assured perfection of the modern car on interesting trips across the back roads of America.  Now he is retiring his regular column, giving him more time to move about and explore.

As I get older, I've grown to appreciate that all good things come to an end.  But like all good things, there are memories to cherish, and in the case of of Peter Egan's writing, 30 years of "Side Glances" and other stories to read and enjoy.          

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

$15,000 Question: Pontiac GTO

The premise was simple:  Stuff a performance V8 into a midsize car.  The result became the legendary Pontiac GTO and launched the muscle-car era fifty years ago.  Within a year, hot versions of Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets, Buicks, Fords, Mercurys, and Mopars were rolling off showroom floors and on to drag strips across America. 

File:40 Years of GTOs 1965 to 2005.JPG

Today it's hard to find an original, clean GTO from the golden age of muscle cars for under $20K.  But for $15K, you can buy a badged engineered Holden Monaro from the Land Down Under that's gussied up to look like a modern version of the legendary Pontiac. 

File:2001-2002 Holden V2 Monaro CV8 coupe 03.jpg

Admittedly, the idea of an Australian built Pontiac GTO seems like pasting a picture of a Clydesdale on a can of Foster's Lager and calling it Budweiser.  If you look close enough, that's exactly what GM did.  The car looks exactly like a Holden Monaro with the grille of a Pontiac Grand Prix.  Inside it has an interior that looks more at home in an Opel, right down to the Blaupunkt stereo. 

But the biggest problem is that the GTO doesn't stand out.  It doesn't have the presence of the old GTO, or even modern cars like the Ford Mustang or Chrysler 300.  From a distance, it's easily confused for a Chevy Cavalier or the Pontiac version of the Cavalier, whatever it's called. 

All that changes, if you actually drive it.  Powered by the LS1 and LS2 V8 engines from the Corvette, the GTO has serious performance credentials, blasting to 60 MPH in under five seconds and through the quarter mile in 13 seconds flat.  Better still, it sounds great and even handles well with its independent suspension.  

It's persona is that of Hugh Jackman, playing Wolverine, hiding in a musical about French peasants, based on a Victor Hugo novel.  Somewhat confusing, but for the budget enthusiast, looking for a V8 powered sleeper, it's really hard to beat. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Does Every Car Company Need an SUV in Their Lineup?

Back in the 1980's, Lamborghini built this brute, the LM002.  It was powered by a V12 developed for offshore power boats and its fuel consumption was measured in gallons per mile.  While off-road capable, it was hugely impractical, but proved to be a success just by its sheer audacity.  It was the last thing you expected out of a car company like Lamborghini... But then Lambo did make the Countach, which graced the walls of more boys' bedrooms than Farrah Fawcett, Christie Brinkley, and Joe Montana combined.

Fast forward to 2003 when Porsche launched their SUV, the Cayenne, causing the purists to howl louder than the collective roar of the air-cooled, flat 6 engines in their 911s.  Seeing how the company got its start building hot rod VW Beetles, a 5,000 lb SUV Porsche seemed asinine, but it paid off handsomely.  Not only is it the #1 selling vehicle in the Porsche lineup by a wide margin, it's also their most profitable vehicle.

Sales and profits.  It's the reason car makers are all rushing to build glorified trucks.  Earlier this year, Bentley announced it was producing an SUV.  Now this week Jaguar and Rolls Royce plan to do the same.

But does every car company need to build an SUV?  Is there really a demand for a four wheel drive Rolls or a Bentley that's really a tarted up Audi Q7?  Are the Real Housewives of the world going to discard their Cadillac Escalates and Range Rovers for a Bentley on stilts?  Are soccer moms in the mid-west going to trade in their Honda Pilots on a Range Rover based Jag?  Or is the SUV arms race the next housing bubble?

File:2006 Saab 9-7X blue rear.jpg

Not every car company strikes gold with an SUV.  For every Volvo XC90, there's a Saab 9-7x, which did nothing for Saab and only proved how shameless GM was at badge engineering mediocre vehicles.  Thankfully, when GM pulled the plug on Saab, the 9-7x was the first to go.

The only thing worse than a Saab version of the GMC Envoy is a Lincoln pick up truck.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The $15,000 Question: Acura TSX

Honda probably sells ten Accords for every one Acura TSX in the United States.  But ironically, the Acura TSX IS the Honda Accord in other parts of the world.

Still, if you're looking for a leaner, sharper Honda sedan, one with a the rev-happy 2.4 liter VTEC engine from the S2000 roadster, but don't care for the boy racer Civic with its split instrument panel, you're in luck.

I always felt the 200-2012 Honda Accord was a little too ponderous, especially compared to the 1996 Accord I owned back in the 1990's.  That Accord, with it's high revving four cylinder and precise 5-speed manual gear box, always felt more like a poor man's BMW to me.  Similarly equipped, the Acura TSX has that same precision and feels like a direct decendant to the old Accord.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Is Kia the New Honda?

Ten to twenty years ago, all my friends, and many family members drove Hondas.  It seems everyone had an Accord or Civic.  When they got married, they traded those Accords and Civics on Odysseys and Pilots.  When their kids began to drive, they learned in Accords and Civics, beginning the cycle anew again.  But lately those same people have started moving on from Hondas to something that starts with the letter 'K'.    

So it makes me wonder:  Is Kia the new Honda?

I know there's some debate about the longevity of Kia products, and the Forte and Optima haven't yet mastered that perfect mix of ride and handling like the Civic and Accord.  But from a function, utility, and value standpoint, Kia has checked all the boxes.  And to my eye, Kia has got their styling right.

The Kia Sorento is much more attractive than the Honda Pilot.  Same goes for the Optima, Forte, and Sportage, which are better looking than the Accord, Civic, and CR-V.  The new Kias have a sense of premium style, which is intentional since they lured Peter Schreyer away from Audi.  When I look at the current Pilot, I feel like Honda just phoned it in.  It looks like it was inspired by a refrigerator box.  The impression of phoning it in is further highlighted by the last two generations of Accords, which were described as "Buick like" by several car magazines, during a time when Buick was catering to the over-50 set.  It culminated with the dismal 2012 Civic, which was bad enough for Consumer Reports to take it off its recommended list, stating it was much worse than the car it replaced, and forcing Honda to scramble to introduce a refreshed version a year later.

But Honda's missteps aren't the only reason Kia has been successful as of late.  Once known as a cheap car of last resort, Kias now boast attractive styling and good value.  Bottom line, the company is building good cars that can stand on their own merits.

When you build a good car, one with features people want, that is attractively styled, a good value and a sell it at a good price, people will come.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

$15,000 Question: Bentley Turbo R

Car nuts like me are a combination of high functioning drug addicts and serial monogamists.  I'm always trolling eBay, Craigslist, Hemming's, and the local classifieds for something different or unusual.  But I've never seen a Bentley pop up, let alone a Turbo R.  And all for the low price of $14,995, at a dealer less than 30 miles from my house!

The Bentley Turbo R was produced from 1985 to 1997 and featured a 300 horsepower turbocharged version of the Bentley 6.75 litre V8.  The R in the name stood for Roadholding and for a 5,000 lb behemoth, it handled surprisingly well.  It didn't bob and weave like a Lincoln Town Car, or even the Rolls Royce Silver Spirit it was based on.      

By the 1980's, the idea of a performance Bentley was preposterous, like putting racing stripes on a cow. Bentley's historic string of Le Mans wins from 1924 to 1930 was already in the distant past.  Rolls Royce purchased Bentley in 1931 and as a poor but apt example, the regular Bentley became Buick to Rolls' Cadillac.  Or if you're a "Downton Abby" fan, think of Bentley as Lady Edith to Rolls' Lady Mary.

File:Bentley 6,5-Litre Speed Six Tourer.jpg

Bentley's dowdy image began to change because of cars like the Mulsanne the Turbo R.  By the time Bentley was sold to Volkswagen in 1998, it's reputation for building sporting sedans was restored.  Bentley later went on to race again at Le Mans, for the first time since the 4 1/2 litre and Speed Sixes dominated the sport almost a century earlier.

Today prices for old Bentleys are all over the map, but a good example of the Turbo R can be found for less than $20K.  Unlike some British cars of the era, the Turbo R seems to be solidly built and generally free of exasperating electrical issues.  However, repairs would likely require a second mortgage, due to the fact that the cars were largely hand built in small numbers.