Posts By: Chris Paukert

By on May 29, 2006

 General Motors is convinced it can't afford to kill Buick. If it could, it would; but it can't, so it won't. So now what? Clearly, the Lucerne and LaCrosse (improvements though they are) aren't winning a great many brand converts. A radical re-think is in order. It's time to drop any pretense that Buick can possibly appeal to anyone younger than 70, and drink fully from the golden goblet of Metamucil. If GM insists upon keeping the marque on life support, what better way to do so than by wholeheartedly crafting a car designed for buyers close to employing the same?

By on December 13, 2005

 The battle is joined; the safety nannies have scaled the walls of common sense to patrol the courtyard outside the castle keep. How else can you explain Euro-NCAP's (European New Car Assessment Program) pedestrian safety standards for automobiles? Apparently, it isn't enough that modern cars must coddle their occupants in hyperbaric cocoons, girded by all manner of airbags, crumple zones, seatbelt pretensioners and Silicon Valley chipset wizardry. By the look of things, it's now necessary to legislate OUTSIDE the box, to protect hapless bystanders from Death Race destruction.

Europe's new NCAP testing regime rates a car's ability to protect a pedestrian's body upon contact with the front bumper and hood. Eventually, cars that fail the test will not be allowed for sale within the Euro-Zone. It's yet more proof (if proof were needed) that Brussel's non-elected bureaucrats would have their sponsoring nations consider automobiles a curse that must be controlled, a lethal weapon ready to savage any luckless pedestrian who dares place a stray toe beyond the curb.

By on October 14, 2005

 A preppy soccer mom wearing steel-toed boots and work gloves. That's the look copped by most wagon-based crossovers. And while grafting raised white letter tires and frightening quantities of ribbed cladding to the family transporter hardly qualifies today's genre-benders for MOMA's parking lot (let alone their exhibition hall), virtually every manufacturer in the segment uses the recipe. Unsurprisingly, all of Subaru's previous efforts became ensnared in the very clichéd design trap that they helped originate. Until now…

The athletic contours of Subaru's attractive Legacy are a welcome departure from the norm. Its tapering greenhouse, sloping backlight and interesting harp-shaped taillamps are inherently attractive. Fortunately, the team at Subaru charged with transforming the Legacy's basic form into an Outback didn't violate that trust. Yes, there's still lower cladding and a vestigial spear of door-ding armor, but both have been smoothly baked into the vehicle's form (available in body-color on certain hues). So even if the 2005 Outback it isn't a picture of modern maternal magnetism, it's still a second-look MILF. The design works particularly well up front, where eagle-eyed headlamps no longer appear malnourished (in comparison to the bumper's elephantine fogs). Handsome, broad-spoke alloys draped in 17" mud-and-snow rated Bridgestone Potenzas mark out their territory convincingly. A wisp of roof rack topside completes the picture.

By on July 22, 2005

A 1986 VW Jetta GLI: they sure don't build 'em like they used to.Just a few model cycles ago, savvy auto-shoppers could indulge in the fine art of speccing-up. Consumers coveting European motoring on the cheap flocked to Volkswagen's second-generation Jetta. Shoppers could specify a lightweight, no-frills special: crank-it-your-damned-self steering and windows, no a/c and a basic radio. (Even steel wheel trim rings were optional.) The converse was also true– intenders could option-up a high-end GLI with most every feature then extant.

Fast forward to the new Jetta. Even a cooking version of VW's fifth-generation Jetta comes with air-con, remote keyless entry, power windows and a 10-speaker MP3-compatible CD stereo. And that's just the creature comforts; safety-wise, figure six airbags, ABS and traction control. Which goes some way towards explaining the car's 3,200-pound curb weight. (For comparison's sake, the average 1986 Jetta weighed around 2,500-pounds.)

By on March 29, 2005

The Jeep Wrangler: you can't kill it with a stickDetroit execs have been too quick to sell the idea that consumers' clocks have struck midnight and turned the hardcore small SUV and pickup party into a pumpkin. Ask any domestic automaker, and today's smart truck money is almost exclusively on the crossover market. And while it's true that all-wheel-drive softroaders are hot, the notion that Americans won't pony up for a charismatic, purposeful body-on-frame compact is utter nonsense. The segment's erosion has far more to do with a dearth of compelling product than it does with the rise of alternative classes.

Need proof? Look no further than Jeep's evergreen Wrangler. Despite underpinnings hewn from Woolly Mammoth tusks and a convertible top that only a masochist could love, it continues to sell smartly year after year, decade after decade. In fact, its sales have actually been trending UPWARD as of late– no doubt thanks in part to the overdue addition of Jeep's Unlimited model (and the brand's ever-present cult of personality).

By on January 7, 2005

Volvo, once King of the Squares, now thinks outside the box-- just when everyone else is jumping back in. In 1986, pop rockers Huey Lewis and the News grabbed America by its blue collar and unironically proclaimed that it was "Hip to Be Square"– a rather peculiar assertion given that rock and roll music has historically stoked the fires of nonconformity. Almost in spite of itself, this ode to the joys of orthodoxy became a smash hit. And though it's taken the better part of twenty years to come to the fore, automotive design now finds itself deeply enthralled with Mr. Lewis' orthogonal ideology.

By on December 2, 2004

BMW's SMG may stroke like liquid sex, but it's not good enough for our Chris Here in the world's biggest automotive market, the automatic gearbox rules, with the vast majority of American electing to have their cars do the shifting for them.  This, despite the fact that automatics are inherently less efficient than stick shift systems (an autobox's torque converter squanders resources unless in full lockup). What's more, the average slushbox falls apart sooner than a manual transmission, while often being a high-cost option in the first place. But even if you stray beyond the empirical realm, the truth of the matter is obvious: manual transmissions are the more pleasurable, safer choice.

Enthusiast drivers derive much of their satisfaction by changing gears of their own accord. Even the best adaptive automatics consistently fail to respond to the sporting driver's commands with suitably efficiency. (Hence the motivations behind most racers opting for manual gearchanges, even when the sanctioning bodies under which they compete fail to mandate them.) Technological advances like "fly-by-wire" throttles and GPS-based logic may eventually eliminate the autobox' temporal shortcomings, but until then, accomplished cog swappers know the tripedal dance remains most efficient and satisfying method for conducting business.

By on October 22, 2004

The Saturn Relay: 'A homely offering bungeed to an unremarkable chassis that could take charm lessons from a Ford Freestar' Despite the capable stewardship of GM Grand Pooh-bah Bob Lutz, Saturn is quickly falling out of orbit. That's the unavoidable conclusion after learning that General Motors plans on pushing its resident flower child upstairs, to an office from whose door a janitor is hurriedly scraping the "Oldsmobile" appliqué. Oh, how the flighty have fallen…

Remember when Saturn was 'A Different Kind of Car Company'? From Day One, the brand was a utopian marketing and social experiment in need of decent product-– a calamity that grew more acute over time. Apparently, the powers that be finally realized the Bohemian goodwill of its dealers and a no-dicker sticker weren't grounds enough to sustain a brand. As a result, over the past few years, GM has been steadily reeling in its wayward progeny, with an increasing percentage of its operations falling under the corporate umbrella.

By on August 18, 2004

 It's common knowledge that today's auto execs are obsessed with "clinics", those allegedly scientific investigations into the public's views about a new or planned model. As in Hollywood, this fixation has sucked much of the vibrancy and innovation from the car business. For evidence of its crippling grip on the industry's creativity, look no further than the alphanumeric soup that is our new car marketplace: RX7, X3, XK8, S500, A4, SC430, F150, FX45, ad nauseam.

This pseudo-military mania stems from the widespread tenet that established vehicle names succeed at the expense of the parent company's visibility. Predictably, hired image and brand consultants wrongly view popular model monikers as a serious threat to the overall corporate gestalt.

By on July 20, 2004

The $35k Mercury Marauder: a 'sinister-appearing but gutless Jurassic holdover with a drivetrain that couldn't see off a Honda Accord' Over the last year, we've watched Ford officials desperately plugging the fruits of their 'reinvigorated' Mercury brand. The Blue Oval's trumpeted reinvestment into the fallen badge can be summed-up thusly: more reheated Fords in shinier tins. The main difference from previous attempts to keep the former purveyor of flatheads from flat-lining lies in Ford's willingness to tarnish old monikers like Monterey, Montego and Marauder to sell a few extra units. What's old is new again, and vice-versa.

Journalists attending a Mercury press event these days must muffle their guffaws while Elena Ford's minions wax euphoric about 'rebirth' and 'DNA', only to pull the sheet on, say, the Mariner, a Ford Escape that emerged from fashion school with a skosh more chrome and an analog dashboard clock. This latest Mercury may in fact be a competent little SUV; the Escape from which it spins isn't at all bad. But most of the Mariner's salient points are available on the cheaper bread-and-butter Escape. So why bother?

By on July 9, 2004

Will the supercharged tC (and this ain't it) steal sales from the older, pricier Toyota Celica? Is Scion a brand or corporate sleight-of-hand? The sales campaigns for the xA and xB display an ongoing and achingly self-conscious attempt to endow the Toyota subsidiary's products with its own distinct, youth-oriented identity. The company's demographics show that the marketing boys have, at the least, established a beachhead amongst their target market. In California, the xA and xB have demonstrated their appeal to young customers who fear that Mom's Camry is just too… well… Chevrolet.

On the other hand, Scion's products smack of parts bin engineering. Apart from their unconventional shapes and higher quality, the xA and xB are thoroughly banal commuter tins. In fact, consumers have seen their ilk before; a goodly portion of the pairings' greasy bits being cribbed directly from the prosaic Echo (a rare vehicular misfire for The House of Toyota). Scion's initial offerings may be cheerful, but they're also cheap.

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