Allow me to take a crack at this soothsaying thing.
Toyota and its legions of Prius owners want us to believe that soulless, potato-shaped hybrids are the future of motoring. They envision a world where muscular V8s are relegated to history with the rise of electrification and bold, expressive styling takes a back seat to aerodynamic imperatives.
Those of us who burn dead dinosaurs for personal pleasure will finally see the light of day, they say, and make mature, practical transportation choices for the betterment of the universe.
Bear in mind that it isn’t hybrid technology that I object to as I favor the development of alternative propulsion and find much to appreciate in the Chevy Volt, first-generation Honda Insight, and Tesla Roadster. The thorn in my side is the rise in popularity of the Toyota Prius, a soulless, cleansed appliance that offers no rewards in handling, styling, or refinement. It manages to be both innocuous and pious as well as politically correct.
If that’s the future, kill me now.
My expectation over the next five to ten decades, as more of the population moves into metropolitan centers in search of greater opportunities, is that public transportation will finally become convenient, practical, and appealing. No longer will city centers be clogged with busses filled with addicts and felons.
The unwashed masses who believe driving is such a burden (boo hoo) will eventually abandon their Priuses and Camrys in favor of a new system — it could be light rail, personal mobility tubes, or self-driven magic pods that fart rainbows and unicorns. (This is my vision so I get to imagine it however I want.)
I envision it to be something like this, where you attach your personal pod to a carrier network that drags your fat, lazy, car-hating ass around town:
(Amusingly, I found this photo at treehugger.com.)
The result will be leftover surface road networks used mostly by semi trucks, rural people, and auto enthusiasts. The selfish, distracted metropolitan commuter will become a relic of the past and accident fatalities will accordingly drop.
This unfortunately means the auto industry as we know it could disappear. In its place will be smaller manufacturers of leisure off-roaders and sports cars for the handful of remaining people who prefer driving to being driven.
On a positive note, less public interest in driving could mean fewer regulations on safety and emissions and more freedom to build and design cars that represent the 20% — the portion of the car buying public classified as auto enthusiasts. For this group, motoring pleasure is paramount and vehicle design could once again emphasize emotion over efficiency and practicality.
Unfortunately, until this magical utopia arrives, conditions will worsen as traffic density rises and municipalities cut back on infrastructure development.
For now, I can dream about rainbow-farting pods filled with asshole commuters.
In September 2009, Sergeant Brad Thoma rear-ended a woman in Spokane, Washington while under the influence. He left the scene of the accident. Because the woman he hit was not injured, she and another witness were able to follow him and report the accident. Sergeant Thoma was arrested, cited for DUI, and released, placed on paid leave. He was driving his truck and not on duty at the time.
He had a blood-alcohol level of .171, double the legal limit of .080. The hit and run was dismissed and he was given the option to defer prosecution for the DUI if he completed a program.
Thoma was ordered by Chief Kirkpatrick to use an ignition interlock device while operating city vehicles in order to remain employed. He refused the offer and was fired.
Thoma then hired a lawyer and filed a complaint with the Washington State Human Rights Commission who mediated the case. As part of a settlement agreement, he was offered a job as a detective, a slight demotion from sergeant (from $91,000/yr to $80,000/yr) as well as $275,000 of back pay and $15,000 to pay his attorney. All of this was at the city’s expense.
Thoma’s attorney, Bob Dunn, claimed his alcoholism was a disability caused by stress on the job and drew comparisons to epilepsy. The city claimed they were unaware of any evidence that he was an alcoholic.
The Spokane city council unanimously rejected the settlement agreement on February 27, 2012, citing flaws in Washington state’s labor laws. Mayor David Condon, however, has signed it, claiming it protects the city from further litigation.
Thoma’s lawyer has threatened to sue for $4 million if the council does not approve the settlement by Wednesday.
So there you have it. A cop drove drunk, fled the scene, got fired, and has threatened to sue the city.
Character and uniqueness aren’t the exclusive domain of now-defunct Saab. Large auto manufacturers tend to be risk-averse, preferring the marketability of proven designs like midsize sedans, crossovers, and SUVs, but a few have defied convention.
Quirky cars demonstrate unconventional design and engineering traits but “quirky” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” Keep that in mind as you peruse this short list of oddballs.
The Cube stands out with its blocky profile, asymmetrical rear glass, and strange interior adorned with a shag mat and puddle-inspired roof. Unfortunately, its wheezy 4-cylinder CVT powertrain and sensitivity to crosswinds detracts from its enjoyability. It is, at least, quite cavernous inside, versatile and immensely practical.
Unfortunately for Nissan, sales of the much-hyped Cube have slowed to a trickle in the United States.
Four doors, auto-engaging all-wheel drive, and 50mpg — it sounds like a concept for some kind of hybrid Jeep, but it isn’t. Fiat calls its petite 1900lb box the “Panda,” a delightfully contradictory name for a diminutive urban runabout. Thanks to its generous ground clearance, short overhangs, and short wheelbase, the Panda is an economy car with impressive capability in foul weather, even in light mud.
The 2002-2008 Megane (pronounced Meg-Ann) carries a distinctive shell that could only come from a French automaker. The C-pillar forms a sharp, almost 90-degree angle interrupted by a rear overhang that juts outward from underneath the rear glass. It’s design for design’s sake, unimpeded by the practicalities of cargo capacity and aerodynamics.
Top Gear’s Richard Hammond calls it “cutting edge cool.”
Unfortunately, the third-generation Megane pictured below loses its crisp, artful styling in favor of an aerodynamic shape that’s similar to the new Ford Focus.
At GM, the only brand with a more loyal following than Oldsmobile was Saturn. Launched in the early 90s, the S-series was a glimpse of a plastic future. The darkened pillars and shark-like nose were awkward, yet appealing to people who appreciated the car’s dependability, frugality, and dent resistance. In the photo below, this 16 year old S-series has completely spotless doors and fenders, free of rust and shopping cart bruises.
It even had its own unique platform, bucking the trend at late 80s/early 90s GM when vehicle architectures and designs were shamelessly whored out from Chevrolet on up to Cadillac (remember the Cavalier-based Cimarron?). It was a crude practice disgracefully known as “badge engineering.”
The SL’s ergonomically friendly interiors were made of durable but hard plastic, lacking the fitment and refinement of the same-year Honda Civic, but they were a major step forward at GM for small cars. Unfortunately, the 1.9L I-4’s raucous engine intruded the cabin, loudly reminding drivers at every takeoff that they weren’t in a Cadillac.
In its early years, Saturn had thousands of dedicated fans who met annually at the Saturn plant in Spring Hill, TN to eat, meet, and interact with the people who designed and built their cars. Miraculously, stodgy General Motors found a way to cultivate a level of personal intimacy and loyalty with its customers that was unheard of in the auto industry. Saturn was, for a brief moment, the envy of Ford, Chrysler, and even Japan.
Unfortunately, Saturn’s successes were squandered. Service, sales, and manufacturing innovations were never applied to GM’s other divisions. The S-series trudged along for a decade with only a handful of cosmetic changes. When legions of happy customers were ready to upgrade to a larger car or SUV, GM was too little, too late with the introduction of the Vue and Aura. The plastic bodies were abandoned in favor of steel and Spring Hill started building Chevy Trailblazers. Saturn became yet another GM division, occupying an odd place between Chevrolet and Buick without the prestige of former Oldsmobile.
Ominously foreshadowing the decline of Saab and Pontiac, Saturn became a victim of corporate neglect and bureaucracy.
The fifth car on the list dates back to 1948 but remained in production through 1990, which qualifies it as being part of the modern era despite being otherwise completely antiquated. However, its long production run demonstrates the indefatigability of the 2CV’s original design.
The intent behind the 2CV was to move France’s commoners and peasants out of horses and buggies and into automobiles like the rest of the developed world. To satisfy those needs, the 2CV had to be durable, practical, simple, and cheap. That practicality entailed carrying eggs across a field without cracking them, an achievement made possible by its unique independent suspension.
Here’s an example of the 2CV’s egg-carrying capabilities: Fast Tube by Casper
Windows flapped up instead of rolling to keep the doors thin, reduce weight, and reduce complexity. The attention to detail in the 2CV wasn’t in the panel fitment or paint quality, typical of how we evaluate modern cars. It was in the level of effort the designers went to in pursuit of simplification. Not one detail was overlooked.
To further improve reliability and simplify maintenance, the air-cooled 2CV was designed to operate without a distributor, radiator, thermostat, or water pump. The original flat-twin (two cylinder) 375cc engine produced nine horsepower. Displacement was eventually increased to 602cc with an output of 29hp, enough to move the 1200lb 2CV from 0-60 in half a minute. Lesser 2CVs were unable to exceed 45mph.
Seats were made of simple rods with hammock-like cushions draped over them, for easy care and quick manufacturing.
The car’s flat steel side panels kept costs low and streamlined assembly. Despite ramping up production in the early 1950s, the 2CV was so popular that Citroen had a five-year waiting list.
They were noisy and poorly insulated, crude and agricultural, but they rode surprisingly well. Unfortunately, their lack of power made them quite unpopular in Germany and the United States, where highway networks were rapidly expanding.
This is a demonstration of its off-road capabilities: Fast Tube by Casper
Not surprisingly, Jeremy Clarkson hates it: Fast Tube by Casper
Like old Saabs, each of the 2CV’s glaring flaws are matched by one or two clever innovations, resulting in a quirky but practical car with more personality than a Jack Russell Terrier.
Of the five vehicles listed, I would own the Renault Megane or Citroen 2CV for their eye-catching designs and thoughtful engineering. Though the two cars are worlds apart in terms of technology, safety, performance, and modern day usability, both are standouts brimming with originality.
I’ve been waiting to write this obituary out of perhaps naive hope that Saab may have a future under the stewardship of India’s Mahindra or China’s Youngman, but former owner General Motors has declined to allow the licensing of Saab’s existing technology (legally GM’s intellectual property).
For the last two years, Saab has endured an agonizing series of desperate gasps and coughs. Just two years ago, under the ownership of Spyker Cars NV, production of the new 9-5 and 9-4x provided hope that the brand could survive. Saab even celebrated with a series of print ads declaring February 23, 2010 as “Independence Day,” marking the event with celebrations in Trollhattan and a limited-run Independence Edition of the 9-3, adorned in orange paint and a creamsicle interior.
This was also the first time Saab convertibles were assembled in Trollhattan. Traditionally, they were outsourced to Valmet in Finland, the same company that builds the Porsche Boxster and Cayman.
Festivities were unfortunately short-lived as Saab halted production twice in 2011, struggling to pay suppliers and employees. Finally, in December 2011, after discovering that GM had no intention of ever licensing its technology to new owners, Saab filed for bankruptcy protection. Several cars remained uncompleted on the assembly line and the last rolls of sheet metal were sold in January.
As of this writing, there have been reports of Mahindra, BMW, and a Turkish holding company engaging in negotiations for pieces of Saab including the new Phoenix platform and design and manufacturing facilities in Trollhattan. While portions of Saab may find new life in the hands of existing automakers, the brand is unlikely to exist as we know it ever again.
Traditionally, for better and worse, Saab placed the ideas of engineers ahead of marketers, planners, and focus groups. This was, expectedly, incompatible with the methods and norms of General Motors, which for too long relied on a rigid, MBA-driven sense of order, sometimes at the expense of common sense. This two-decade relationship between GM and Saab, initiated in the late 1980s, was doomed from the beginning.
Tonight, in memory of the brand’s passing, I opened the ragtop of my 1991 900 turbo and went for an evening drive. Crystal clear skies presented a spectacular view of the moon and stars glowing above. I could feel the 2.0L I-4 buzzing quietly as the turbocharger worked its magic. Fittingly, my chosen soundtrack was U2’s “Joshua Tree” album. U2 creatively peaked in the late 80s with “The Joshua Tree” as Saab arguably did with the classic 900.
Accompanying me was my beagle, Newton, who in warmer weather is quite fond of topless motoring.
I’ve owned and enjoyed three dozen vehicles over the last decade or so, most of which were faster, plusher, and much prettier than this old Saab. None of them, however, tug my at heart strings in quite the same way. I don’t expect anyone to comprehend my affections, nor can I sufficiently explain them.
I’ll have to defer to Infiniti’s slogan from the 1990s, “Own one and you’ll understand.”
Unfortunately, in Saab’s case, most of the buying public didn’t understand, which resulted in bankruptcy.
And when a marque fades into history, it isn’t just a loss for employees and shareholders. For auto enthusiasts, it’s one less source of creativity and innovation in an increasingly bland and predictable industry. Imagine if all the genres and styles of music we enjoyed faded away, leaving us with nothing but Coldplay, the audible equivalent of room-temperature oatmeal.
On the way out John ran up to hand me these Cadillac slippers. For $250 he got to attend the Chicago show in formal attire for charity. Cadillac was offering foot massages to women and handed these out as gifts. This is one of the rarest, coolest Cadillac collectibles ever! Thanks John!!
Empty bottle storage at the hotel. We headed back to the Hyatt and got a bit drunk.
We met up in the lobby around noon. Gary gave me this book by Reed Timmer. As a fan of tornadoes, thunderstorms, and Discovery’s “Stormchasers” I can’t wait to read it.
We met up at Portillo’s for a hearty lunch.
I ordered polish sausage…
…and wet Italian beef with hot peppers. IT WAS AMAZING, as usual.
Well-fed Cadillac owners standing outside in the cold. We shook hands and parted ways.
Chris, Ian, Jason, and I headed over to Ikea.
Gigantic revolving door.
A rolling orange “temporary” table, used for eating breakfast and such.
Ikea’s cafeteria was crowded.
I BOUGHT THIS. $10
Shopping cart escalator.
*not actual size
I picked up four pillows for $4, Lingonberry concentrate, Elderflower concentrate, a picture of a cow, and meatballs.
Good to be back in less-congested St Louis.
I’ll return for the auto show in 2013, but I’ll be in Chicago soon again for food.
CONCLUSIONS: –The Cadillac Ciel is everything a Cadillac should be.
–Mercedes-Benz is improving significantly in terms of design, performance, and quality, with Cadillac’s V-series offerings on par.
–When I got home I realized that we skipped BMW entirely, and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything important. We skipped Infiniti too. My boyish fanaticism for BMW has waned.
–Audi, Chrysler Group, and Hyundai/Kia impressed as usual.
–Ford currently has the respect and admiration of the American public. If they continue to build on that goodwill with quality cars and trucks, I don’t see why they couldn’t become #2 globally or #1 in the US.
–Nissan and Lincoln were kind of a bore.
–After making an auto show comeback in 2011, Saab was missing again due to bankruptcy.
–The Subaru Legacy is an excellent car for road trips.
–Chicago is a great place to eat and visit, but I’m not sure I could live there.
The inside of the Nissan Versa sedan, arguably the worst new car in America. $10,000.
The interior is mostly trash but the back seat is spacious. I hope I never have to endure one as a rental.
The New Pathfinder
Yep, its another f**king crossover from Nissan.
Apparently the Rogue and Murano weren’t enough.
The Nissan GT-R attracts more dick than a strip club.
BP wanted to remind everyone of how hard they were being raped.
Every year, Mazda brings the 1990 Miata. Every year, I get excited like it’s brand new.
This exact car was at the Chicago Auto Show in 1989.
$13,800 with 90hp.
0-60 in 8.6 seconds.
It was as close as you could get back then to a street-legal go kart. The Miata is the most-raced car in America.
The finger-sized door handles are a nice detail.
The new Miata with an optional folding hard top.
NC (third-gen) Miata with the top open.
Even Ian fits.
The Miata is priced anywhere from $23k to $32k depending on options and dealer-installed add-ons.
The new Skyactiv CX5, a 35mpg cute-ute that weighs 3200lbs.
People were lined up to win a CX5, but more intriguing than the vehicle was this touch screen pasted to the window of the car.
The inside of the Mazda CX9
Subaru Impreza STi
0-60 in under 5 seconds.
New Subaru BRZ, a rear-wheel drive lightweight low-cost sports car.
It seats four, tightly.
There’s some Maserati in the shark nose and some Ferrari in the tail lights.
It’s a couple hundred pounds heavier than the Miata (around 2500lbs) and comes with a 200hp 2.0L Boxer-4 with a 7400rpm redline. Expect 0-60 times around 6 seconds. With a 6-speed manual, expect to spend around 25 grand.
This car, designed by Toyota and engineered by Subaru, is delightfully simple. No all-wheel-drive, no turbo (maybe later?), and no gimmicks. It’s simple, honest, light, and refreshing, just like the Miata back in 1989. Hey Mazda, where’s your Miata coupe?
We headed over to Suzuki. It was quiet.
There’s the Kizashi, a highly underrated and often overlooked sedan.
The Grand Vitara is still around.
Every year, Suzuki emphasizes the Kizashi’s safety. This is a crash-tested example that looks mostly in tact.
Kizashi looks nice inside.
Suzuki Equator, a rebadge of the Nissan Frontier
This hungry girl is blocking my picture of the Chicago Bulls cheerleaders.
Cute, but I don’t follow basketball anymore, not since Michael Jordan retired.
Kia’s display was unusually bright, blasting an obnoxious playlist of K-pop.
Kia Track’ster concept
Kia GT Concept
Kia is eager to produce a rear-wheel drive luxury sedan like its brother Hyundai (Equus, Genesis). The GT concept features rear-wheel drive, suicide doors, carbon fan blade wheels, and cameras in place of rear view mirrors.
There’s some Audi in the design, and the chrome piece running across the roof is a nice touch.
The GT concept car has a 3.3L turbo V6 producing 389hp.