Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cars, cars, cars. The 2015 New England International Autoshow, A Quick Review.

The New England International Autoshow finished its run yesterday at the Boston Convention Center, with a host of cars on display, all of them to look at, to sit in, to kick the tires, but not to drive. The convention center space is massive, and the automakers arrived with comprehensive line-ups of what buyers can expect in the upcoming season.

The Autoshow came to town

Here’s a quick wrap up of some of the cars …

The most interesting line of cars comes not from a Japanese manufacturer or a German behemoth. Instead, it comes from The Ford Motor Company, with some of the most comfortable and well-built cars on the market. The first car I sat in was the Ford Fusion Energi, Ford’s version of a plug-in hybrid sedan, a car with an astounding 88 mpg using both electric and gas power.  The only compromise on this car, and in the end, it’s not a small compromise, is that the trunk space is very limited because of the requirement of a big battery pack to store the electric juice.  Still, the comfort and the quality of the build were unmistakeable and impressive. And the styling is strong too — very sleek with its growling grill. 
Ford Fusion Energi, one of the most comfortable cars I've ever sat in, and 88 mpg

But Ford doesn’t stop there.  They have a whole line of cars that follow a similar mantra, including the shorter Focus, and the much smaller Fiesta. I’ve driven a Focus and wasn’t that impressed, it seemed to lack power, but the reviews of the Fiesta are outstanding, fun, sporty, economical.  Since this one was bright green, it also was a hit with the many kids who clambered over the seats like it was a playground. 
A bright green Ford Fiesta, sporty and short.

So impressed with the Fords was I that I venture this — the only cars to surpass them in the interior quality of build were … did you guess it? ... the various Mercedes out on the floor.  Honest.  The only car I sat in that was in the same league — actually its a higher league — came from Daimler Benz. 
The view of a dash of a Mercedes. Just as good as a Ford

There is one significant exception in the praise of the Ford lineup.  Its signature muscle car, as synonymous with America and American power as any symbol anywhere — the Ford Mustang — comes across as nothing but all muscle and very little car. The cabin will give you back pain before you get to the corner of your block. Disappointing, given the attention to detail Ford is showing elsewhere.

Ford Mustang, the Pony car

While we’re talking about muscle cars, let’s talk about the car that got prime billing in the show, and some of the biggest audiences too — the new Chevy Corvette. It is a very impressive car.  Here again, an American manufacturer is producing a top of the line car with real engineering and delivering a complete package — a power car at a staggeringly low sticker price.  The 2015 Stingray on display at the show was listed at $68,000.
The new Chevy Corvette Stingray, a quality Detroit thoroughbred

  Compare this to the Lamborghini Aventador next door coming in at well over $500,000, and you get to see what they’re able to accomplish in Detroit these days.

For $500K, you can have one of these, a Lamborghini Aventador. I'd get the 'vette.
The Corvette power numbers are staggering (well over 600 horsepower) and the styling is very good, complete with metallic grey paint and a tan interior. Most amazing of all, it gets 20 mpg which is just about as good as my 15 year old Subaru wagon. 

While eyeing the car, a man my age walked up, beer in hand, and said out of the blue “Do it, get yourself one, you’ll never regret it. For this kind of money, you just can’t beat it.” He had a Corvette himself, and he said it’s just the greatest experience.  I believe him, and the car we were looking at was a lot better than his 20 year old car.

The rest of the Chevy line is unimpressive. The Impala was depressingly cheap-feeling inside, with faux everything, and the Volt, the revolutionary gas-assist electric car that is otherwise very interesting, came nowhere near any of the Fords in its interior quality. Too bad, because the Volt is rewriting the rule book in many ways. 
The Chevy Volt, in many ways a winner, but cheap feeling in the cabin.

Of course, you couldn’t talk about American car manufacturers without talking about trucks, everywhere trucks, coming in two sizes, big and bigger. There was nothing there of interest to me, so I didn’t bother.
Trucks, trucks, trucks, there were loads of them

Outside of the American muscle cars, I was drawn to the eco-friendly models — the electrics and the plug-ins.

No company is more associated with this than Toyota, who probably had the biggest line-up of cars on the floor.  The only car I checked out was the Prius, and most specifically the plug-in model.  There’s actually not much to say about it.  It’s a Prius.  Functional, practical, economical.  Is it the price of success or the measure of success that all their accomplishments become background noise? As the Japanese have done many times, Toyota changed the global car market significantly with this car.  But for someone who lives in Cambridge, Mass. where every third car is a Prius, it’s not news.  And to be honest, it’s nothing very exciting about it when you sit in it.
Plug-in Toyota Prius.  Ho Hum

There was another Japanese car that made me almost wistful when I saw it. The Honda Civic is the car that fundamentally changed America.  In the 1980s, no car was more emblematic of the preeminence of Japanese industrial policy, engineering, market savvy and practicality than this car. While Detroit was still producing poorly built Cadillacs and Buicks that were out of touch with the new regime of fuel efficiency, affordability, and quality, Honda was redefining what a college grad’s first car should be.  Here at the show, the Civic was almost lonely and forgotten among all the technology and glitz, but this old grandmother of a car has earned its rightful place in automotive history, even if the next generation of beauties and smarties outshine her, her impact is bigger than they can ever imagine. 
Honda Civic. The car that changed the American car market in the 1980s

There were loads of other cars to look at — the precision of the Audis, the Porsche Boxster GTS, the display cars of Bentleys and Rolls Royces (look but no touch!), the attractive new VW Golfs which come in both diesel and plug-in versions, and the ever practical Subarus.
Subaru Impreza. The ever practical car

But if you want to know the car that really won my heart, it wasn’t any of these.  It was over near the Chryslers.  No, it wasn’t the Chrysler 200C, the car that is based on the Alfa platform but is uncomfortable to sit in. 

The little Fiat 500 soft top immediately won my heart.  Something about its small size combined with an ergonomic cabin layout and the notion that you’re in something small and FUN is unmistakable and I couldn’t resist. As soon as I stepped out of it, a guy standing nearby said, “You should buy it. You were having too much fun in that car!” I guess it showed.  Lovely little beast.  Fun little bit of Italian spirit and playfulness. 
Fiat 500 soft top. Straight to the heart, sweet short and sporty
 That in brief is the motorshow.

And, some additional mentions, both plus and minus:

Ford — (+) Overall best, for styling, comfort and quality.  Impressive.

Volvo — (+) for making quality cars that are safe, feel comfortable, go fast, look good and are well made.

BMW — (+) for the i3 which they had on display — futuristic, technofesty, efficient and well made.  Nice job.

BMW i3. A moving technofest

Toyota — (+) for pushing the boundaries again. They showed off their new hydrogen fuel cell Mirai, which will soon be on the market.

Toyota Mirai. Is the hydrogen fuel cell the next wave in locomotion?

British automakers — (+) for beautiful cars. It almost seems oxymoronic to praise British automakers, but they do make simply beautiful high-end cars. Nice show, chaps!

Lotus Evora. Truly a winner, sleek and sexy
Aston Martin Vantage. A beast of car with very elegant lines

Nissan — (-) for being boring. The Leaf is a good car, all-electric, but deeply uninspiring as any automobile.  If ever you wanted to solve a problem with science alone and with no reference to art, this would be the result. 

Cadillac — (-) for poor quality, still. Really poor quality for a car that’s supposed to be top of its line.