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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

 

Thoughts on the Detroit Auto Show

If you want coverage of the Detroit Auto Show from someone who was actually there, see it at Edmunds.com or many of the other automotive journalism websites. While I couldn't attend, being a blogger, I feel obliged to provide opinion and commentary on it anyway. There's two developments going on that I see as very interesting to watch.

The first is, of course, Dodge and Chevrolet stepping back into the pony car wars, or at least giving us tantalizing hints with their Challenger and Camaro concept cars. The Challenger looks almost production ready, and also looks astonishingly like someone had customized an original '70 Challenger. This marks something that Chrysler hasn't even tried since 1980: A rear wheel drive, V8 powered performance car that seats four adults. (And what they tried in 1980 with the Aspen and Volare coupes wasn't exactly earth-shattering.)

The Camaro, well, I'm not too keen on that grille treatment. It looks like they were giving it a bend to bring it into the same corporate look as the Impala. Bit of a mistake in my books. But the rest of it looks pretty good, and kind of more techno than a direct copy like the Challenger. And any fast car looks good from the driver's seat.

Styling aside, this looks like they are trying to pick up where the '60s pony car wars left off, only with even bigger guns. Both Chevy and Dodge have 400+ horsepower engines, and they're not afraid to use them as regular options instead of a tiny fraction of the road rockets brought out in the days of LS6's versus Hemis. Wait... they've also brought back those two names. Maybe that should be "the first set of days of LS6's versus Hemis." There's definitely something very exciting about the effortless torque of a massive displacement V8 driving the rear wheels.

But that's only the first interesting development. The second one is that Honda and Nissan have rolled out their own small cars, while Toyota has decided to replace the Echo with the somewhat more interesting Yarris.

Now, if you're normally drooling over pony cars, you may be yawning right about now. What's so great about small subcompacts with no torque?

Well, actually, small cars can be a lot of twisted fun if you drive them like a maniac. At the GM Auto Show in Motion, some of the most fun that Kelly and I had were trying to see how quickly we could whip an Echo and an Aveo around the cones. (Yes, I also got a big kick out of driving the BMW 3-series and the Ion Redline. Unfortunately, the line for the GTO was too long.) Sure, a subcompact can often feel gutless and unable to get out of its own way. But they also can turn on a dime and really let you know when you're pushing them. A friend of mine actually got kicked out at another example of the Auto Show in Motion for getting the Echo to lift its back wheel off the ground.

The key to enjoying a small car is to flog it like a maniac, have no respect for the tires, and stay away from boring stretches of straight pavement. Once you do that, even a tiny, underpowered econobox can be exciting. In fact, a tiny, underpowered econobox can be even more fun than a big but moderately powered car.

Hopefully with the new wave of small cars, more people will discover just how much fun you can have abusing a tiny vehicle on a winding autocross course.

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