December 30, 2009

Confession #10: No Autocar, there isn't one car of the decade

The British motoring publication Autocar is trying to evaluate the Car of the Decade. The latest blogger, Steve Sutcliffe, has it really wrong.

The Bugatti Veyron, as impressive as an engineering feat it is, epitomizes a lot of what went wrong in the 2000s. Yes, it's absolutely amazing that this road-legal car has a 16-cylinder engine, with no less than 10 radiators, and goes 253 miles-per-hour. Every
thing about it is done to the highest standard and frankly I would sell any part of me for a ride in one, let alone the privilege of driving it.

But it's a $1 million car. New. And while it's not like there's one on every corner (unless you live in Dubai), it's not exactly rare or special enough to warrant the price yet. So collectors haven't really embraced it at this point. It's just shocking to grasp the reality that people will actually pay this much for a new car and never realize its full potential.

There are worse offenses of the decade as far as cars go. I notice now that people who in the '90s had Accords, Camrys, and thought a Nissan 300ZX wa
s an exotic plaything for weekends now end 2009 with BMW 3-series and Audi A4s in their driveway, with a Porsche Boxster or BMW Z4 in the garage. It's not like they have any more disposable income than they did 10 years ago, but people have stretched their credit further in order to afford a posh badge.

This phenomenon has done two things. It has cheapened the appeal of premium brands, especially the German ones. That's why Porsche brought us such things as the Cayenne and Panamera. And Audi inflicted the butt-ugly Q7 and BMW brought the aforementioned X6. Other nationalities have had poor offenders, such as Lexus' new HS250h hybrid, which is just a more expensive and less efficient Toyota Prius.
That in turn has narrowed the gap of premium brands in terms of quality and engineering. The Hyundai Genesis, for example, is every bit as good as a Cadillac STS, itself a very competent vehicle competing with the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-series. But because it has a cheap badge on it, it's worth 15 grand less.

This brings me to my cars of the decade. There has to be several, maybe 10. The 2000s were just chock-full of new cars and rapidly advancing technology that I really can't narrow it down to a single model.

But I'll throw out some names:

The new Land Rover Range Rover – it's an absolutely timeless machine, a decent balance between German engineering and British, um... Britishness. It's still as gas-guzzlery and unreliable as ever, but there are few vehicles so capable. Buy one and keep it forever.

The new Jaguars: XF, XJ and XK – Just before Ford sold off the division, someone realized that the whole appeal to Jaguars was style, power and exclusivity. So the new generation, starting with the 2007 XK and culminating in the gorgeous 2011 XJ, is designed to be an attention generator, not just a Mercedes competitor. And they're fantastic to look at, with stunning attention-to-detail.

Chrysler 300C – More German intervention here. Before Daimler robbed Chrysler and kicked it to the curb, they donated some important bits and pieces for the 300C. It's not the car I'd buy but there's no denying it represents some of the best stuff from the Americans. If they hadn't cheapened out on the suspension and brakes, it would have been perfect. But it's the imperfections, matched to the noteworthy Hemi engine that make it a future classic.

Hyundai Genesis – Had the Genesis come longer before the Panic of 2008, it would have been a bigger success. Still, the big sedan proves that Hyundai can build vehicles that are every bit as competitive as the European, American and other Asian brands. Hyundai still may not have much of a passion for building cars, but the Genesis is the first that is impossible to find real fault with. And it's the first sign that the Koreans will be a formidable force in the next decade.

Toyota Prius – As a car, I can't stand the Prius. It's bad to drive and poorly constructed. But as an engineering feat, it's possibly more impressive than the Veyron. The way Americans embraced the Prius, and the status symbol it became, proved that this country doesn't really care too much about cars, but also that a lot of people have a conscience. While we can't live without our cars, we still can't live without a clean environment. It got people thinking about fuel economy and efficiency finally, and will continue to set a trend.

The Volkswagen TDIs: Jetta and Golf – While the Prius can't suit those of us who want a good driving experience, the turbocharged diesel can. I can't say enough good things about the Golf TDI hatchbacks and the Jetta TDI sedan and wagon. For those people looking for a sensible car around the $25,000 mark, something that says, "Look, I'm not pretentious, but I do have taste and respect a quality product," there isn't a more pragmatic choice. It does make a bit of a diesel clatter when cold, but the monumental power and fuel economy proves to be difficult to live without. Anyone would be a fool to pass this up when shopping for a new family car. And I know diesels will be even more prominent in the next decade.

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