April 19, 2011

Confession #23: It doesn't have to be a supercar to be cool

Forbes recently published a list of "Cars that will make you cool." To the surprise of probably no one, they're all outrageously expensive things most people couldn't afford in a lifetime, even if they sold some vital organs.

No question, cars like the Spyker C8 Aileron and Ferrari FF are cool, but part of their appeal comes from the fact that they're exotic and unattainable by most. Therefore, are there new cars that are cool and aren't all high-cost, low-practicality sports cars?

2012 Fiat 500 Sport (Fiat USA photo)
Fiat 500: Small cars are cool again because rapidly rising gas prices are making everyone regret purchasing lumbering vehicles that drink too much unleaded gas. Until now, if you wanted a small four-seat car with some style, the default choice was a Mini. And that was great, because the Mini Cooper S in particular is a fantastic car to drive, seats four (or two in much greater comfort) and offers decent luggage space with the rear seats folded. Best of all, it's perfect for parking and maneuvering tight city gaps. While a Smart ForTwo is better in both regards, you could use a Mini as your only car. But what makes the Fiat cool is that there aren't a million of them on the street. Until the 500 starts selling by the hundred thousand, it's cool because it's a great alternative to the Mini, without being a Mini.

2011 Jaguar XJL (Jaguar Land Rover photo)
Jaguar XJ: If you're the kind of person who can afford a nearly $100,000 car these days, you want to spend it wisely. So it seems irrational to blow your money on a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or BMW 7-series, both of which are about as interesting as a bank vault. The new XJ has some controversial looks – to me, it looks somewhat like a Citroen C6 – but that also keeps it from looking like anything else on the road. It may be a big four-door, but when fitted with a supercharged V8, there's no getting past the XJ as a seriously quick, slightly sinister-looking car that can take four of your closest friends.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS
(Daimler AG photo)
Mercedes-Benz CLS: Entering its second generation, the original "four-door coupe" has many copycats, from the head-on assault by the Audi A7 (more on this later), to the budget rip-offs Volkswagen CC and even Hyundai Sonata. But there's nothing quite like driving the original, especially when it looks this good. Forget for a moment it's basically an E-class with one fewer seatbelt, less headroom and a 25 percent surcharge. There's something eternally classic about a Mercedes coupe, even if it has four doors.

2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
3-door (Jaguar Land Rover photo)

Land Rover Range Rover Evoque: No one's really driven the latest extension (one with a mouthful of a name) of the Range Rover brand, which is fine, since a cool car doesn't have to be a good one. Land Rovers – Range Rovers in particular – were cool because they weren't poser SUVs by any means. But since big off-roaders are increasingly cumbersome on busy streets, a smaller Range Rover seemed like a logical extension in the first place. Stil, the Evoque is a genuinely good-looking car, even if it's a little over-accessorized. Bravely, Land Rover has chosen to launch the car as both a rakish three-door, as well as a practical five-door. They both look great and they're both pegged to start less than $50,000. Like the Fiat, it'll be cool until everyone has one.

2012 Audi A7 3.0TFSI Quattro
(Audi photo)
Audi A7: The A7 may be filling that minuscule niche between the midsize A6 and luxury barge A8. And it might be an Audi, meaning it now has a level of ubiquity that blunts the cool factor. But the A7 is a closeted hatchback, so well-styled that it wears its practical side well. Like the Mercedes CLS, it's basically a boring sedan in a coupe-like suit. But it's a good-looking car in its own right.

2011 Nissan Leaf (Nissan photo)
2011 Chevrolet Volt (General Motors photo)

Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt: Face it, whatever your opinion is on the range-extender and the all-electric, people will be swarming you whenever you drive either of these. And for good reason. These are spectacular technological showcases. Show your new friends the engine of the Volt or the wacky eco displays in the Leaf and they'll be throwing the questions left and right and asking for rides. Now, if you're stranded on the side of the road in your Leaf that's out of electricity, that won't be cool.

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