March 6, 2012

Confession #40: Americans dislike some really nice cars

Jaguar XF Sportbrake (Jaguar Cars photo)
The annual Geneva Motor Show is typically a parade of new, sometimes good-looking, cars that won't be available to Americans. It's exciting and disheartening for the fanatics who long for the ability to buy a weird French car in the States, or want something exotic that doesn't cost as much as a Ferrari. But lately, it's carmakers like Jaguar and Volvo who are witholding not only engines, but full-on body styles and new models from the US.

Companies say over and over Americans don't like wagons. I'm not one of them, along with a lot of other automotive commentators – we'd gladly take one over a lumbering crossover that's no more practical and a noticeably less efficient. But people with actual checkbooks have shown exactly what they'll pay for. Volvo, the byword for wagon, doesn't sell any of its V50, V60 or V70 wagons here anymore. The XC70, its only wagon-like model, finds maybe 4,000 new homes every year, compared to around 20,000 a decade ago.

Most people probably don't remember Jaguar, a name more synonymous with luxury sedans than load-luggers, sold a wagon version of its little X-Type sedan in the US from 2005 to 2007. The X-Type itself was a low note in the British brand's history, but the wagon derivative was particularly unloved – I think I've seen three out in the wild in my life, and about as many on eBay. So I can understand the company's apprehension to bring the stunning XF Sportbrake across the Atlantic.

Too bad, since it's good to look at. I like the name too, because it effectively says, "We're going to make it practical, but it's going to be pretty too." A shooting brake is effectively a wagon that's prioritized looks over space, but in the XF that's no problem. It looks as commodious as a BMW 5-series Touring or Audi A6 Avant – neither of which we get over here. As much as I like the XC70 or Mercedes E-class wagon, I think the better-looking XF would find some homes here.

Volvo V40 (Volvo Cars photo)
I think Volvo's new hatchback, the V40, would find even more homes – even though some stereotypically say Americans avoid hatches like regular exercise. Volvo used to be a middle-class car for academic types who valued integrity over speed and good looks. Then Volvos started getting fast (850 T5) and good-looking (C70). And too expensive (all of the above). The S60, which is a gorgeous piece of Swedish machinery, starts at about $32,000. Volvo has the also-handsome C30 hatch, which kicks off at $25,000, but it's a small seller globally. Add a couple of doors and you have the V40, a car I'd gladly recommend to people who find a Volkswagen Golf too pedestrian but an Audi A3 too expensive (don't get me started on the lumpen Lexus CT and blindingly bland Acura ILX). The more I look at the V40, the more I like it. That's a good sign. And with a sprightly T5 engine and all-wheel drive, it'd be a hoot to drive and a hit in Volvo-loving Northeast. It'd also be a perfect replacement for a certain set of the public bemoaning the demise of the Saab Turbo.

I know Alfa Romeo is (supposedly) coming by 2014. Yes, we have the Fiat 500 now, but I'd gladly trade the Mini Countryman-lookalike 500L (also unveiled in Geneva) for a Sportbrake or V40. It's getting to the point now where all of the interesting, niche cars are blocked from the US. Look, Jaguar: Acura took a chance on the TSX wagon and that's selling about 10 percent of what the sedan's doing – in line with the company's projections. Volvo, your old parent Ford is selling $25,000 Focus Titanium hatchbacks (soon with manual transmissions, no less). Why not target people looking at those who want something with a badge posher than a Blue Oval. And, most importantly: What's an out-of-the-box, Camry-hating person supposed to do? Take a subway?