Hot Wheels Nostalgia-drunk, luxury-drenched models stole the show in Detroit, proving that, once again, the love affair with the automobile is in full swing. Herewith, the top ten vehicles for the new millennium.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Close your eyes and picture yards of buttery pastel leather, yawning chrome grilles, ferocious V-8s, rare-wood exterior panels. Mmmmm. Now imagine vehicles with names like Thunderbird, Charger, Impala, S-Type. Although it all sounds like an early 1960s flashback, these were highlights of January's 1999 Detroit auto show.
In millennial time, this year is the equivalent of New Year's Eve--and car designers are playing to the fact that as car buyers, we've got lampshades on our heads, champagne on our lips, love on our minds, and money in our pockets. We want to be wowed by the latest technology, but we want it packaged with a familiarity that makes us smile. Who wants to look into the abyss of the Y2K
future when we're feeling sentimental? Maybe last year's introduction of the VW Beetle put us in the mood. But more likely, with supercheap gas prices, the stock market's seven-year run, and consolidation in the automotive industry forcing prices down and quality up, we're in the mood to go for a little extra luxury. It's clear, in fact, that we're in nothing less than another golden era for cars--from technology and materials to value and choice.
Carmakers, those barometers of cultural moods, have got our number, judging from the nostalgia-drunk, luxury-drenched new cars lined up for 2000 and beyond. (I'll get to the list of the top ten shortly.) "It's about heritage and a design that really communicates a level of optimism and self-confidence in life," says Ford CEO Jacques Nasser about the relaunched Thunderbird, although he might as well have been speaking about the Detroit auto show in general.
Nearly every non-European manufacturer discussed offering sporty performance and a more "European" feel. Every European manufacturer discussed strategic pricing. Several manufacturers--Lexus, Audi, Jaguar, Honda, and Lincoln, to name a few--referred to their new offerings as "BMW fighters."
A few designers quietly hinted that at the heart of the retro boom is a darker truth: As cars are forced to become more efficient in emissions and aerodynamics there will be less room to play sculpturally. They fear that it's now or never or, worse, that all the good ideas have been used up. And so they looked over their shoulder. Nissan gave us a peek at a new Z car based on the legendary old 240Z. Only Steve McQueen was missing from Dodge's unveiling of a reborn 325-horsepower natural-gas-powered Charger. Jaguar hyped its S-Type, a throwback to the wonderfully bubble-shaped old '60s sedan, which promises thrilling performance. Honda showed off its S2000, a rear-wheel-drive two-seater (yes!) that commemorates the company's first production vehicle 50 years ago.
In addition to reviving the best of the past, manufacturers were attempting to create new market niches. DaimlerChrysler revealed the Chrysler PT Cruiser, a car-based category defier with the flexibility of a minivan but the profile of a hot-rodded London taxicab. BMW introduced the X5, a "sport activity vehicle" that promises the slick driving personality of a BMW along with an SUV's four-wheel drive and higher ride height. Lincoln's truck-based Blackwood is a hulking beast with the front half of a Navigator luxury sport-ute grafted onto a well-dressed pickup bed.
Clever designs alone don't propel interesting vehicles into production, however. Signs of the effects of consolidation in the automotive industry--increased competition on quality and price--were everywhere. For example, DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser will go on sale next year for under $20,000. The new Mercedes S500 sedan, with its sexy body and a price tag that's $10,000 under its predecessor's, aims to compete more directly with the BMW 7-Series. Ford's Focus, the Escort replacement, may just put entry-level American cars back on the map; it is a triumph of good design and sophisticated suspension and handling.
For all the cost cutting, however, the Detroit show was a showcase for fin de millenaire excess that went well beyond the show cars. Ford is said to have spent over $30 million (although it won't confirm the amount) on its 94,600-square-foot, two-story display stand, with a dramatic wood and steel staircase, restaurant, and amphitheater--an auto show first. BMW hired buff Lycra-clad dancers and Rollerbladers to put on an hourly extravaganza worthy of Broadway. And Subaru imported an entire living forest--trees, rocks, running water--to remind us where its vehicles can transport us. (The only thing missing was a swarm of mosquitoes.)
Beyond the hype, there were some groundbreaking vehicles--ten of them, to be precise. Four of them are from Ford. It's a record, and a strong sign of how hard the No. 2 automaker is pushing to attain brand recognition and sales.
In tenth place is the Lexus IS, an entry-level sports sedan. With a tight little body and edgy racer touches like chronograph-inspired gauges and drilled aluminum pedals, the IS might just give the BMW 3-Series some competition--but it lands at No. 10 because the otherwise difficult-to-criticize Japanese company should have come up with a vehicle in this category a long time ago.
No. 9: the Lincoln Blackwood. Ford introduced three production versions of the SUV-pickup hybrid (including the Explorer Sport Trac and the F150 CrewCab), but the Blackwood, with more than 20 square feet of African Wenge wood panels on the back end, has the most flair. Instead of a standard pickup bed, the Navigator-derived behemoth has a rear cargo area with a cover that opens like a trunk, along with center-split tailgate doors that swing open to reveal a stainless-steel-lined interior with yachty cleats to secure gear and morgue-ish fluorescent lighting around the edges (which, sadly, will probably never see production). It's the perfect vehicle for a '90s remake of Harold and Maude. Very cool.
Honda's S2000 landed in eighth place, both for its sleek and uncomplicated design (no overuse of retro gizmos here, just a simple shape that recalls the company's early chain-driven S500 and S600 sports cars) and its 240-horsepower four-cylinder engine. It's the first front-engine, rear-wheel-drive Honda to be produced since the '60s. Take that, Porsche Boxster, and thank God a Japanese company will once again build a serious performance vehicle at an affordable ($30,000 range) price.
Audi's backward-glancing TT sports car achieved seventh place. Although I disagree with the company's decision to release the front-wheel-drive version in the U.S. first (the real McCoy, an all-wheel-drive Quattro edition, will be available here later), the astonishing attention to design detail coupled with the TT's Teutonic solidity and road-holding capabilities edged it above the Honda. Make a point to check out this car's interior. Trust me, you've never seen anything contemporary that boasts more thoughtful flourishes yet still manages to feel clean-lined. Brushed-aluminum and stainless-steel accents cause the cockpit to fairly glow, and its Beetle-made-sexy hemispherical shape is unique.
I don't often admire compacts, but the new Ford Focus throws away all the junk-box design references and fools your eye into thinking something far more expensive is coming down the road. Plus, Ford figured out how to upgrade things like the suspension, making it a decent driving machine too, according to early reports (I haven't had the pleasure yet). This could revolutionize the rental-car market; imagine actually requesting a compact.
The Focus' well-dressed cousin, the Jaguar S-Type, landed in fifth position, thanks to the car's wide-mouthed grille, sensuously carved hood, rounded roofline, and promise of sporty performance. Harking back to something Jag hasn't had since the '60s--a mid-range sports luxury sedan (yet another BMW fighter)--the S-Type is unlike anything else on the road. Its posh nose and bug-eyed stare reminds me of the Bugatti EB118 concept car also shown at Detroit. "The idea is to make sure that 'suppleness' describes the car's ride," says Mike Dale, president of Jaguar North America.
For all its admirers, BMW wasn't above a bit of mimicry itself. At No. 4, the X5 is a car-SUV hybrid that leans heavily to the auto side. "People are tired of big, trucklike products," says design director Chris Bangle. "But they still want to sit up high, have more room, have no road be a problem--and have the driving passion of a BMW." What that means is that the X5 is designed for on-road use, from asphalt to dirt, but not for heavy-duty off-road trekking. And although the company is a couple of years behind the competition in terms of introducing a luxury-compact hybrid, it managed to build a vehicle that lacks the heft of the Mercedes M-Class or the cartoonish details of the Lexus RX300.
The Mercedes S-Class is No. 3. The company deserves a lot of credit for the leap it made from the last-generation S-Class sedan to this year's, and the car's success is twofold. Mercedes managed to remake a heavy, stodgy luxury lump into a svelte, covetable flagship--and load it with perhaps the most impressive technology of any car shown at Detroit. Here's a small sampling of its virtues: smart airbags deploy with partial oomph in a low-speed accident and full force at higher speeds. The navigation system can be directed by voice commands, controls on the steering wheel, or buttons around the display screen. The S-Class has the world's first smart cruise-control system, which uses a radar sensor to automatically maintain a preset distance behind the car ahead. The climate controls are smart too, and can adjust temperature and air flow in response not only to where sunlight hits the interior, but also to where each passenger is sitting. An SOS button on the rear-view mirror immediately establishes voice contact with emergency services. I could go on, but you get the idea. All this is packaged in perhaps the most lithe, powerful Mercedes I've ever encountered. (I drove it recently in Germany.)
In second place is the Ford Thunderbird. "You don't redesign something like the T-bird," says design director J Mays. "You curate its heritage." It may be more accurate to see Mays as a bartender who has concocted a truly tasty cocktail--two parts '50s Bird to one part '60s Bird, poured over state-of-the-art materials. When was the last time the Ford marque produced a car with charm and the good ole American love of the open road in mind? Ford will drop a Jaguar-based V-8 into the two-seater, which will deliver the kind of power a car like this deserves. The elegant back-to-basics interior is devoid of doodads--just turquoise-colored T-bird insignias, matching turquoise hands on the jewelry-like gauges, and lots of leather and chrome.
And now--drum roll, please--the No. 1 car from Detroit: the crouching, pointy-nosed Chrysler PT Cruiser. Not only is the hot-rod design scheme eye-grabbing, fresh, and very ZZ Top, but its unique shape (car on the outside, minivan on the inside) will undoubtedly cause the competition to scramble for their own versions. Says passenger-car general manager Tom Gale: "The exterior is the bait, but the interior's the hook. It's nearly six inches shorter than a Neon yet has the interior volume of a full-size sedan."
In fact, Detroit's former No. 3 deserves credit for consistently breaking ground over the years. On the vehicle-segment front, Chrysler invented the minivan in the early '80s. In terms of memory-jogging design, Chrysler began introducing the nostalgia theme as far back as the early '90s with the Dodge Viper sports car. Its swoopy lines and rough, well-muscled engine reminded testosterone-charged types that America could produce more than one car (the Corvette) with raw horsepower and sexy lines. Soon after, the limited-production Prowler foreshadowed hot-rod styling. Recently the more mainstream Chrysler 300M--another vehicle that marries historical design cues with modern-day technology--recalled Chrysler's famed Letter Series cars from the '50s and '60s. None of these models have been tremendous sellers, but they have helped train buyers' eyes toward nostalgia. Let's hope the Germans keep encouraging the creative minds in their Detroit office.
Not every carmaker was in top form at the Detroit show. Nissan, a company already in search of an identity (and perhaps a new owner), produced a compact SUV with, of all things, a backpack built into its rear door (in case the urge to hike suddenly strikes on I-95?). Nissan also showed a concept SUT (a sport-utility truck)--a good idea, as Ford made clear by announcing production on three such vehicles. General Motors had a particularly dismal showing; the new Buick LeSabre was bland and the revived Chevy Impala disappointing. In fact, no GM product made FORTUNE's top ten list.
The only machine of note from GM's stable was a heavy-metal Cadillac concept vehicle called the Evoq. At the unveiling of the 405-horsepower sports car, Cadillac general manager John Smith actually said, "Make no mistake, it is crucial for Cadillac to succeed. This brand represents the best GM can be--the tip of the corporate spear, if you will. As such, it must also become, again, the best a customer can get." What a desperate-sounding admission. And although there was a fair amount of excitement over the vehicle, the Evoq was nonetheless upstaged by two vintage Cadillac concept cars from the '50s and '60s flanking it.
If GM is pinning its hopes on a souped-up luxury two-seater, that tells you quite a bit about where the industry sees the upper end of the car market heading. Whether or not the Dow stays buoyant, the manufacturers have caught the glint of passion in buyers' eyes. They know we're bored with practical econoboxes, and they understand that, for now at least, we're willing to spend on luxury details--extra leather, navigation systems, clean-running higher-horsepower engines. Consolidation will put pressure on prices (see First) that will make all these quixotic forms of transportation available to a larger audience.
No one is sure what the new millennium will bring, but whatever it is, we can count on one thing: being able to jump in our vehicles, hit the open road, and, like good Americans, get away from it all.
REPORTER ASSOCIATE Eileen P. Gunn