Thursday, December 03, 2009

4 American Vehicles Worth Owning

I've never been a fan of American cars. Since I've been following the automobile industry---in other words, since not long after I started walking---American cars have been plagued with quality, reliability, performance, value and styling inferior, on average, to their European and especially Japanese competitors. There have always been exceptions, however, and the domestics' future is looking bright, at least for GM and Ford. Chrysler's only hope is to cling to life for the two years or so it will take for the merger with Fiat to pay off. So, in order to cheer up the Big Three faithful, I present four American cars I'd consider buying, if I were in shopping in the appropriate classes.

The 'Vette has long been a standout based on the performance-per-dollar metric, and the sixth-generation C6 continues that trend. It's very primitive in some ways---the pushrod engine with 2 valves per cylinder, most obviously---but very advanced in others. Even the base 'Vette offers pavement-wrinkling torque, exceptional handling, beautiful styling, and respectable fuel economy.

I'd go with the Z06 model unless I had cash to burn, in which case the ZR1 would be the only way to go. Even Jeremy Clarkson says you should buy a ZR1 over the Audi R8 V10, because it's a worse car.

Ford Europe has long offered cars that were superior to the Fords we've gotten in the US, at least from the enthusiast's perspective. The Euro Fiesta and Euro Focus were prime examples of this pattern. The aforementioned Mr Clarkson found the UK-market Fiesta to be the perfect vehicle for...certain activities.

Ford has recently decided to bring some of these European products to this side of the Atlantic, and the 2011 Fiesta, scheduled to arrive in the summer, is the first of those. The front fascia was only slightly uglified on the trip across the pond, and the suspension, though re-tuned, is alleged not to be as noodly as previous American products from the Blue Oval. One recent review indicated that the Euro version of the Focus is a better driver's car than the class-leading and fun-to-drive Honda Fit, though not quite as clever with its use of space. Let's hope the US Fiesta live up to that comparison.

I'd choose the 5-door hatchback, of course, though I'm hoping a Focus ST with about 160 BHP is in the pipeline. Actually, this is the Fiesta I really want. Failing that, I'll take this one.

(By the way, the Fiesta shares a platform with the Mazda2, which is coming Stateside in the summer. Cross your fingers that the Mazdaspeed2 is waiting in the wings.)

The CTS is certainly the standout in Caddy's line-up. The sedan has offered luxury, performance, and space comparable to BMW's 5-series, but at 3-series prices. The high-zoot CTS-V, powered by a detuned version of the supercharged LS-series V8 in the Corvette ZR1, even set the fastest time for a production sedan around the Nurburgring. James May certainly enjoyed his time with the CTS-V , even after bemoaning how it rode like a sports sedan, rather than a "proper," floaty Cadillac.

But wait; there's more. More CTS variants, that is. Caddy just began offering a "sport wagon" version, and a coupe configuration will be on sale in a few months. There is expected to be a -V coupe before the end of the year, but I wouldn't hold out hope for a -V wagon. The coupe is gorgeous, although I suspect rearward visibility will be poor.

Sign me up for the CTS-V coupe.

I had to think for a while to come up with a Chrysler vehicle worth owning. Then I remembered the Wrangler. The original Jeep certainly doesn't make a good road vehicle, but it's ideal for four-wheelin'. In my opinon, the entire Jeep line-up should be trimmed down to the Wrangler---in regular and Unlimited (four-door) forms---and a production version of the Wrangler JT pickup concept. I might even include the Grand Cherokee, assuming it had been refocused from soft-roading to off-roading.

Since the JT isn't for sale, I'd take the base 2-door Wrangler; it has everything you need to hit the trail and nothing you don't, all for 22 grand.

Honorable Mention

This list should not be interpreted as an exhaustive listing of all the worthwhile domestic cars. For example, Chevrolet's Malibu and forthcoming Cruze are reported to be quite good vehicles, and Ford's Fusion, especially the hybrid, may be the best car in it' class. And, speaking of the Blue Oval, the F-150 SVT Raptor certainly offers a unique set of features in stock form.


  1. Corvettes still use pushrod engines?! Pushrods? Really? In lieu of a starter motor, do they have a handcrank?

    Seroiously, is there some part of the engineering trade-space accessible to pushrod engines that can't be reached by a proper overhead cam engine, or is this just some sort of ridiculous, hare-brained traditionalist atavism?

  2. I have to say that the CTS coupe doesn't really excite me. I've grown very tired of the prevailing "tall body, tiny window" design aesthetic, and I hate what it has done to visiblity. The last two times I've rented a car for a conference, they've "upgraded" me to a Dodge Avenger. (I got the impression both times that they person thought they were doing me a favor by giving me a "sporty" car.) Driving that car is like wearing a medeival greathelm: little peripheral vision and no ability at all to see up or down. One of the Fit's many advantages is that it (mostly) eschews this styling and thus has very good visibility; this is a big part of the reason we chose it over the Matrix, whose rear-corner visibility went from "poor" on the older models to "nonexistent" on the most recent.

  3. While the Jeep Wrangler may be an entirely reasonble off-road vehicle, it's monumentally pointless as a road vehicle (too-tall suspension, poor use of space, beyond-wretched fuel economy). Unfortunatley, I'd wager that a very large majority of the Wranglers ever sold were purchased by suburbanites inveigled by putative romance of the vehicle who never once drove them on a surface rougher than an ill-maintained parking lot.

  4. Nick,

    Pushrod engines typically take up less space than overhad-camshaft engines because the head can be thinner. That's one of the reasons the hood can be so low on a Corvette Z06, even with a 7-liter (!) engine. Similarly, pushrod engines, at least those with V configurations, are usually lighter than the corresponding OHC engines, since they have half as many canshafts. (The banks share the camshafts.) The V8 Corvette only has a single camshaft, while the I4 Miata has 2. Most OHC V engines are double-overhead cam; a DOHC V8 would have 4 camshafts.

    Like I said, I can only guess that visibility out of the CTS coupe, especially to the rear, will be subpar. The greathelm effect was certainly in play in the Mustang I rented in Buffalo, and it looks to be worse in the CTS coupe. Still, I think the car looks great from the outside.

    I agree that the visibility in the Fit is outstanding. How do you like the seating position? In the first-gen cars, I found the angle of my lower leg to bee to steep. In other words, my feet felt like they were under my knees, rather than out in front of them. That arrangement made it slightly unfomfortable for me to operate the pedals.

    Oh yes, the Wrangler is a poor choice for an on-road vehicle, and far too many of the ones I see on the street have never tasted dirt. Of course, the same is true for all the SUVs; they are advertised pounding through the desert or crawling up a riverbank, but they usually never go anywhere more wild than a the parking lot at a soccer field. I really "love" the ones with the brush guards on the grill and taillights. They are the same ones with the huge chrome wheels and low-profile tires, both of which are completely inappropriate for off-road driving. Hilarious.

  5. The seating position on the fit is quite comfortable for me, but given the difference in our leg lengths, I imagine that we are having different experiences with the vehicle. The seat does feel noticeably higher relative to the pedals than the seat in my '01 Civic; I consider that to be an improvement, though, to both comfort and visibility.

    I particularly enjoy the Xterras with the "snorkel" exhausts; yeah, you're really going to take your bright-yellow, spinny-rimmed baby through three feet of water. Sure.

  6. I forgot about the spinning wheels! I think I need a set of those for the track car.