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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 18, 1997

When we road test new cars, we usually get the more conventional vehicles - the big sellers seen on the road in large numbers. As a consequence, we don't get much exposure to the rare, unusual, or "funky" machines that are out there.

With this in mind, we periodically bring new or unusual vehicles that are on the market to our readers in the form of small tidbits. These are the unusual cars that have recently come to our attention but as of yet, not introduced into our test program:

DODGE VIPER - These cars has been out so long now that they're beginning to appear on the used car market. Its Viper name is an obvious knock-off of the Shelby Cobra of the early '60s and well it should be: The rumor is that Shelby and Chrysler executives penned the original Viper concept on a napkin over a business lunch. The roadster is definitely the spartan sports car, with side curtains, minimal creature comforts, and quite a reputation. The new GTS coupe, on the other hand, comes with roll-up windows, air conditioning, leather upholstery and all the goodies. They both seats two in a somewhat crowded cockpit, but both have lots of power (from 415 to 450, depending on the year) coming from a monstrous 8.0 liter V10 engine. It uses old technology, with its pushrods and 2 valves per cylinder, but produces a stump-pulling 490 pound-feet of torque. That ought to spin the tires at 100 mph.

FORD KA - Henry Ford II is reported to have said "Small cars - small profits - we're not interested." But Ford has been in the small car business for a long time - albeit in other countries. Its Ka (I wish it had at least one more letter in its name) is dubbed a "world car," which means it will sell in not only European markets where size and economy are important, but countries like India and China, which are just now getting into the consumer end of the business. The Ka is British-built and has 60 horses from three cylinders, which is enough to power an air conditioner and other niceties. The car looks like something out of a "Wallace & Gromit" cartoon movie and could be a hit here, especially among urban Generation X'ers.

LOTUS ESPRIT V8 - Colin Chapman got his start in '47 as the builder of British sports car kits that were simple, cheap, easy to build and fun to race. It became Lotus by '51, but quickly grew out of its plebeian mud and now builds exotic supercars on a par with Ferrari, Lamborghini and the rest. The company has had some ups and downs since its early days and is now owned by Malaysian Big Money. The Esprit is the only Lotus product sold here and with a new 3.5 liter twin-turboed V8 engine, plus a complete quality turn-around at the factory, Lotus Cars USA is selling all it can get. Future plans are to sell a couple of hundred Esprit V8s annually in a few years. That's not many compared to the Ford Taurus, but at $80,000, how many will the market support?

SHELBY SERIES I - I guess we can't call the new Shelby roadster a Cobra, since Ford owns the name and puts it on one of its hot-rod Mustangs. The Shelby Series I has been an ongoing program for three years and one has finally rolled from Shelby's Las Vegas plant. The car bears an uncanny resemblance to the Viper, genetics being a strong force in the auto world, but smaller at 2400 pounds and less powerful. It uses the high-tech Olds Aurora V8 pumped up with enough power to stay with the other exotics. It was rumored a candidate for pace car at the '97 Indy 500, (most of the racers there will be Olds Aurora-powered too) but now Shelby says that it will just be there to run some laps and show its stuff.

MERCEDES-BENZ CLK-GTR - Hey, what's that car doing in this list? As you M-B fans know, the new CLK coupe "inspired" the company's out-and-out racing sports car, the CLK-GTR endurance racer. The GTR uses a much-modified version of the V12 engine that powers the big S600 sedan but mounted behind the driver. In order to be classified as a GTR car, a maker has to produce a certain number of legally streetable models to adhere to the international formula. Porsche, McLaren and the rest do it, and now Mercedes has followed. I couldn't find the CLK-GTR street machine in the Mercedes catalog, but I'm sure it's in the German version. The press release I got says the car will carry a couple of airbags, but didn't say anything about where to put a baby seat.

DATSUN 240Z - Datsun doesn't make a sports car anymore - in fact the company isn't even called Datsun. It's been Nissan since '82 and with the demise of the 300ZX last year, the company has been without a sports car to call its own. Not wanting to be left out, Nissan has rounded up a bunch of 25 year-old 240Z coupes and has commissioned a Los Angeles specialist to do ground-up restorations on them. I worked as a mechanic for a Datsun dealer in '71 and I look forward to having Nissan put them into its press fleet. I just wonder if I'll find them as much fun and as exciting as I did a quarter of a century ago.

There's a few more odd-balls out there but they'll have to wait until next time. Meantime, maybe one of the aforementioned cars will show up at our office - but I won't bet on it.