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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

May 29, 1998

Newness is what the auto industry is all about but there's so much of it, it's hard to digest it all in its fullness. These are the latest new items that have come to our attention and we're passing them on for your automotive education:

AUDI BUILDS A SPORTSTER - Once considered a dying breed in the auto market place, genuine sports cars seem to be making a comeback. The Audi TT Coupe now joins the Mercedes-Benz SLK, the Porsche Boxster, the Mazda Miata and to a lesser degree, the upcoming Mercury Cougar in the fun-to-drive, but somewhat impractical modern sports car genre. The newest Audi won't debut here for a while but when it shows up, it will be spectacular, to say the least. Its twin-turboed, 20-valve, 1.8 liter four cylinder engine puts out 225 horses, delivers power to the ground though a six-speed manual transmission via all four wheels and will get to 60 MPH from a dead stop in 6.4 seconds. If you like the wind in your hair, an open-air version will follow the TT Coupe half a year later.

FIRST SHELBY ONE FINALLY NEARS COMPLETION - Carroll Shelby first appeared in the mainstream of American automotive consciousness in '62 when Ford dealers began selling his British/American hybrid Cobra roadster. With a 260 CID Ford V8 propelling a 2100-pound AC roadster, it was a car that made Corvette owners look the other way at stop lights. That car and Shelby's ensuing racing exploits have made him a genuine American icon for more than three decades. A few years ago, ol' Shel ballyhooed his next generation roadster, the Shelby I, an all aluminum two-seater that would be Oldsmobile-powered (Shelby's Ford connections died out over the years) and a nostalgic, but updated successor to the original Cobra. The first production Shelby I was shown to the press recently and Shelby America has already taken 125 pre-production orders at $100,000 each.

FOUR DOOR PICKUPS CHALLENGE SEDANS - Several years ago, huge one-ton four-door pickups were sold by many manufacturers as work horses. They could take a crew of up to six workers to a site with all their tools and equipment in the conventional-sized long bed behind them. Now that pickups have entered the "personal" transportation segment of the market, it was only a matter of time before these popular haulers became even more sedan-like with additional doors to ease entry into the crowded, but convenient back seat. The compact pickup is next as Nissan showed a four-door Frontier at the recent Chicago Auto Show and a Ford Ranger was recently spotted with a similar set of back doors. The Ranger and the Mazda B-Series are clones, so we may be witnessing the birth of a new vehicular genre. Since pickups already outsell passenger cars in this country, it's possible that they may now shove sedans further into the background.

SATURN GOES MID-SIZED - Saturn has made its good name over the years by selling small sedans and station wagons in a low pressure, no- nonsense, business-like manner. It has also ingratiated itself to its buyers by offering good after-sale service. But time and the expanding economy has been catching up with this GM "flower child" and as Saturn entry-level owners progress up the economic ladder, they must look to other makers for larger, more prestigious replacements. Now Saturn has followed the lead of its Cadillac corporate family sibling and has looked to General Motors of Europe for a larger, fancier sedan and station wagon to satisfy its loyal following. Just as Cadillac Americanized the Opel Omega into its V6-powered Catera ("The Caddy that Zigs" according to its recent advertising campaign) mid-sized sports sedan, Saturn has also looked to Opel for an Americanization of its Vectra for an upsized (compared to present Saturns) sedan to put into its own showrooms. It will be of the same general dimensions as the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry and powered by a new generation of high-tech four cylinder engines that GM still has under wraps. No name has yet been chosen for the car but it's hoped that it will bolster Saturn's sagging sales next year.

NEW MINI FINALLY MAKES IT - But it's bad news for British auto fans in general and Austin/Morris "Mini" fans in particular. BMW has been buying up British makes as fast as it can get government (if not public) approval and besides Land Rover and now Rolls-Royce, the German company owns rights to the fabled and almost mystical Mini. Developed as truly basic transportation in 1959, the box-with-a-wheel-at-each-corner foretold the development of the transverse engined, front-drive sedan movement that has taken over the automotive world. I was amazed to see '97 Minis on the streets of London when I was there last year and they were near-clones of the '59 Mini Cooper that reposes in my back yard. But after nearly 40 years of ongoing production, the original goes into history to be replaced by a modernized BMW version that will go on sale in 2000. The bad news is that although European Mini enthusiasts are already laying down deposits, there are no plans to bring the new Mini here.

PHILATELIC MUSTANG - Another Ford product is being considered for immortalization on a U.S postage stamp. Last year we commented on the fact that Ford's Model T (1908 to 1927) graces the face of 32-cent stamp and now it's possible that the original Mustang will follow its illustrious ancestor into stamp collecting history. If elected by the public (and the balloting is already over), the Mustang will be used to typify the mood and spirit of the '60s. Other nominees were "Everybody Twist," "The Peace Symbol," "Barbie Doll Steps out," "Shopping Malls," and "The Mod Look." The others I can almost understand, but is Barbie the best we can do to exemplify the '60s?

New car stuff continually comes up. Check in with us again a couple of months hence and we'll give you the lowdown as we see it.