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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

July 17, 1998

Road test of new cars usually appear on these pages months after they've been produced and funneled into dealer's showrooms. The tests are accurate and comprehensive but at times, a bit dry. We must admit it's sometimes hard to get excited over milquetoast sedans.

Now concept cars, the sleek, futuristic vehicles that dazzle spectators at international auto shows, are a different story. Many makers of these vehicles have no plans for producing them; they're just at the shows to draw attention to their more plebeian lineup. The new VW Beetle was one of those, but the response was so overwhelming, VW decided to begin building them en masse. But it sometimes takes years before the concept cars that appear at auto shows around the world begin to roll off assembly lines and into automotive mainstream America. Herein are several of these newcomers that have passed the test of corporate scrutiny and are either currently available to the buying public or soon will be:

CADILLAC ROADSTER - Cadillac is definitely on line to shake off its image as strictly a builder of boulevard cruisers for the white-haired geriatric set. Its current Seville STS is rocket-fast and its Catera V6 is billed as "..the Cadillac that zigs.." referring to its nimble handling and svelte design. Now the company is readying a no-kidding two-seater to do image battle with the high-profile Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW sports cars. This Caddy sportster will pack a V8 Northstar engine in front and put its considerable power to the rear wheels, but its basis will be all-new and not a rehash of the German Opel-based Catera sedan. The new car is really more on the order of its plebeian Chevrolet counterpart, the Corvette, and while it will be a bit shorter, it will also be heavier. The last Cadillac two-seater was the ill-fated front- drive Allante, which was produced in very low numbers from 1987 to 1993.

FERRARI FOR THE STREET - Just when you were thinking Ferrari North America Inc. would never get around to importing that streetable passenger car your family needs for shopping trips and commuting to work, that august Italian company comes up with its revitalized 456M (for Modified) four-seater. Almost half of the "modified" car is new stuff (styling, gearbox, suspension, etc.) and best of all, it has more room in the back seat for the kids. Its V12 engine is pretty much the same as last year's version and for only $5000 more than the $224,000 base sticker price, you can get it with an automatic transmission. This includes the $7200 delivery costs and the $5400 gas-guzzler tax that Uncle Sam tacks on. But you'd better hustle down to your neighborhood Ferrari dealer and sign up quick. Ferrari expects to only import about 100 of them in the next 12 months.

CHEVROLET IMPALA RETURNS - So you yearn for the halcyon days of that legendary icon of the '60s, the Chevrolet Impala. And you couldn't come up with the down payment for one of those fast all-black V8 Impala sedans of a few years back which were, in reality, cop-cruisers in disguise. Well, you'll have another chance at an Impala next year when Chevrolet brushes off the name and puts that antelope-family logo on the hood of a replacement for its aging Lumina. But alas, the replacement will feature a V6 engine up front that drives through the front wheels. The coupe version will be the Monte Carlo and the only things that these cars will share with their illustrious ancestors will be the nameplates.

BENTLEYS FOR THE MASSES - AND MAYBE HORCHES, TOO - By now you've no doubt heard the unthinkable rumors and they're true. Volkswagen, the cash-happy German company that had its post-war beginnings in building basic transportation for the masses, out-bid rival BMW and bought Rolls-Royce. Following a plan that includes offering true luxury cars to fit deep pockets on every level, VW has revealed that the new-generation Bentley ("... the car built for people who are diffident about driving a Rolls" to quote a Rolls-Bentley ad of 40 years ago) will be based on its big Audi V8 and cost around $100,000. Not willing to stop there, VW is planning to reintroduce the pre-World War II Horch name on a car that is designed to compete with the proposed Mercedes/Maybach superluxury sedan. A dentist friend of mine had a pre-war Horch and it was so sluggish that most of us thought "Doc" Wilson was driving with the hand brake on. Presumably the new version will be quicker.

TOYOTA FUNSTER - Having done an extensive tour of our Southeast states some years ago behind the wheel of a supercharged Toyota MR-2, I can verify the fact that the car was great fun to drive albeit a bit crowded when luggage was added to the mix. Toyota stopped importing this tiny mid-engined sports car in '95 when the market for "impractical" cars began to taper off. Now it appears that there's been a resurgence in the fun-car market segment and Toyota plans to reinstate the minuscule streaker as the MR-S roadster next year. It will use the same variable-valve- timing 1.8 liter, 197 horse four cylinder engine that will be used in the next-generation Celica. That engine stuffed behind the driver and passenger should redefine the term "pocket rocket" and any resemblance between the design, lines and execution of this new Toyota and the Porsche Boxster may be more than a bit of a coincidence.

Things change constantly in the new car world and we'll be back in a few months with another look at what's on tap for the near future.