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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

August 07, 1998

Almost all auto reviewers for newspapers have access to the same new vehicles. But being auto enthusiasts, most also subscribe to Car and Driver, Road & Track, AutoWeek and Motor Trend magazines to see how the opposition views "our" world. Among other things, we've noticed that the magazine guys have access to lots of stuff that doesn't filter down to our level.

But we nonetheless feel that you, our loyal readers, are entitled to at least a cursory review of these machines, since these pages may be your only auto industry access. It's our duty to keep you up-to-date, so herein are the latest noteworthy vehicles we've been unable to review during the past six months:

JEEPSTER - I used to own a Willys Jeepster, a '48 model, so when I saw that Chrysler (the latest owner of the venerated Jeep nameplate) had an updated version, I was anxious to drive one. Alas, foiled again. The newest Jeepster is a "concept car" which means that it will probably be available to the public in a few years. Succinctly put, the Jeepster is a cross between a modern sports coupe on the order of the Camaro, but squared-off on the corners to give it an off-road feel.. It seats four (in a pinch), has a sliding canvas top that keeps the top rails in place (a lot like its ancient ancestor, the '49 Kaiser convertible sedan) and an all-new 4.7 liter overhead-cam V8 engine. It's all-wheel drive, of course, and its most intriguing feature is that the driver can electrically change its ground clearance by a full four inches. In keeping with the off-road Jeep mantra, the leather upholstery is made of the same material "...used in high-end hiking boots," according to the Chrysler P.R. folks. I hope they remembered to take the laces out.

TOYOTA PRIUS - Usually we have access to all the new Toyota models but the new Prius escaped us. Maybe the reason were weren't able to check it out is that it's one of the new breed of environmentally- correct "green" cars that do everything (almost) a conventional subcompact car can and do it with substantially less pollution. Dubbed a "hybrid," the Prius has a 1.5 liter gas engine to bring it up to speed, as well as providing power to charge a set of nickel-metal hydride batteries that power a big electric motor. When the brakes are applied or the car is decelerating, some sort of integrated regenerative system puts some of the stopping energy back into the batteries. It's all controlled by a half-dozen onboard computers that are coordinated to keep the Prius in the main stream of traffic. Although the automotive buff magazine press corps has been anything but kind in their ride-and-drive appraisals ("..too slow, too touchy, ugly..."), we're still envious that they had it for a while and we didn't.

PORSCHE 911/966 - The more things change at Porsche, the more they stay the same. Take the latest version of the 911, for instance. When I first drove the "new" 911 at a press showing in 1964, it had a six- cylinder, overhead cam, flat-opposed engine behind the rear wheels and went fast enough to scare even us "seasoned" racers. The newest version looks like its predecessor of 35 years ago (at least until the two of them are put side-by-side), and has a six-cylinder, flat opposed, overhead cam engine behind the rear wheels - albeit now it's liquid, instead of air-cooled. I can almost understand Porsche's reluctance at letting me have one for our usual week-long evaluation. The two-seater coupe (with room in back for a couple of height-challenged adults) costs $65,000, which makes it a rolling target in some of the areas where I drive. It produces 296 horsepower, delivers it to the rear wheels at 7300 RPM and I can only speculate on how fast it will go. Probably lots faster than I'd be willing to go.

CHRYSLER CHRONOS - "This Chronos looks just like those Chrysler show cars of the '50s." This comment was made by Bill Jones, our erstwhile Eastern correspondent, when he covered the New York Auto Show some months ago. And Bill was right: The Chrysler Chronos, a one-off four-door sedan made to be an image builder for the company, looks for all the world like the D'Elegance, a Chrysler coupe that was paraded around car shows in '53. The D'Elegance was built for the same purpose and the public response was the same back then. And the similarities are striking: Same huge egg-crate grill; same convoluted body sculpting; same big V-type engine - but in this case a 366 cubic-inch V10 rather than a 331 cubic-inch V8. Although Bill wasn't able to view it in action, we've been told that the trick hubcaps on its 20-inch wheels allow the huge Chrysler winged logo to stay in a stationary position while the tires rotate. I missed seeing the D'Elegance in '53 because I was overseas and I missed the Chronos this year because I wasn't asked.

ASTON MARTIN PROJECT VANTAGE - OK, so the Aston Martin Concept Vantage is a one-off, million dollar sportster which carries a limited production V12 engine that operates 24 expensive valves and puts out 400 horsepower. But it's still a Ford product and we're on Ford's good-guy list. I promised that I would always park it in the driveway and never leave it outside at night. But nonetheless, I haven't been able to secure the 200 MPH coupe for a seven-day test. The Concept Vantage slightly resembles the British-built Aston Martin coupes that I worked on in the '50s and '60s, but apparently it doesn't leak as much oil as those ancient versions. Its chassis is carbon-fiber (just like those bullet-proof vests policemen wear) and the body is aluminum, so that British bugaboo, rustout, shouldn't be a problem.

All of these cars are worthy of examination and I'd be very careful of them, regardless of cost. Well, maybe I'll get them when mass production brings their prices down a bit.