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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

September 04, 1998

Periodically we peruse breaking news stories, press releases and rumor mills to see what the future might have in store for auto buyers and tire kickers. The future isn't always rosy (remember the grim vehicles of the '70s?) but it's always interesting. This is the new stuff we've found over the past couple of months:

NISSAN RETURNING TO ITS ROOTS - Remember when Nissan was on the cutting edge of the sports car market in this country? It's Datsun Fairlady SPL 310 of '65 showed that the Japanese could make an acceptable sports car albeit a copy of contemporary Brits. Then came its dynamic Datsun 240/260/280Z coupes that are still prized by enthusiasts. These were followed by the 280ZX that was more ponderous but sported a turbocharger that made it a screamer. When the Nissan 300ZX arrived in turbocharged form in '84, its performance was something other makers used as a benchmark. But by '97 Nissan had lost contact with its past, dropped its 300ZX supercar and relied on "sporting" coupes to uphold its sports car image. It didn't work and the company even went so far as to collect used 240Z's to refurbish and sell through selected dealers. That didn't work either. Now Nissan Design head man Jerry Hershbert is showing his new "concept" sports car that hearkens back to the original 240Z coupe of '70. Whether Nissan comes back to the sports car market with a lightweight like the 240Z or a big boomer like the 300ZX Turbo is a question Hershbert won't answer. But by '02 or '03, look for a Nissan sports car to be back.

NEW SMALL JAGUAR - Jag fans will remember that sedans from this British company weren't always ponderous behemoths like the current crop of four-doors. Several decades ago Jaguar offered its classic 3.8 liter MK II which was small (at least smaller than its MK X monster sibling), quick and a pleasure to drive. American viewers of the British "Inspector Morse" TV mystery series take note: the Inspector's "driver" is a vintage MK II Jag. Now Jaguar is preparing a new "small" sedan, the X400, to do battle with the league-leading 3-Series BMW. It won't hit these shores until '01 and the question now is if it will be a stand-alone rear-drive hot-rod or a front-driver that will "share a platform" (the modern automotive phraseology for putting a slightly different body on a single design and calling it a separate brand) with one of the many European front-drive Fords that are in the works. For several years now Ford has been the sole owner of that prestigious name and logo. Hopefully it will won't follow the current "jelly-bean" school of design that prevails today.

NEW NEON NEXT YEAR - Well, maybe there will be a new Dodge/Plymouth Neon next year. But then again, maybe the '99 Neon will be the same car as the '98 only to be superseded by mid-year with an altogether different '00 version. The original model, now only in its third year, hasn't been the import-fighter that Chrysler planners had hoped for. The new model will be a bit shorter and considerably more streamlined with a more "forward" look up front and a high-tail rear end like its big brother, the Dodge Intrepid. An interesting facet of the Neon story is that Chrysler is looking into the prospect in entering other market segments with vehicles built on the Neon "platform" (there's that word again.) In the "what if" stage is an open two seater, a small sport/utility vehicle and even a front-drive pickup truck. This last mentioned idea isn't too far-fetched: in the '70s both Dodge and Plymouth had a front-drive pickup that were based on their Omni/Horizon sedan clones. Any resemblance between these two Mopar products and the VW Rabbit pickup of the same era was not coincidental.

SWISS SWATCH IN YOUR POCKET - At least that about how big Americans will consider the current European fad-mobile, the Smart City Coupe. The Smart is a joint venture between Swatch, the boppy Swiss watch maker, and Mercedes-Benz, the stolid German auto maker. With a wheelbase of just under six feet and an overall height of just over five, this narrow little micro-machine is going to be the beginning of a new era in personal transportation or so says Swatch. It's hard to describe the looks of the car except to liken it to a Japanese sub-compact with the nose and tail cut off. It's targeted towards upper-middle class ecology-minded city dwellers who need personal transportation but don't want to pollute the planet. It seems that everything on the Smart is recyclable - but then American wrecking yard operators have been doing that for years. Power for the Smart is supplied by a turbocharged 600-cc, three cylinder engine that has its work cut out for it in propelling this 1500-pound vehicle. This is especially true if it's carrying a driver and single passenger that are anything more than slight of build. The transmissions available are an automatic and a semi-automatic and the fuel mileage average is given at 55 MPG. The 15-inch tires are narrow and the top speed is listed at 62 MPH. European have accepted microcars in the past (remember the 300-cc BMW Isetta of the '50s?) but back then it was because fuel was not only dear but scarce as well. The Smart will come to the U.S. in a year or so (maybe!) if Swatch and M-B feel there is a market for it at $12,000..

These are the thing that are new in the auto world in recent months. Check in with us a few months from now and everything may have changed. It's that kind of business.