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by Bob Hagin

March 05, 1999

Not being members of the automotive journalistic Literati, there are many vehicles that we don't get invited to evaluate. But in our desire to keep our readers abreast of what's new and interesting in the niche-markets of the auto world, we semi-annually review some of those vehicles, even though we can't do "formal" road tests on them. This is the list of those we've come across in the past six months:

PANOZ ROADSTER AIV - Two-seater sports cars are "in" (Honda, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, etc. are all in the game) as are nostalgic "retro-rods." The Plymouth Prowler is a prime example, along with the recent plethora of Concept Cars so a combination of these attributes is a natural. Enter the Panoz Roadster AIV, a hand-built, super-quick street rod from the shops of Panoz Auto Development Company in Georgia. If you're a racing fan, you'll recognize the Panoz family name as one that's attached to race tracks and fancy resorts as well as other Panoz cars that are world-class GT2 endurance racers. But the Roadster AIV (for Aluminum Intensive Vehicle) is built for the street. Its motorcycle-type fenders up front expose some very fancy suspension pieces and the rear looks vaguely like the original Cobra. Its twin-cam, 305-horse Ford V8 engine backs up to a 5-speed gearbox and only has to pull 3600 pounds of mostly aluminum to go 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds - and still get 25 MPG if driven sedately. Don't expect much weather protection if it rains - it's a true roadster and a very nice $63,000 weekend toy.

ZIMMER GOLDEN SPIRIT - A couple of years ago, I talked to Art Zimmer, president and CEO of the Zimmer Neo-Classic Car Company about his operation. "I was driving around in New York one day and saw a car that had my name on it," he said. The car he saw was, indeed, a Zimmer, a huge coupe that was built around a General Motors coupe body but with sweeping clamshell fenders, two side-mount spares, exposed headlights, a vertical grille and a detachable steamer trunk on the back. It was very "Great Gatsby-ish" and had been built by a Florida mobile home manufacturer who made 1400 of them and then went broke in '88. Art Zimmer was intrigued with the idea of becoming an auto manufacturer and set about to built new/old Zimmers. Last month, I received a press kit stating that his dream has come true. The Golden Spirit still rides on contemporary suspension pieces and is again powered by an American engine and running gear. A coupe is currently available at $79,900, to be followed late this year by a convertible and then a four-door sedan. The Zimmer brochure states "If you are a little tired of paying $60,000 to $90,000 for a car you can't find in a parking lot full of Fords and Chevys, then a Zimmer Golden Spirit is for you!" That's an understatement.

LAMBORGHINI DIABLO - Over the years, we described many Lamborghinis that we haven't been able to test drive and to tell the truth, I don't remember ever even seeing more than one or two in my life. But it's back in the form of a new Diablo model, which is to say that it's the old version but with a smaller ash tray, a different placement of the speedometer and tachometer, and without the pop-up headlights that were always requiring repair. As always, the Diablo is powered by a complex V12 engine mounted behind the driver and passenger. It utilizes twin overhead cams and has been upgraded to 520 horsepower which can propel the car from 0 to 100 KPH (62 MPH) in 3.9 seconds in the all-wheel drive VT configuration. The Diablo fulfills the American OBD II (second generation On-Board Diagnostics system) requirements and is now clean enough to meet California's strict 1999 emissions standards. Its strong points for the well-heeled enthusiasts who can afford the $274,440 price tag (and the company expects to find 250 of them worldwide in '99) are that it's hard to drive, almost impossible to park and leaves a buzzing sound in the ears of the driver if it's driven very far or very fast. What more could you ask for in a superexotic car?

CHRYSLER PT CRUISER - Maybe some day we'll get a Chrysler PT Cruiser to road test, but somehow I don't think it will be in the near future. It's a strange little machine that for whatever reason reminds me of a cross between the chopped-and-channeled '37 Ford sedans that plied the streets of Oakland in the late '40s and a contemporary London taxi. It has the four-door body of a minivan with discernible, but nondetachable fenders front and rear, a full-sized vertical hatchback and a huge plastic bumper protecting a wide egg-crate grille. The PT Cruiser was derived from a "retro" (meaning a throwback to California custom cars of 40 years ago) Concept Car that Chrysler showed last year and it received such a warm reception that the corporation had decided to make them in one of its plant in Mexico. It's based on the Plymouth/Dodge Neon front-drive platform but powered by a 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine. Buyers in other countries can order it with a smaller gas engine or even a diesel.

We still get 105 cars a year to road test, (a tough job but it has to be done) but once in a while it would be fun to show up in the old neighborhood with a car like the Zimmer Golden Spirit. We'd be the topic of gossip for weeks.