American Icons — the Legends Return

American Icons — the Legends Return


Exactly one year ago I wrote a column entitled "The Return of the Great American Car." In that article I discussed the second coming of the Great American Automobile. The article was inspired by the resurgence of such revered names as Corvette, Hemi and Mustang, plus promising new models like the Cadillac XLR, Chevrolet Cobalt and Ford Five Hundred.

Since that article ran, I've driven all of these models except the Cobalt. In fact, we recently tested the all-new Mustang, Corvette and Hemi-powered Magnum in the same week, giving me ample seat time in each while simultaneously providing a sort of unofficial comparison of the Big Three's latest efforts at reviving/maintaining classic nameplates.

Herewith now are my findings:

  1. 2005 Chevrolet Corvette: Of these three cars, the Corvette was easily the best vehicle before its 2005 redesign. Chevy's sports car has repeatedly won our Editors' Most Wanted category for Coupe Under $45,000, and the 2005 version continues this tradition. It remains a truly remarkable performance bargain and a car that can compete with full-blown exotics costing four times as much. Does this make it an unqualified winner in today's market? Well…no. As capable as the 2005 model remains in terms of all-out performance, the updates from the C5 version were merely evolutionary. Some would argue that these minor updates are OK because the Corvette was already so good. That's true in terms of performance and handling, but not in terms of interior design, where the C5 model was widely criticized. The C6 interior is better, but getting better from "bad" doesn't necessarily equate to "good." In the case of the Corvette, it's simply "not as bad," but there are still issues. Our test car had a kick panel that creaked every time my foot merely brushed it, which happened quite often because it was next to the dead pedal. The wires for the power seat were in plain view whenever the passenger seat was moved toward the back of its travel, and the quality (and consistency) of much of the interior plastic was subpar. Forty-five grand for a capable sports car is a great price…but it's still $45,000. If Audi can create the TT interior for $35,000, Chevrolet should be able to produce a comparable interior for another $10,000. Beyond its interior quality, what troubled me most was the new car's unnecessarily heavy steering. I've seen GM do this before. When criticized for flaccid, numb steering feel the company simply dials back the power assist. Note to GM: heavier steering does not equate to better steering. Proof of this statement can be found in many modern cars, including the new Mustang.
  2. 2005 Ford Mustang: Let me get this out of the way first: I love this new Mustang. As a former Mustang owner (2001 Bullitt), it's entirely possible that I'm biased. In fact, I didn't attend the press introduction for this model specifically because I wanted to get another editor's take on it. Instead, our own John DiPietro attended, and then proceeded to write his own glowing review of the car. I finally drove one a few weeks ago and was thoroughly impressed, even after reading John's story and having relatively high expectations. Whether you want to talk about styling, chassis dynamics or engine performance, the new Mustang simply excels, and that's before you figure in the $25,000 price tag ($20,000 for V6 models, which are still plenty fast). This Mustang effectively recaptures the original 1965's magic, and not just through the use of retro styling. When first introduced the Mustang offered real value for the money. Buyers discovered that they could afford a new car with equal parts fun and functionality for a relatively low price. The new model continues this tradition. Driving it back-to-back with the new Corvette left me a bit confused. Did I really enjoy driving the Mustang more? Ah, it was probably just my own bias, though I mentioned my feelings to John. A day later, another editor on staff drove the car, got out and told John (without ever hearing my comment to him a day earlier), "I'd rather drive this than the Corvette." Yes, these models don't compete with each other, so the point may be moot for most shoppers. But in terms of steering feel and feedback (a key element in my driving enjoyment), the Mustang has the Corvette beat. And if the soon-to-be introduced SVT model sports big horsepower and even sharper handling, all for less than the Corvette's $45,000 starting price…
  3. 2005 Dodge Magnum: Magnum isn't a classic American nameplate (sure, Dodge previously made a Magnum model, but let's not go there…), yet the car represents classic Americana on several levels. First, it's a station wagon — how much more "bygone era" can you get? Second, it has an optional Hemi engine, and while no current Chrysler nameplate offers the lineage of Mustang or Corvette (Charger is coming for 2006), the term Hemi is equally important in the history of American automobiles. These two elements, Hemi engine and station wagon body style, go in a direction that many us thought we'd never see again — particularly in the same vehicle. Ironically, of the three models I've discussed this one is actually the least American once you scratch beneath the surface. The plain truth is that Dodge's Magnum (and Chrysler's 300) uses a healthy dose of Mercedes-engineered components. This fact will probably seem like heresy to patriotic types — until they drive a Magnum. The combination of Hemi engine power and Mercedes chassis design brings a whole new dimension to the term "hybrid." Everything from low-speed acceleration to high-speed stability to interior material quality is enough to make the $30,000 price tag (less for non-Hemi models) seem too good to be true. My favorite Magnum trait? If you turn off the stability control and punch the throttle, a plume of smoke will rise from the spinning rear tires (not that you should ever do this, of course). I'm happy to report that we'll have a Magnum in our long-term fleet for the next year, but after just a few weeks behind the wheel, I can say this with confidence: Chrysler has another winner on its hands. We've already named the 300 the Most Significant Vehicle of the Year for 2005. Those seeking more utility than the sedan can offer should visit their local Dodge dealer post haste. The SUV has officially become passé.

Bottom line: In the case of the Corvette, Mustang and Magnum (particularly with Hemi power), it would seem America has successfully revived the Great American Car. Plenty of other new American vehicles are in the offing for 2005, but in my opinion these were the most important cars for each company to get "right." I mean, if Chevrolet can't make a compelling Corvette, Ford can't muster a meaningful Mustang and Chrysler can't cook up a Hemi with real hustle, why should we bother with their more mundane models? Thankfully they can, meaning we probably should.

And in case you didn't notice, there's one common thread among these three vehicles: value. Which is arguably the most overdue American revival of them all.

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