In a world where everything is done according to conventional wisdom, every car would be a Toyota Camry. They'd all be the same — front engine, front drive, MacPherson strut front suspension — and they'd all look pretty much the same.
Thankfully, not every vehicle on the road is built with conventional wisdom in mind. In fact, certain cars and trucks are successful because they throw conventional wisdom out the window and do things however they see fit. Here we celebrate the unique cars and trucks out there that keep us from going over the cliff into a world of the permanent Camry.
Every sane engineer knows there's no good reason for the 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera to carry its engine in the rear. Except of course that Porsche has been building rear-engine sports cars for 65 years and Porsche's buyers like them that way. And in overcoming the disadvantages and exploiting the advantages of the rear-engine layout, Porsche has consistently produced one of the best sports cars on the road.
In addition to its odd placement, the Porsche 911 also uses a flat-6 engine, another unique trait. Subaru and Scion are the only other companies selling cars with horizontally opposed engines in the United States. The rear-drive BRZ sports car and its twin (built by Subaru) the 2013 Scion FR-S, use the low center of gravity and compact size of the latest 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter Subaru flat-4 to produce an amazingly well-balanced and fun car.
Some traditions are worth holding onto.
Arrive at an event in a conventional car and no one is likely to notice you get out unless you're wearing a pastel leisure suit. So for those with more conventional sartorial tastes who still want to get attention, there are unconventional doors.
Dramatic doors have become almost required in the world of exotics. Lamborghini's current scissor hinges have become almost as much a part of the builder's legend as the Countach and Miura. Who'd buy an 2012 Lamborghini Aventador without them?
Then there's the Koenigsegg Agera R's doors that pivot up on posts so the paparazzi know someone with intimate knowledge of a Kardashian has arrived. The 2012 McLaren MP4-12C uses doors that each use one large single hinge. Pivoting on that hinge, they fly up and away from the car as if they were flapping wings. Spectacular carbon-fiber wings.
On the original 1954 300SL, the gullwing doors were there because the car's complex tubular chassis made them necessary. When Mercedes-Benz put gullwing doors on the 2012 SLS AMG, it was because they looked cool. And they look cool.
Rolls-Royce does dramatic doors, too. In the current Phantom and Ghost sedans, the rear set of doors open suicide style, while both doors in the 2012 Phantom Drophead Coupe are also rear-hinged. For a dramatic entrance, nothing beats a shapely pair of legs emerging elegantly from a set of suicide doors.
More Than a Few Ways To Build a Suspension
For almost 80 years virtually all American cars had rear-wheel drive with a solid rear axle in the back. But now there's only one, the 2013 Ford Mustang. Of course, the big advantage of a solid rear axle is that it's cheap. But the advantages of independent rear suspension — better handling, better ride motion isolation — are too much to ignore. When the Mustang is redesigned for 2015, it will have an independent rear suspension. And that will be that for how American rear-drive cars used to be built.
Meanwhile Chevrolet's new C7 Corvette will sustain another tradition at least a few more years: leaf springs. As has every Corvette since 1963, the C7 will rely on transverse-mounted leaf springs to support its all-independent suspension. Leaf springs had long been the default suspension system for the tail end of American cars, usually with two holding up either end of a solid rear axle. The Corvette's suspension is more sophisticated than that, but it's still the last holdout for the leaf spring in cars.
Power Comes About in Many Ways, Too
America may have been built with iron, but it's being remade in aluminum. The last iron-block V8 engine available in American cars is Chrysler's Hemi. The lighter weight of aluminum likely means the Hemi's magnetic future doesn't stretch too far over the horizon.
If you're interested in something a little more exotic, consider Volkswagen's W12 engine. Used in everything from the Phaeton to the Audi A8 to the 2013 Bentley Continental GT, this intermingling of two V6s wedges 12-cylinder performance into the space of a typical V8.
BMW and Volvo don't bother with such complexity. Instead they are the only manufacturers still producing inline six-cylinder engines for their cars. The advantages of inline-6s (their natural balance and excellent torque production) have been overwhelmed by the proliferation of more compact V6s that are easier to fit into front-wheel-drive cars. But since all BMW-branded cars are rear-drive machines, that's not a problem for the company.
And Then There's the Truly Outrageous
The 2013 SRT Viper and Bugatti Veyron are both built to be insanely fast and radically provocative. And that has led them both to be singularly eccentric.
Not only is the Viper the only car powered by an overhead-valve, pushrod V10 engine, it's the only car left that's offered solely with a manual transmission. In fact, it may wind up being the last car offered solely with a manual transmission.
Finally, there's the Bugatti Veyron 16.4. It takes Volkswagen's W12 engine one step further by mashing two V8s together to make the world's only W16-powered car. And as if that wasn't enough, Bugatti's engineers then added four turbochargers to push the car's output past 1,000 hp. Add in the Veyron's $1 million-plus price tag, and it's about as unique as it gets these days.
It's an open question whether the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is a convertible, but the top is at least removable. And if you want something with four doors that's fully open to the sunshine, it's the only vehicle in the running. And with enough practice, you can get pretty good at putting the top up and down.
Meanwhile, if four doors is too much and two doors is two little, there's Hyundai's three-door Veloster. There's a longer one on the left for the driver, and two shorter ones on the right for passengers. While previously there have been three-doors in America like the Saturn Ion coupe, right now the Veloster is alone in this niche market. It is a niche, right?
Leaf springs are still the standard for pickup truck rear suspensions, however. But the don't-call-it-a-Dodge Ram 1500 has adopted coil springs to produce a better ride, making it the only half-ton truck to do so.
Ram is also alone in still offering a straight-6 engine in its trucks. The 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel available in the Ram 2500 and 3500 is the last straight-6 offered in an American pickup.
Meanwhile, the Ford F-150 is the first (and only) mainstream, full-size pickup available with a turbocharged gasoline engine. Combining direct injection with two small turbos, the EcoBoost engine is rated at 365 hp and a massive 420 pound-feet of peak torque. Considering its strong performance, solid fuel mileage and massive sales, the EcoBoost isn't unlikely to remain the only turbocharged truck engine for long.