Return of the Great American Car?

Return of the Great American Car?

A quick glance through the hot models due to hit showrooms in the next 12 months has led me to an undeniable (and highly welcome) conclusion: American carmakers are actually building cars again!

Technically, they never stopped building cars, though in many instances the reputation of the American automobile industry would have fared better if certain models had been euthanized years ago. Specific nameplates that spring to mind include Cavalier, Taurus and Intrepid. And if you're looking for a common thread in these nameplates I'll give you three:

  1. They were all respected models once upon a time
  2. They are all overdue (some of them long overdue) for a clean-sheet redesign
  3. They are all more popular with rental car agencies than they are with most of today's new car buyers

In the last few years, has performed comparison tests that included each of these models. In 2000, we did an economy sedan comparison test in which the Cavalier finished sixth out of ninth place. We liked the car's straight-line performance, but despised its atrocious build quality, low-grade interior plastic and lawnchairlike seats. It has seen no worthwhile improvements since.

Also in 2000, we performed a family sedan comparison test in which the Ford Taurus took third and the Dodge Intrepid took fifth. Not bad in a field of nine, but neither was a segment leader back then (as their finishing order proved), neither car has seen any substantial upgrades in the ensuing four years and most of their competitors have had ground-up makeovers. We didn't even bother with the Taurus or Intrepid in our 2004 Family Sedan Comparison test because we knew it would have been a waste of time — plus we already had 10 other vehicles to include in the test, all of them sporting younger designs.

Yes, it's been a dark decade for the American car, and about that long since the Taurus was a best-seller. But as I stated at the start, things are definitely looking up.

Let's start with Cadillac and the CTS/CTS-V. The CTS rides on an all-new platform that gives it a nimble demeanor, not unlike premium sedans from Germany. The "V" model adds the Corvette's 5.7-liter V8 to create a true sport sedan in the spirit of BMW's M cars. There's also the all-new XLR convertible, a car that offers many of the same features you'll find on the segment-leading Mercedes SL (retractable hardtop, keyless engine start) but at a substantially lower cost. The XLR rides on the next-generation Corvette C6 platform, and thus benefits from that model's driving dynamics.

And speaking of the Corvette, the all-new C6 will be hitting showrooms in time for those Fourth of July parades, and it promises to be even more compelling than the exotic-car-slaying C5. Another GM nameplate meant to appeal to performance fans is the all-new 2004 Pontiac GTO. There hasn't been an official GTO in Pontiac showrooms for 30 years, and while this one borrows heavily from the Holden division of GM located Down Under, its performance and driving dynamics should satisfy American tastes.

Finally (and we do mean finally), GM is replacing the archaic Cavalier with an all-new economy sedan called the Cobalt. We're not too sure about the name, but just knowing a 10-year-old Cavalier platform won't be in GM showrooms for the 2005 model year is cause enough for celebration.

There's been plenty of action on the car side of the business at Ford in recent years, too. Ford is even referring to 2005 as "the year of the car," and when you look at what the company is introducing in the next 12 months, this description seems almost too timid. We've already seen and driven the Ford GT, a car that is meant to take on, and beat, the world's best exotic cars. But there's another Blue Oval nameplate that has far more meaning to far more people: the Mustang. The 2005 Mustang will be the first true redesign of Ford's pony car since 1979! While the Mustang's exterior look has evolved in the past 26 years, the underpinnings (which originally sprang from the 1978 Fairmont) saw only modest updates during the 1994 "refresh." The new Mustang will use the same platform that underpins the Lincoln LS, and while we haven't been completely bowled over by the LS as a total package, its entertaining driving dynamics are undeniable. Throw in the retro styling that we know is coming on the 2005 Mustang and it appears America's only surviving pony car may once again capture the hearts (and checkbooks) of a substantial number of new-car buyers.

Thankfully, Ford has learned that it can't survive in the 21st century by building high-priced supercars or retro-inspired performance coupes. That's why the all-new Ford Five Hundred and Futura sedans will also hit showrooms as part of the 2005 model lineup. The Futura replaces the once-great Taurus, a model that has fallen harder than Enron stock in recent years. As a volume seller, the Futura will go up against segment leaders like the Accord and Camry. It will be almost as important to Ford as the recently introduced, all-new F-150. The Five Hundred will take a more upscale approach, with larger dimensions and a premium feel (the name pays homage to Ford's Galaxie 500, a full-size family sedan first offered in the 1960s). Four new cars in one year — hard to believe this is the same company that, only a few years ago, was leveraging its entire future on the truck market.

While GTO, Mustang and Corvette are all legendary names in American automotive history, it's the Chrysler boys who have dug up perhaps the most storied term ever associated with four-wheeled transportation. This word isn't even a model name but, rather, an engine name: Hemi. The Hemi engine was to 1960s automotive performance what Michael Jordan was to 1990s basketball. Even people who didn't love it had to at least respect it. Dodge has already offered the Hemi in its full-size Ram truck, but for 2005 the 5.7-liter Hemi returns to the car world in the Dodge Magnum (station wagon) and the Chrysler 300C (sedan). These rear-wheel-drive models will replace the current front-wheel-drive Intrepid/300M cars when they go on sale in April of 2004. By bringing back both rear-wheel drive and a V8 engine in its mainstream models (traits we haven't seen in a Pentastar product in over 20 years), Chrysler is reestablishing itself as a serious carmaker that wants to do more than just stock the local Budget Rent-A-Car lots.

I'm thrilled to see the domestic automakers once again embracing the car markets, but I can't say I'm surprised. Where once the Big Three were content to focus on high-profit trucks as their cars grew ever more obsolete, the Asians and Europeans have wasted no time invading the truck market with SUVs, minivans and even full-size pickups in recent years. If Chrysler, Ford and GM want to survive in the 21st century, they had better start paying attention to every segment.

Ford's head of design, Jay Mays, is quoted as saying, "I don't think we lost the car market, I think we walked away from it." The implication is that the American automakers could have kept a hold of the car market if they'd really wanted to. But regardless of what caused the domestics to lose their grip on the car market, I don't think anyone would argue that they better get it back, quick!

One thing's for sure: We are on the verge of a highly significant time period in the history of the automobile. It's clear the next generation of American cars is coming, but it's still anyone's guess as to where the American automobile industry is ultimately going….

Stay tuned, it promises to be a hell of a ride!

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