Wednesday, December 17, 2008

There's Something to be Said for American Cars

What, you say? How can you defend the indefensible? Easy. In fact, it is all too easy to heap disdain on the pariah of the moment. But I would like to submit that for style, comfort, and sheer drive, nothing short of a luxury foreign car beats Detroit's products.

Remember when a car was so much more than a means of locomotion, when cars had flash, pizazz? Guys tinkered with their muscle cars, souped up their Camaros, restored an old Stingray rescued from someone's garage. I can look at a car now and say "Oh, yeah, that's a 1963 Chevy." Granted, sometimes the designers got carried away. Remember the Gremlin? But overall, a set of wheels was a statement. (By the way, have you noticed that engines on new cars are armored against their owners with huge plastic shield bearing placards that read essentially "Do Not Touch"? )

Even with the onset of the K Car and that aesthetic abomination, the minivan, all was not lost. The creative impulse moved into SUV's, a fad I must confess to helping start with my paneled woody Jeep Wagoneer, back in the days when Jeeps were Jeeps and riding in the back seat of one could have perilous implications for siring offspring. I figure that if Al Gore can take credit for creating the internet, I can claim a hand in popularizing the SUV. I wish I could say I gave up SUV's for Lent because I realized they used too much gas and were causing global warming. But I gave them up in the 90's when they became so gussied up that they were trimmed in gold and talked to you, not to mention when I realized that my yearly outlay in gasoline could bring clean water to an entire sub Saharan village.

What to do? For at least a decade, Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans have all looked interchangeable, metallic and misshapen. Boxes to the right, boxes to the left, big boxes, little boxes, hatchback boxes, sedan boxes. You get the picture. And having inflicted an apparently suppurating wound on the Big Three when they were dumping cars below cost on the American market starting in the 70's, they've more than made up the loss with their prices. Even the beetle became a pecuniary butterfly. In short, with the possible exception of Hyundai, foreign car makers ain't giving anything away.

American cars, on the other hand, which had been pretty stodgy and style less for a long while as the public went truck crazy, have quietly begun emerging from their aesthetic torpor. It started with Chrysler and the German Gestapo lookalike, the PT Cruiser, and the Sebring convertible, both which in South Florida turned into the baby boomer equivalent of the Mercury Marquis, if you know what I mean. Then GM got into the game with the new Malibu hatchback, their HR, the stylish, but outlandishly priced, retro looking truck. Dodge is looking up with the Challenger, Charger, even the Caliber. Cars with character.

Now get in any one of the American cars for a drive. What a ride. Man in control. Smooth. No more feeling the earth beneath your feet. Aah. Even the quality seems to have climbed up a bit from its nadir. We have both American and foreign in the family, and both have had their minor glitches.

So I really hope Detroit gets beyond its present difficulties. In addition to losing one of our last remaining industries, the loss of the Big Three would literally change the American landscape, leaving us that much poorer in a world full of boring, utilitarian, virtuous high mileage transportation.

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