The New York International Auto Show (NYIAS) opens to the public on Friday (continuing through April 27), but first I must acknowledge the rather awkward truth: due to the paucity (aka near non-existence) of interesting world debuts, there’s precious little headline news to be found here this year! But rather than letting the truth get in the way of a good story, I’ll carry on with my reportage of the best and brightest at NYIAS, together with a gentle jab or two at disappointments from car marks I don’t mind offending. Let’s get on with the show:
Most Talked-About Car—Alfa Romeo 4C: Without a question, the Alfa Romeo 4C is the most talked-about car at the show this year, and will mark Alfa’s official return to the USA following its departure in the early 90s. While not as striking as its spiritual predecessor—the $350,000, Ferrari-engined Alfa Romeo 8C, of which only a handful were available—the 4C is more beautiful for many as it will be priced close to $65,000 when it arrives this fall. Taught, compact and coiled like a spring, the 4C looks eager to please those with exotic tastes on more modest budgets.
Most Talked-About Moment: Mercedes-Benz chose NYIAS for the world premiere of its S63 AMG Coupe, as well as the North American premiere of its new C-Class sedan, yet both were overshadowed when “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm—who voices Mercedes’ television commercials—made a surprise appearance its press conference. Celebrities are like hens’ teeth at a car show, so a press scrum ensued as television crews and journalists (including me) crowded him with cameras and iPhones.
Best-Looking Car—Kia Stinger: While it’s only a concept and highly unlikely to see production, the Kia Stinger is a stunner. At the front it looks like Luke Skywalker’s Land Speeder from Star Wars; from the side, a little bit like an Audi Coupe; at the rear, a hint of Volvo. Sporting yet planted and substantial, the Stinger hints that Kia may have some tricks up its sleeve in the years to come.
Best Reinvention—McLaren 650S: The 12C, McLaren’s first production road car for the new millennium—not counting the SLR McLaren, that wonky venture with Mercedes which neither manufacturer likes to talk about anymore—arrived two years ago, and was embraced by in-the-know enthusiasts while failing to make McLaren the household name it must become to grow. Less than invigorating design was partly to blame, together with driving dynamics so composed and “perfect” they left some wanting a bit more passion. Shown at an offsite location (it’s not on view at the public show), the new 650S aims to inject some life on both these fronts. The new car cannot be called pretty, but more importantly it has tremendous presence and gravitas that its predecessor lacked. McLaren’s “Speed Mark” logo is repeated through the 650S’ Swoosh-like headlamps, turn indicators, and side air intakes; if McLaren wants fame, we must remember the 650S’ face and name. The interior, like the outgoing 12C’s, is meticulously crafted yet flawlessly simple. How will it drive? Let’s assume it bites like it barks. As it shares 75% of its parts with the model it replaces, the 650S takes the prize for Best Reinvention
Most Improved—Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge: From a design perspective, I’m not a fan of SUVs or minivans but was surprised how good the new Dodge Durango looked, particularly from the rear where it echoes the popular Challenger sports car. The new Jeep Liberty works nicely as well, with echoes of the Nissan Cube and Kia Soul. And the new Chrysler 200 sedan looks clean and premium. To my eye this is the best-looking and most distinctive range of American cars today.
Best Display—Mazda Miata 25th Anniversary: It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the first Miata roadster was introduced, and Mazda celebrated this milestone at its stand with a look back at its roots. The Miata was an instant icon because it introduced a new generation of drivers to the joys of an affordable, small topless sports car that drove as sweetly and purely as it looked; a Japanese twist on classic British roadsters of the same mindset (excepting the Miata’s faultless reliability) like the Triumph Sprite, MGB, and Austin Healy. The legions of fans that race Miatas every weekend at the track further solder its status and cred.
Least Imaginative Concept Car: Assumed to be the precursor to the next generation Maxima, Nissan’s unimaginatively named “Sport Sedan Concept”—apparently even they couldn’t summon the inspiration to call it something better—is a tired, overwrought, gaudy cliché which is only successful where its manages to vaguely look like a Citroen gone horribly awry. Nissan and Datsun have built some daring and important cars over the years but apparently looking to them for ideas—rather than aping the competition—wasn’t on the agenda for this one.
Least Imaginative Production Car: Among my most beloved brands, VW have some great looking cars, including the Scirocco, CC, and XL1 Concept, but the new Mark VII Golf makes absolutely no creative headway relative to the car it replaces. Together with the Mark VII Golf hatchback, which will launch as a four door this fall with the two door to follow, VW also showed a similarly flaccid Golf Sport Wagon “Concept” which will replace the Jetta Sport Wagon. Perhaps VW Group doesn’t want to make the Golf too appealing lest it jeopardize the success of the new batch of (great looking) Audi subcompacts?