Automobile Magazine celebrates its 20th anniversary in the April issue on newsstands now with some lists bound to generate argument and discussion in hotel bar rooms from Detroit to California and beyond.
The 20 Greatest Cars list includes, in no particular rank, the BMW M3 and M5, the two finest sports cars in their respective classes, for my money, on the road today. There is also the Chrysler 300C for shaking up design in the most boring category for design since the minivan—the full-size sedan, or “D” car as car executives like to call it. The Chrysler Town & Country, MINI Cooper, Acura NSX and Ferrari F40 make the list too.
Let me pull up my barstool, and pour a single-malt. Of the cars that made the magazine’s top-20, I’ll dispute the following: The Porsche Boxster, the Volkswagen GTI, Subaru Impreza WRX. It’s not that these are bad cars. But since the list tends to look at cars that were not only exceptional, but influential, I can’t buy into the junior Porsche. The WRX is so blandly styled, that State Troopers can’t even believe that the car could reach the 90 mph speed its drivers like push while taking making a milk-run. The GTI is best, frankly, in its current form, the new 2006 model. It’s hard to vote for the old GTI, which was a source of VW’s quality woes in an era when quality came to matter more than ever.
My votes for the cars that didn’t make it: How about the Ford Explorer? There is but one SUV on this whole list, the Jeep Cherokee. The Explorer, whether you like the ride or not, transformed the mid-size SUV segment, influenced every other manufacturer to develop a competitor and did as much to obsolete the family woody wagon as the minivan. An enlightened choice might have been the Hyundai Santa Fe. No great breakthrough, except that it was the vehicle that proved Hyundai could compete against Detroit and Tokyo, and it re-started the Korean juggernaut that now worries GM and Ford as much as Toyota does.
What’s a list like this without the automotive nose-blows. Automobile didn’t restrict this list to vehicles that were lollapaloozers. It also incorporated an imaginative list of low points, gaffes and general blunders. Bravo for singling out CBS’s Sixty Minutes for its 1986 hatchet job on the Audi 5000 and the myth of sudden acceleration. Four-wheel steering was singled out as the answer to a question no one was asking. The Volkswagen Phaeton luxury sedan and Lincoln Blackwood luxury tuner pickup and BMW’s iDrive were singled out. What? No Pontiac Aztek? This ugly beast came to define the nadir of Detroit design dullardry. I would also include the Nissan Armada SUV, which proved that even the Japanese are capable of making a too-big, gas-guzzling stinkpot of an SUV. I would let Nissan, of course, share this stage with the Hummer H2 and Ford Excursion. I have actually never seen any of these three vehicles on the road with more than one person in them or towing anything but a trailer with extra gas tanks. I’d also chuck in the Suzuki Sidekick. Whether Consumer Reports was right or wrong for warning buyers about tip-over problems, this super-light Jeepette shouldn’t have been driven on roads East of Guam. I’d feel safer going up against an Nissan Armada in a golf cart. And for good measure, I’d include a quartet of GM vehicles, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, Pontiac 6000, Chevy Celebrity and Buick Century. These cars were virtually identical, yet priced differently and sold under four brands. They were so awful, and so roundly ripped in the legitimate press, that it woke up GM and the rest of Detroit to the evils of badge engineering, and prompted companies to unwind the system that created the abomination.
The Power Players section of the special report, with a sub-head of “Twenty men who shaped the auto industry over the past 20 years,” is notable for there being no women on the list. It’s a shame, especially since the magazine’s talented editor is Jean Jennings. BMW designer Chris Bangle, Chrysler designer Tom Gale, NASCAR’s Bill France, former DaimlerChrysler chairman Juergen Schrempp and J.D. (Dave) Power are on the list.
One has to consider that the list is made up of the good, bad and ugly. That explains why Schrempp, who did everything he could to kill both Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz, made it. Ebay.com founder Pierre Omidyar is an enlightened choice, because of how ebay revolutionized used-car selling. Toyota’s U.S. chief Jim Press is a good choice too. His longevity at Toyota and his influence with the company’s Japanese management has played a huge role in the success of Toyota and Lexus. This reporter started him in the eye and told him the launch of the Scion brand was a dumb idea. That’s why he makes more money than I do.
My objections include Kazunori Yamauchi, producer of videogame Gran Turismo—(if I simply say “give me a break,” will that cover it?), and Formula 1’s Michael Schumacher. Okay, I’m not a racing fan, but it seems like this list is covered with the racing crowd with the inclusion of Bill France and Roger Penske. Missing from the list? I could make a case for former GM chairman John Smale. Seldom seen or heard after he forced Bob Stempel and Lloyd Reuss out of GM in a boardroom coup, Smale saved the company from the abyss if he didn’t exactly know how to fix it. Roger Smith is on the magazine’s list as the guy who drove GM to the edge of the abyss. And how about DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche? Zetsche not only engineered the comeback of Chrysler, but proved himself such a sought after deft manager that he just said “Nein Thanks” to running Ford and wouldn’t even consider taking over GM. He’s literally the first name that pops up whenever a CEO job becomes available in the auto industry.
Lastly. Happy Birthday Automobile. You have always been a terrific read. And the auto business has been better and more enjoyable for your presence.