Happy 60th Birthday to the Best 4x4xFar

April 30, 2008

Today is Land Rover’s 60th birthday. On this day in 1948, a Land Rover was first shown to the public.

As the story goes, the owners of the British Rover car company retreated to their family farm after World War II. They used US Army Jeeps left in England for agricultural work, but spare parts soon disappeared. They decided to build a Rover version of the Jeep for personal farm use. The first prototype was even built on a Jeep platform. As requests from friends for similar vehicles mounted, the owners decided to put their Land Rover into full production.

Rover’s cars had long been considered the “poor-man’s Rolls Royce,” due mostly to high-quality engineering. Similarly, its first Land Rovers released at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show gained almost immediate notoriety for bulletproof construction. The Series I featured a box section steel chassis, and due to shortages of steel, rustproof all-aluminum bodywork. Under the hood was a four-cylinder, overhead valve gas engine that drove all four wheels.

Land Rover’s popularity also ignited due to its versatility. The Land Rover became available in wagon and pick-up forms with short and long wheelbases. A diesel engine also emerged. Other optional equipment could be added based on need, from dual-plane roof panels to aid cabin heating and cooling, to snow plows. Some vehicles were equipped with periscope carburetor air-intake snorkels to allow vehicles to cross rivers almost completely submerged. In the field, a Land Rover could even operate multiple transmission-driven winches, welders or generators

Safety and emissions legislation caused Land Rover to abandon the American market in the 1970s. Those sold in the states prior to the retreat became instantly coveted for their rugged nature. One of my Land Rover-owning high school friends used to cruise the hills of Seattle during big snow storms looking for stuck cars and lesser SUVs to winch to safety. Great weight distribution and skinny tires meant even the most insane snow-covered hills weren’t safe from the LR’s prowess.

When Land Rover returned in the late 1980s, its vehicles reflected the softer needs of a more upscale clientele. The company was purchased by BMW, which helped increase the luxurious nature of the product line, but did absolutely nothing to improve reliability – a nagging problem of the Rover group (and the entire British car industry since the horrible days of British Leyland.)

Even after Ford purchased the company from BMW in 2000, Land Rover’s products were perennial basement players with the likes of Fiat and VW in global quality studies. Still, from the LR3 to the luxurious Range Rover, the brand’s models have remained among the most competent off road vehicles.

Now going into the hands of India’s Tata (along with Jaguar), a new chapter of Land Rover’s history is in the making.

While many of us long for the tough-as-nails, works even when broken nature of the Land Rovers of old, they are still the rides to have when you absolutely need to cross the craziest terrain. As Land Rover owners say: they’re the best 4X4XFar.


One car’s excellent styling cue is some American car’s gimmick

April 23, 2008

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 (courtesy of GM)
The 2009 Corvette ZR1’s transparent hood section is a gimmicky rip-off of the 1999 Ferrari 360 Modena’s see-through rear deck

Once again, an American auto manufacturer has found a way to take a great styling statement from a European company and bastardize it into a worthless, gaudy joke. I’m not talking about a Pontiac, Cadillac, Lincoln, or Ford Mustang this time, rather the newest Corvette – the ZR1.

The Corvette ZR1 is a fantastic car. And don’t get me wrong, it’s even a fairly pretty car. Unfortunately, though, it has a Plexiglas engine cover that is simply goofy.

Ferrari debuted a see-through engine cover on its 1999 360 Modena. It was a wonderful styling touch, especially due to the fact that its mid-mounted V8 was itself a work of art. The unique transparent lid enabled people to drool over the chiseled engine with red valve covers without the owner present. This styling element not only found its way to the 360 Spider, but also to the Enzo and 430. Audi used a similar treatment to expose the engine in its mid-engined R8.

Chevrolet designers, however, chose to take a different approach on the front-engined Corvette. The ZR1 uses a transparent plastic cover on the front hood that recalls the size and location of a Shaker hood scoop. Instead of seeing a beautiful engine in all of its glory…or even some of the valve covers, all people will see is a cheap plastic engine cover. What a letdown.

Obviously, Corvette designers knew they couldn’t pull off a full transparent panel due to the restraints of having a front-mounted engine. And they also were stuck with the power-over-pretty supercharged V8. (Stuck is probably the wrong way to say it, as it is a world-class engine that produces supercar-spec numbers with utilitarian reliability and economy.) Given the lack of visual appeal, maybe they should have just bagged the transparent cover gimmick.

Corvettes have never been cutting edge in the looks department. Early generation Vettes stole heavily from Ferrari and Jaguar. The 1968 C3 Corvette used a tail stolen lock-stock and barrel from the Ferrari GTO. The 1997 C5’s voluptuous curves follow nearly identical lines in some areas to the Mazda RX7 that had gone out of production in the USA two years earlier.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but at some point GM is going to have to realize that a styling element that works for one car can appear as a foolish gimmick detracting from the overall package in another.

Hyundai’s Genesis marks the beginning of Korean styling excellence…and end of American pony car reign

April 15, 2008

Hyundai Genesis Coupe (courtesy of Hyundai)

While journalists have been throwing praise at Chevy for the 2009 Camaro, Cadillac for the upcoming CTS Coupe, and Dodge for the now-arriving Challenger, the sweetest looking two-door to hit the “coming soon” pages is actually from Hyundai. The Genesis coupe is simply a work of art.

GM, Ford and Chrysler: beware! The 2010 Genesis (due out in 2009) is not destined to be another rice rocket in the mold of the Acura Integra. Hyundai has instead designed it to be an American-like pony car to do battle against the Mustang. Don’t laugh – when it hits dealerships, the rear-wheel-drive Genesis will be available with either a turbo 2.0-liter 212hp four or a high-output 306-hp six-cylinder engine. And no doubt that the V8 Hyundai has in development will be there sooner than you think!

Hyundai has delivered nicely styled cars in the past. Indeed the current Hyundai Tiburon coupe obviously stole lines from the Ferrari 550 Maranello. Unfortunately, the front-wheel-drive Tiburon (as well as other cars from the Korean automaker) has always been a let down in the driving department. The new Genesis, however, has earned praise from the few journalists who have had the chance to do preview drives. Rumors are that power, handling, braking, and refinement are all top-notch for the general price and segment.

What seems most important is that from a style perspective, the Genesis doesn’t seem to steal from any other car. It is fresh and devoid of all the foolish, tacky add-ons all too familiar on American so-called performance cars. There are no non-functional fake air intakes, nor are there creases or edges that are there just to maintain a corporate look or theme. In fact, the Genesis shows no evidence that the designers were out to make a unique-appearing Hyundai, rather one that would point to the future, not the past.

So as GM goes to 1969 for the design of its 2009 Camaro, Dodge’s Challenger steals entirely from its 1970 version, and Ford’s Mustang soldiers on with a pastiche of 1965, 1967 and 1969 Fastback ‘Stang cues, the Hyundai Genesis proves that being new can be done without looking old. Furthermore, the Genesis will remain fresh for years to come.

With better pricing and all the power of American pony cars, it’s possible that the Genesis’ show and go will translate to stealing sales not only from Mustang, Challenger and Camaro, but also from Infiniti G, Acura TL, Pontiac G8, Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Evo, and Cadillac CTS. Who knows, maybe even a few Bimmer or Audi drivers will wonder why they’ve spent $10K-$20K more than they had to?