Picking the Best Example From Each Automaker

February 4, 2008

Here’s an interesting exercise: imagine a genie offered you the opportunity to pick a single example from each current automotive manufacturer. If the goal was to pick the model which best represented every company’s high watermark (weighing facts like sales, performance, quality, marketing value compared to contemporaries instead of relying on nostalgia), what would you take?

Figure the genie also promises to provide ample warehouse space, but no mechanics or extra money to maintain your selections. You can pick new, used or classic, and all examples will be in perfect condition. Selections must be production vehicles, not concepts. Finally, no hot rods or customs, which means a Model A would not be a high-boy and a ’49 Merc would come without a chop.

What this exercise accomplishes is to identify if automakers are indeed producing their best work now or sometime in the past.

Here are my selections with reasons:

Acura – 2004 NSX: Without a doubt, the NSX is the most indestructible supercar ever produced. While the cabin is a wee tight for a person of my 6’4” height, the screaming V6, sublime gearbox and communicative steering more than offset the need to use a shoehorn for getting in.

Aston Martin – 2008 DB9: Quite frankly, just about every Aston Martin has been a fantastic GT. Cars after the DB4GT, however, were too heavy to be competitive against its peers in anything except for luxury and beauty. The DB9, however, delivers looks and V12 performance of the highest levels…and most importantly, doesn’t give the driver the feeling of a car that will be out of its element when the road starts to turn sharply.

Audi – 2008 R8: After my family owned an early 5000S, I’d be reluctant to ever own another Audi. I was actually a fan of the first Quattro Coupes, as well as the not-for-USA initial RS6. In recent years I’ve taken more of a liking to the S4 I suppose, though, that the marque’s best work of all time is the newest R8. It might hit the market with a diesel engine in a year or two, making it the best performing oil burner ever. I’m still warming to the R8’s looks (I’ll never warm to its six-figure price), but there’s little doubt the car is a winner.

Bentley – 1929 Speed Six Le Mans: Please don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love the current Continental GT, but the Speed Six with Le Mans touring bodies were among the most macho, muscular, fast, brutish sporting machines of their day. Any 1929 car that can hold its own in modern freeway traffic is great in my book. Sure there’s the heavy steering, inadequate brakes and outboard gear lever requiring a shot of human growth hormone to operate, but that’s all a part of the charm.

BMW — 2008 750Li: I know, all the M-series fanatics are screaming “what are you smoking???” As much as I love M3 and M5 cars, as well as the new 335i convertible, I still consider the V8-powered long-wheelbase 7-Series sedan the best road-trip car on the planet. Comfort, luxury, power, handling, space…like JC Penny’s “it’s all inside.”

Buick — 1953 Skylark: I’m a Buick guy. I was brought home from the hospital in a Buick Special convertible. My first car in high school was my mom’s LeSabre. The Buick brand offers absolutely nothing for car people, unless, of course, you live in China, where there are some sexy sedans. Some might say an ’87 GNX (lousy car aside from straight-line quarter-mile acceleration), or ’63 Riviera (no convertible option), but I love the high-end look and sleek drop-top lines of the original ’53 Skylark.

Cadillac – 1933 V16 All-Weather Phaeton: Since the likes of Packard and Duesenberg aren’t available to my list, Caddy provides the perfect opportunity to show that the Classic Era produced unmatched luxury. In the 1930s, Cadillac was “The Standard of the World”, something that even the interesting new CTS cannot say without making BMW laugh. When Caddy released the 452-cubic inch V16, however, it was unmatched. Call it restrained opulence, if there ever was such a thing. The engine wasn’t much to look at, with its very clean valve covers and ancillaries. The mill, however, was a torque monster capable of pulling the heaviest of bodies to highway speeds quickly. My personal favorite is the Fleetwood-bodied All-Weather Phaeton, which illustrates what glamorous travel was like in the day.
Even in the 1950 and 1960s, Cadillac never again achieved the level of quality, luxury and image as in 1933.

Chevrolet – 2009 Corvette ZR1: It’s simple to pick a Corvette, with this car being the brand’s halo, but there might be some debate about which one. Don’t tell me about ’67 L88s or ’69 ZL1s, because the 2009 ZR1 will absolutely destroy these cars at three-quarters throttle…all which delivering better fuel economy, comfort, and most of all, reliability. The ZL1 and L88 427 cubic-inch V8s couldn’t idle below 1800 rpms. On the other hand, the LS9-equipped ZR1 is capable of being a great daily driver, as well as weekend racer. And yes, I know it actually isn’t “out yet”, but cars will be ready soon.

Chrysler – 1957 300C Convertible: Some of Chrysler’s best work came in the Classic Era, when it produced its Imperial line to compete against Packard, Cadillac and others. Since the Imperial was coachbuilt, though, its styling was beautiful, but not unique. To get traffic-stopping looks, world-beating performance and jealousy-inducing elegance all in one package, only the 1957 300C convertible will do. Beautiful and wild Virgil Exner styling and “Baby Hemi” power (including the optional hi-po 10:1 compression 390-hp version) made the 1957 Chrysler 300C the ultimate banker’s hot rod. The nearly identical 300D might be rarer (191 convertibles compared to the 484 300C drop-tops), but the changes included tail light styling that wasn’t as clean, and a hi-po option that switched to using a fuel injection system that was possibly the most troublesome FI unit ever produced.

Dodge – 2008 Viper SRT-10 Coupe: More horsepower than any Hemi, plus great handling. It’s the best, meanest, coolest Dodge ever.

Ferrari – Enzo Ferrari: With so many amazing sports cars in the company’s history, it’s tough to identify the best. What the early cars lack in modern performance capabilities, they make up with sex appeal. Some of the current offerings don’t deliver the connection between driver and car. I drove the 599GTB Fiorano and it’s 3.56 0-60 mph run was less exhilarating than a 4.6 second run in my old ’69 Corvette. Luckily, the Enzo supercar delivers the best performance of any Ferrari in history, while maintaining a good “seat-of-the-pants” feel. When my brother was treated to a 0-120-0 test in an Enzo, all he could say was “oh my god!” The Enzo isn’t the prettiest creation from Maranello, but it is certainly an incredible statement of function over form.

Ford – 1912 Model T: The original GT40 was Ford’s best sports car on the international stage, but most of the credit goes to English Lola. Then the GT tribute car came out a few years ago. Anyone familiar with my work knows I’m not a retro type of guy, but the Ford GT40 was such a timeless design, that simply by increasing the size, making subtle changes and changing everything underneath, the GT wound up a totally modern car by all standards. Performance in the Ford GT is unmatched by any Ford of the past, quality is high, comfort is exceptional, and fine details (such as machined toggle switches) show what the Blue Oval can do when it cares. So why do I pick the Model T as Ford’s high watermark? Simple, it was the most dominant Ford ever in terms of market share due to the vehicle’s quality, design, price, and performance. All too often people discount the level of competition in the marketplace in this era. There were far more automakers in the Model T era than in 2008!

GMC – 2008 Sierra 1500: It’s not sexy, but it’s GMC’s best all-purpose workhorse yet.

Honda – S2000: I’ll actually state that I was really torn between the S2000 and the Odyssey. Stop laughing – if you can find a better family hauler than the newest Odyssey minivan in the history of the universe, I’ll eat my hat. While the Odyssey delivers space, comfort, great pep and handling, and good economy, the S2000 simply ups the ante by offering a screaming fun vehicle. Think Lotus with Honda reliability. There’s simply nothing like life at 8500 rpms.

HUMMER – H1: The H2 and H3 are poorly-built image vehicles for people who think that adding plastic to standard GM SUV platforms somehow makes them cool or bad. On the other hand, the H1 was a highly capable, no excuses go-anywhere with room for its width truck. If the end of the world comes, a good diesel H1 isn’t a bad choice in which to navigate the carnage.

Hyundai — Tiburon: Ferrari 550-inspired lines in a cheap GT car. Nothing from Hyundai is great, but the Tiburon is its best creation to date. The company will release a V8-powered large sedan to compete against the Avalon and entry-level luxury cars next year, so that vehicle will certainly displace the Tiburon on this list…but then there’s also a new V8 RWD Tiburon to compete against Mustang on the horizon, as well.

Infiniti — M45: A great mid-size sedan with ample power, handling, luxury, and sweet looks. It’s also a great bargain compared to its contemporaries. I just wish it was larger, because it’s just a tad too small for a tall adult driver to haul three other people in comfort.

Jaguar – 2008 Jaguar XJ Super V8:
Combining the long-wheelbase XJ platform, Vanden Plas luxury and the supercharged 4.2-liter 400-hp V8 is a recipe for a great touring vehicle. The fact that it also outhandles and out accelerates an XKSS (and its lesser XK120/140/150 siblings, as well as E-Types of six and twelve cylinders) is simply gravy. Despite continued crappy quality, the newest Jags are better than those of the past with livable glitches and much improved ergonomics. If only someone would train the dealer networks, because Jaguar dealerships remain among the least competent at providing service.

Jeep — 2008 Grand Cherokee: Jeeps might be “Trail Rated”, but they rate poorly on quality, economy, interior size and overall ergonomics. If I was forced to take a Jeep, it would be the Grand Cherokee. In offroad tests, I’ve found the Grand Cherokee to be far more capable in most situations than the Wrangler, due to being much less bouncy. Plus the Wrangler’s driving position is like a medieval torture device.

Kia – 2008 Sedona: Gee Mom, do I have to drive a Kia? I suppose the Sedona is a minivan I could beat the crap out of without feeling bad.

Lamborghini – 2008 Murcielago LP640 Convertible: Trust me, I really, really, really want to say Miura. I’ve driven a 100-pt Concorso Italiano winning ’67 Miura, and it was a full-body experience. In my opinion, no other car in history has ever looked so impressive and turned so many heads when new, as well as when the years went by. Aside from looks, the 2008 Murcielago Convertible is a better car. It goes faster, has more secure handling, sounds just as good, is more comfortable to drive (although few actually realize the Miura actually has a very comfortable seat and ample legroom for the passenger!) Unlike the Miura, the new Raging Bulls are extremely reliable, courtesy of the Audi ownership.

Land Rover – 2008 Range Rover: If I ever need to get to the top of the mountain, the Range Rover is the vehicle in which I want to do it. I do have my reservations about the pick, though, as a good 1967-ish Land Rover is a heck of lot less likely to suffer a trip-ending electronic problem or mechanical break down. If you understand SU carburetors and the ultra-simple Lucas electrical system, nothing short of a lack of fuel can stop an old LR. I suppose, though, that the new Range Rover’s power, performance, braking, stability control, etc.. offset the fact that they are among the least reliable vehicles made during the last decade.

Lexus – 2008 LS 600h: Hybrids don’t really do it for me, but in the case of the Lexus LS series, the 600h offers more performance and better fuel economy than the standard gas-only 460. Either one is the best car ever offered by Toyota’s luxury brand. Even sports car enthusiasts need a car that they can hop into from time to time to go down the road without effort or noise. The LS 600h is a high-end living room on wheels.

Lincoln – 1964 Continental Convertible: Lincoln has been a miserable brand for the better part of the last three decades. Back in the 1960s, Lincoln was still considered one of the marques in the world, and one of the reasons was the Continental Convertible. With its suicide door configuration and opulent seating for five (or six in a pinch,) the ’64 offered the best combination of styling, wheelbase, engine power, and chassis improvements. Those questioning why I would pick a ’64 over a MKII from ’57, there are two simple reasons: 1) It was never offered in a convertible (despite plans to do so and a single prototype) and 2)it technically wasn’t a “Lincoln”, rather a “Continental” brand with MKII as the model.

Lotus – 2008 Elise: All the weight-saving no-frills formula of the Elite, Elan and Europa with construction enabling the cars to stay together for more than a year. It is amazing to look at the horrible build quality on a S1 Elan and realize people paid nearly the cost of an E-Type to buy one. The Elise is the perfect third car – wonderful on the track, winding back country roads and anywhere one can toss it around…but miserable as a car you have to drive every day.

Maserati – 2008 Quattroporte: We’re talking about the only Maser that has ever really had mainstream appeal. While the 3500, Mistral, Ghibli, and Bora were gorgeous vehicles, they were painfully under-developed. The Quattroporte actually has shown to be very reliable in daily use, which is fantastic, given that the car is one of the great performance tourers offered today.

Maybach – 2008 62: For a base price of around $385,000, you get a limo-sized vehicle that goes 0-60 mph faster than many GTs, plus offers a more comfortable place in which to hang out than most living rooms. The Maybach line isn’t selling nearly as well as Mercedes had hoped, but at least it has replaced Rolls-Royce as the best choice for old-school rich people who can afford to wipe their tushies with $100 bills.

Mazda – 1995 RX7: What a beautiful car! Great performance and handling (courtesy of springs so stiff that a three minute ride adequately mixes a standard can of paint.) The original Wankel-powered Cosmo was a luxury GT ground-breaker, the Mazdaspeed3 is a great little pocket-rocket, and the Miata continues to define roadsters, but the RX7 still stands as the company’s best work. If only apex seals didn’t wear so quickly!

Mercedes-Benz — 2008 SLR McLaren: Mercedes once made some sexy cars, including the pre-war 540K, the 300SL Gullwing, and the 300SL roadster that followed. Starting in the 1960s, the company moved towards heavier, more depressing cars. In the last decades most of the company’s cars have done little to raise my pulse. Finally the SL65 AMG came out, showing that a comfortable touring convertible could also be a fun, eleven-second quarter-mile rocket with great handling and brakes. I would have chosen the bi-turbo demon if not for the newest Merc supercar: the 2008 SLR McLaren. Unlike the last SLR, this one is a roadster. Enzo-like performance with Mercedes engineering and build-quality? I think we have our winner!!!

Mercury – 1968 Cougar GTE:
I’ve long held the belief that the Mercury brand should have been killed-off prior to the Reagan era. It’s a testament to poor management at the Blue Oval that Mercury has been limping along for nearly forty years putting out mostly mediocre products. One must go back to 1968 to find a truly remarkable Mercury – the Cougar GTE. The Cougar GTE was not a Mustang with a Mercury badge, rather a well-appointed, extremely luxurious GT in the Facel-Vega, Iso Rivolta mold, but with a 427-ci V8 producing 390 horses. The big block cars came with heavy-duty suspensions, which combined with the V8’s massive torque to make it a capable road burner. After ’68, the Cougars got too big and too heavy.

MINI – 2008 Mini Cooper S: The original Mini would be a no-brainer decision, because it was all things to all people: economical family car, practical city car, fashion statement, rally car, and racer, but in actuality, it wasn’t made by Mini, rather BMC under the Austin and Morris brands, which no longer exist. So basically, the only cars from which to choose are those under the brand since returning to America. The basic Cooper S is a fun vehicle in a surprisingly useful package. I wouldn’t want to have to fit my family in one, but I happily use a Cooper S to autocross, rally or commute.

Mitsubishi – 2008 Lancer Evolution: Sometimes the answer is just so simple! The Evo has been Mitsubishi’s best car for years, but it simply took the company a while to get it to the USA. It’s actually somewhat sad, because most of Mitsubishi’s other offerings have been junk, plastic sporty cars for kids, or in the case of the 3000GT, overpriced, overweight, underperforming fashion statements. The Evo, however, is a great piece of purpose-built machinery – a no frills fun car that delivers on its billing.

Nissan 2009 GTR: Its amazing performance, good looks and great Skyline history make it the Nissan that journalists and enthusiasts will talk about for generations. It takes a technological masterpiece like the GTR to keep me from selecting the 1970 240Z, which still is one of the best sports cars ever made.

Pontiac– 1965 GTO Convertible: I’ve driven plenty of Pontiacs over the years, and I’m always amazed at how little content there is to back up the image. The SD-455 and ’77 Trans Ams TA-6.6 SE are both guilty pleasures of mine, but TAs aren’t nearly as fun to drive as they are to look at. Later Firebirds were better to drive, but man those things had more tacky plastic than Joan Rivers’ face. So to pick one best of breed Pontiac is tough. A fuel-injected ‘58 Bonneville would be nice, but not as great as the wonderful second-year Goat convertible with Tripower and a four speed.

Porsche – 2006 Carrera GT: Just like with Ferrari, there are so many great cars from which to choose. Porsches simply keep getting better – and now we’re at the point where journalists are slamming amazing vehicles like the 911 Turbo for being too easy to drive at ridiculously high speeds. Indeed, if it weren’t for the existence of the incredible Carrera GT supercar, I’d choose a 2008 911 Turbo Cabriolet in a heartbeat. (C’mon, a droptop that can hit triple-digits faster than you can say “sorry officer”, what’s not to love?) As good as the 911 series is, it’s no match for the uber-desirable GT, a car that won’t be eclipsed by another Porsche in terms of performance and exclusivity for twenty or thirty years.

Rolls-Royce – 1965 Silver Cloud III Mulliner Park Ward “Chinese Eye” Continental Drop Head Coupe: It’s a mouthful, but the SCIII Continental DHC with limited-edition Mulliner Park Ward body (featuring slanted dual headlamp clusters, hence the “Chinese Eye” descriptive,) was one of the last great cars from the storied marque. The Corniche convertible that came after was more than 500-pounds heavier, plus significantly more complex (especially the braking system.) R-Rs from the 1950s and 1960s drove well, but those in the 1970s and 1980s felt more like numb, bloated Buicks. The current Phantom is nothing more than a caricature…in England a new R-R owner is viewed as someone with money, but no style, taste or class.

Saab – 2008 9-3 SportCombi: The only Saab I remember really liking was the mid-80s 9000. That car, however, turned out to be a maintenance nightmare. GM’s involvement with Saab hasn’t really paid too many dividends, but the new SportCombi is actually a heck of nice small wagon. It’s basically a step up from a Subaru in luxury, but maybe a step down in reliability. Still, it remains the best Saab yet.

Saturn — 2008 Sky: Who would have thought that Saturn would ever get such an amazing roadster like the Sky? The division was teetering on the brink when the Sky was green-lighted, seemingly as an afterthought in a plan to bank on the Pontiac Solstice. Whereas the Solstice seems odd looking, the Sky is a sweet blend of curves and taught lines. Better appointed than its Pontiac brother, the Sky is simply a nicer package, and by far the best product to wear the Saturn badge.

Scion — 2007 tC: I think I’d turn this into an SCCA racer or a car to beat-up on the drag strip. The tC is a good looking car…unfortunately, all the cars with the Scion badge are cheap pieces of tin.

smart — 2008 ForTo Cabriolet: People frequently ask me my opinion of smart…my standard response: “dumb.” Actually, they’re great for Europe and Asia, where city streets are tiny and congested. In America, they are almost useless, and more of a fashion statement. If you want to say you care about the environment, buy one of the many cars that get better fuel mileage. Since only two models are available in the US, I’d take the Cabrio.

Subaru — 2006 WRX STi: What’s more fun than a WRX? One with more power and a really, really, really gaudy wing on back. The new WRX is too soft, and I’m not a fan of hatches, so I’d stick with the now gone STi sedan.

Suzuki – 2008 XL7: I once compared 25 SUVs back to back on both road and off road courses. While other journalists were jabbering about the capabilities of the then-new Hummer H2 and Range Rover, I was pointing-out that the Suzuki XL7 tackled the same muddy hills and dips in rear-wheel-drive mode. Suzukis will always be junky low-rent transportation—vehicles for people who don’t care much about what they drive, but at least the XL7 was a competent SUV that offered just as much usability as other choices two and three times the cost.

Toyota –1968 2000GT: For a company that has become the world leader, it’s amazing how few impressive vehicles it has produced. The 2000GT was by far its best achievement, being both sexy and extremely high-tech. The car has never been easy to obtain, because its desirability has maintained since before it even debuted. The only other car Toyota has produced that even comes within a mile of the 2000GT was the final US-spec Supra Turbo.

Volkswagen — 2005 Phaeton: VW has produced many cars that I thought were cute (Karmann-Ghia), cool-looking (Scirocco), or fun to drive (GTI). Unfortunately, I’ve never thought any of them were well-built or deliver enough bang for the buck to consider ever owning. Since the amphibious Schwimmwagen was never a production vehicle, I suppose I’d choose one of the much-maligned now discontinued Phaetons with the W8 engine. The thought of such an expensive VW made them impossible to sell, but the Phaetons were, and still are great drivers. Boring, but nice.

Volvo — 1968 P1800S: Leave it to me to pick the one attempt by Volvo to produce a sports car. The P1800 remains the prettiest car Volvo ever designed. It also was built tough, and thousands are still on the road. One gentleman has over three million miles on his. Simple, robust, fun – although a little heavy to get too racy, the P1800 combines style, substance and reliability in a way that has definitely eluded Volvo since.