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Tampa International Auto Show Pt.2; American Companies Still Need to Execute Bean Counters

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On: Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 12:41PM | By: John Welch

Tampa International Auto Show Pt.2; American Companies Still Need to Execute Bean Counters

The first floor of the multi-tiered Tampa International Auto Show was used to showcase high-end autos and customs. Audis, Aston Martins, GLK-Convertible abortions, and so on. The real war was going on upstairs, where Chevrolet, Buick, Ford, Lincoln, Subaru, Toyota, Hyundai, Kia, and several others were all positioned uncomfortably close to each other. Why uncomfortably close? Because the AutoShopper was able to compare Kia and Buick directly . . . not a good thing for Buick.

To follow, the vicious bar fight and it's grisly aftermath.

I could have sworn I walked into a NUMMI dealership. Crossing the threshold to the upper portion of the TIAS, I was greeted by Toyotas on my left, Chevys on my right. The two car makers did an excellent job ensuring that every visitor who trudged through the show was going to see their latest and greatest. Unfortunately for Toyota, the only "latest" I saw was a new 4Runner. I must say I'm warming up to the 4Runners butch new grille, but it's such an also-ran in 2009 that I couldn't devote much more thought to than that. Fearing a ToyoBoring-induced coma, I veered to the right.

I realize that none of the cars currently occupying GM showrooms were conceived, designed or thrown together much after 2007. The natural order of the auto life cycle dictates that none of the automobiles designed under the "New GM" moniker will see the light of day until 2012 or '13. As far as GM's current crop of autos goes, the cars that will see the company through its bankruptcy and subsequent rebuilding, there are MANY misses, but a few hits as well. The Camaro is, I must report, a friggin' HIT.

The interior is shabby and strangely proportioned. The chassis belongs under a sedan. The engines are based on sixty-year old designs and I don't care one little bit. The Camaro, in the flesh, is the most delicious non-Italian auto sold today. Its sheetmetal inspires a lusting that previously I had reserved exclusively for 15-year old bourbon and 5'10" 115 lb. brunettes. Literally, I don't love anything in this world as much as I love a 2010 Camaro within spitting distance of me. GM, you can't build these things fast enough!

Behind the troop of differently-optioned Camaros sat America's supercar, the Corvette ZR1. In all its exposed-supercharger, carbon fiber-infested glory, I was still not able to keep myself from peering over my shoulder, examining every angle of each Camaro. I've seen Corvettes before and, frankly, I felt that the new Grand Sport looked more exotic from a distance. No matter, the ZR1 could still wipe the floor with the vastly more expensive exotics we saw downstairs, making it (to my eyes) the most important car at this show. Windows rolled up, the interior still looks like crap.

Which brings us to the rest of the GM line. I came to the conclusion that I could not rate any of these cars based on what I know of their performance potential and dynamic responses. I had to rate what was in front of me based on what I was able to firmly experience, namely: interiors and prices.

Bear with me: most of us will not be driving our new cars at 10/10ths on I-275; we won't even exceed 5/10ths in our most spirited driving. My job then is to determine how livable these new cars are, how well they fit a person, how well they will stand up over time. Florida is an awfully violent environment for a new car. On the coasts there is plenty of salt, stop-and-go traffic is inescapable, and the sun's rays beat relentlessly down on us three hundred and thirty days a year. Not the worst place for a car to spend its life, but not the best either.

For part two here, I'm going to drop some brief, observational science on y'all. That's right, I said y'all and I promise I will say it again . . .

Before me lies the new Buick La Crosse — drab 'champagne' paint, fancy, fake chrome wheels. Inside the car looks stunning. The dash is driver-centric without being 'Supra' driver-centric, the center console is raised and smart looking, the controls all fall easily to hand . . and this is where Buick causes my acid reflux to turn up the jets, when fingertips meet interior surface.

It's a disaster of cheap-feeling plastics, rough textures and unabashed rental-car materials. The plastic the headlight switch is mounted in is the same crap this keyboard I'm typing on is made out of. It feels just as thin and hard. This was the fully optioned "Halo" La Crosse, the one all of the sales people were directing the elderly to as they approached the Buick stable. This car was supposed to steal buyers away from Lexus — good effing luck.

Frankly, it'll have trouble stealing business from Kia. Across the aisle from Buick stood the Kia display. A new Sorrento, two examples of the Forte, and a few Kia Souls were presented for our digestion. Going directly from a $36,000 Buick to a $14,000 Kia was extremely eye opening. Not only did the Kias feature interior design that rivaled the Buick for ergonomics and lay-out, all three of these models possessed consistently better materials and construction than the Buicks. Much better. The dash of the Kia Forte seemed of higher quality construction than the La Crosse; the soft-touch plastics were actually soft-touch plastic, instead of a thin veneer of pear skin over a paltry amount of packing foam such as one would find covering the doors and console of the Buicks.

By the way, the Kia Soul offers a "cream"ish color that I liked very much. I wish more cars had an egg-shell, off-white or cream paint scheme available from the factory.

This startling revelation continued. From Kia I moved over to Subaru. For 25 large you can buy yourself a very nice Legacy. If the Buick is competing with the Kia, it has ZERO chance against these new Subarus. At this bottom shelf price, a Legacy comes with a fantastically pleasing interior, the materials superior to all but its German rivals. Hear that Buick? For five grand less Subaru buyers are LAUGHING at you! The car was even equipped with the nicest feeling and operating flappy-paddles ever affixed to a non-German auto. They are the right size and click through the gears with a pleasing "thunk".

Sharing a rug with Subaru was Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep. There were only two Jeeps, and they were both Dodge Calibers, er, uhm, Jeep Compasseses. The Jeep Compass is one of many auto-industry "Trannies": tough-guy styling meant for women. Big fender flares covering flaccid passenger-car wheels and tires. Front drive. My disgust with Chrysler goes even deeper. Turning away from the neutered Jeeps, I cruised over to a new Chrysler Town & Country minivan. Being one of the vehicles Chrysler has pinned its near-future hopes on, this T&C should at least be well made, if not a little boring.

Eeeeiiigad! What a terrible rolling ess-box. The high mounted shifter was the first thing to completely offend me. It literally feels like a toy, a toy made in China. The shifter is flimsy, very flimsy; there is no way to avoid the sinking feeling that the first shift to drive made in anger might snap the thing right off. Not good! The interior of the T&C smelled like horse glue, and my skin had to be peeled off of every pleather surface I touched. The back seat arrangement, with its tables and musical chairs, might be useful, if the vehicle is fully stopped and not about to go anywhere. I remember a family playing Jenga in a moving Town&Country as the focal point of the first advertisements for these new Chrysler people movers. What a joke! The little table has roughly the same construction quality as any you'd find in a Little Tykes play house — again, it's as if Chrysler is building toy cars.

The Challenger, ooooh the Challenger. Whereas GM at least attempts to fake a soft-touch interior material, the Challenger is still using granite-hard plastic for its doors and dashboards. Plastic that would be considered cheesy in early nineties Thunderbirds. For these materials to be making their way into modern cars is just shameful. Needless to say, I didn't bother with the Avenger or the now-ancient Charger/300 C. I was to busy retching up horse glue-flavored mucus.

In Part Three we will examine the Cadillac, Ford, Hyundai, and VW booths. Also, I will complain endlessly about wanting to have been born back when American products were the standard of the world, not one step up from Ladas and Tonka Trucks . . .

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