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Cars of the Year

One of the fringe benefits to writing this column is the chance to be exposed to all the exciting things going on in the motor industry.  It’s not easy to figure out the marketplace for future car products…who’s the target buyer, what are their needs and demands and how many cars will the market demand.

In the sixties, the sports car market was dominated by the Europeans, with Alfa Romeo, Austin Healey, MG, Jaguar, Triumph, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz as the lead players, along with the US Chevrolet Corvette.

Every one of these was either too expensive, too fragile or too uncomfortable.  Nissan, then known as Datsun, dropped a bomb into that market when they introduced the 1970 240Z.  It had almost Jaguar performance, with VW reliability, and a price close to that of MGs and Triumphs.  The sports car world was changed forever.

In 2008, Nissan did it again, with their GT-R.  Comparing this $75-80,000 Nissan with much more expensive competitors Porsche 911 and Audi R8, Steve Sutcliffe of the authoritative British journal Autocar had this to say. “How does the Nissan GT-R stack up overall beside such well-rounded rivals?  Two of the very best sports cars in the world?  It destroys them, bludgeons them into submission, rips them apart, throws what’s left of them into the gutter and then howls off over the next horizon.  Dynamically this is as dramatic a demolition job as I have ever known among a group of supposed rivals, and that applies on all roads; wet, dry, smooth, bumpy.  Wherever you drive, the GT-R rules.  But the real eye-opener is that it does so while also being easily civilized enough to put up with everyday…….”

A few weeks later, the same Autocar selected eleven new cars from which “Britain’s Best Drivers’ Car” would be chosen.  Among them were the GT-R, Audi R8, Lamborghini Gallardo, Porsche 911 and Aston Martin DBS.  In their summary, explaining why the Nissan GT-R was the first choice, they said “It really is an extraordinary car, the GT-R, be that on road or track and seemingly in any conditions….delivers such monumental performance without being in the least unpredictable….And that’s before you factor in the price….It is our best drivers’ car of 2008”.

Other writers have suggested that a match-up between this new Nissan and a Ferrari 430 might produce surprising results.  All in all, this is a spectacular car of the year.  I was lucky enough to have a GT-R for a 500 mile weekend road test.  Everything the Brits say is true.  Just like that 1970 240Z, this new Nissan changes everything!

The loser of the year is the Smart, even though they’ve enjoyed a waiting list for delivery.  Owners will soon tire of the inadequate engine, jerky transmission and darty behavior in freeway cross-winds.  Consumer Reports downgraded the car for precisely these reasons.  Those owners will be trading for cheaper, better cars such as Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, or Hyundai Accent.

The Car of the Year That Won’t
Get Any Car of the Year Awards

The Hyundai Genesis, described as a 7-series BMW in space, a 5-Lexus in performance, and a 3-series in price, is a serious threat to every premium car manufacturer.  It’s closer to a Lexus than a BMW in character, so it will appeal to less – aggressive drivers.

You might wonder why Hyundai is introducing this $40,000 car now, when there’s really no demand for it.  First, if they don’t do it now, it’ll be harder later.  For now, they’ll sell a few cars and start establishing a reputation.  There’s a whole new generation of buyers who don’t have the pre-conceptions my generation has.  We still remember Packards.  They think Lexus is an old, established brand (it came out in 1989).

Huge markets in China, India and Russia are virgin territory.  There are no old buying habits that have to be reversed.  Infiniti will open up in Russia in ’09.  Hyundai doesn’t want to be left behind.  Hyundai is now the number five car producer in the world, behind Toyota, GM, Honda and Ford.  But they’re bigger than Nissan, Renault-Peugeot, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Chrysler.  Their cars consistently score well in J.D. Power surveys and with Consumer Reports.  The Genesis might have justified a new brand name, like Lexus or Infiniti.  But the high cost and risk of establishing a new network of dealers and separate marketing seemed like too much to tackle.

In 2018, ten years out, the significance of this new Hyundai will be more obvious.


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