[This week is Off-Topic Week at TOP. This is just a temporary interlude, not a permanent change of direction. Please join us next Monday morning when we'll resume normal programming. —Ed.]
I really should make the effort to drive down to the Chicago show, which is bigger. The Milwaukee show is something like 70% of Chicago's. In addition, a number of the national brands don't bother to show up here—the BMW and Porsche exhibits, for example, and several others, are stocked and staffed entirely by local dealerships.
I play "eccentric beardy guy" at the car show, wandering around and striking up conversations with strangers. The only other time I do that is when I am out walking the dog—other pet owners being susceptible to random conversation. At the car show, the cars function as pets.
Even given our smallish city's lower status, this year's show seemed a bit depleted compared to past ones, with less on display. Maybe that's because Harry's Toy Store (above left) had fewer cars that appealed to me this year. (No link, and that's deliberate. Not that you'd visit TOP from work, but if you do, and you Google ol' Harry, be sure to turn your sound down first unless you're in a private office with the door closed. Harry's site will make noises that others will identify pretty easily as not being work related.) Harry had some Bentleys and a few 911s and a couple of Excaliburs. The latter are the precise opposite of the kind of car that appeals to me. And Harry himself was not there.
I thought the new Mustang would be thronged with crowds, and evidently it was on the weekend, but on Monday just after the show opened there wasn't a soul around.
American muscle cars are not my thing, personally—they're generally all about twenty to thirty percent too big and fat. The friendly Ford guy I talked to said the new one, like the old one, is sized for "regular guys," which I translated as "obese males." Although the styling of the new one is the definition of conservative (frankly, I have a bit of trouble telling the two apart), it's handsomer than the old one, and Ford is indicating that the improvements under the skin are more extensive. Nobody knows because no one has driven one yet.
Murcun musclecars are not my thing. The only time I'm interested in a Corvette V8 (this is the GM LT1 in the new 2014 Stingray) is when it's in a Miata.
So I'll get right to my favorite cars from the show, starting with...
...The Mazda 6, which I think is the best midsized sedan right now. I'd buy one over an Accord, Camry, Legacy, Verano, Fusion, or the recently Americanized Passat. The car you see here has but one engine option—a 184 HP I-4—but you can get it with a proper manual transmission if you want.
Incidentally, the guy you see polishing the handsome Mazda 6 in this pic gets the nod as the most interesting guy I talked to at this year's show. He has a detailing business in Miami and works for Mazda during show season. Fascinatingly, he subcontracts for a company that supplies test cars to automotive journalists—they have a warehouse full of the latest models that they deliver to journalists all over the Southeast. I'd never before heard about this aspect of magazine journalism straight from the horse's mouth so to speak. He said he can always tell how well a particular journalist liked a particular car based on the mileage when he goes to pick it up and how much detailing it needs before it's ready to go out to the next guy.
Oh, and he drove one of these from Atlanta to Miami—on one tank of gas. Mazda, whose products historically have a reputation for poor gas mileage, has been busy optimizing its engines for mileage lately, the so-called "Skyactiv" technology, currently applied to three of its vehicles, the Mazda 3, the Mazda 6, and the CX-5, a small SUV. He said he got very close to 40 miles per gallon in one of these on his trip.
He says I'm in the wrong business, by the way—he regaled me with tales of some of the quite considerable perks enjoyed by automotive journalists.
Next in the favorites parade is the only BMW that interests me any more, the littlest coupe, which will henceforth be called the 2 series. This is the M235i with the proper and necessary I-6, which in this case comes with an unnecessary turbocharger (I like naturally aspirated engines. SOL these days). The 1-series, which I've driven several times, was as odd-looking and frumpy as bowler hat—it had melted side slabs, among other egregious visual faults—but the 2 series fixes the car's appearance adequately. As I've (somewhat snarkily) opined before, BMW aspires to make all its cars look like Pontiacs now—the company turned its back on it iconic design language in the woeful (IMO) and still-controversial Chris Bangle era—but that tendency is minimized in the 2-series too.
I would have to become an actual Internet tycoon before I could afford one of these, but I like 'em.
Being of a photographic mindset even when acting the snapshotting tourist, I always appreciate it when manufacturers bother to light their cars nicely. And as I am secretly European at heart, how could I fail to like the Golf, which is the bestselling car in Europe year after year? This is the first time I've laid eyes on the new gen 7, which has not arrived in North America yet.
The interior struck me as "optimally contented"—i.e., what you get when a very large, very capable car company works very, very hard to maximize the appearance of value and quality while minimizing actual cost. On the evidence of this car, Europeans are very practical (inexplicably, Murcuns don't like hatchbacks) and also have good taste.
I can't wait to see the better versions, mainly the GTI. The ultimate Golf will be the gen 7 Golf R, which should be something really special...except that it will cost roughly as much as the base version of the car pictured just above this one, which would make for a dilemma of the first order were I shopping in that price class. The gen 7 Golf R won't arrive here until the Spring of 2015. Maybe I'll see it at next year's show.
The surprise Best of Show for me—with one big fat caveat, namely that I haven't driven one yet—was the 2014 Acura ILX. Fit me like a glove, and I loved the plain but very nice interior. And it struck me as a very right-sized car.
It's essentially the opposite of the high-value base Golf. Generally, I tend to like cars that are simple and straightforward in design, but that have higher-than-necessary build and materials quality. Which goes directly against the grain of almost all industrial consumer product these days.
Including most cars. With very few exceptions, high build and materials quality comes only hand-in-hand with electronic frippery and unecessary luxo feature-creep. It's very unusual to see a relatively simple car that's built considerably better than it has to be. The ILX is essentially an overbuilt, higher-quality Honda Civic. And God bless Honda—with the ILX, it has mated the slower, smaller engine to the slushbox, and paired the faster, higher-horsepower engine (the same one found in the Civic Si) with the stick shift. That is the proper order of the Universe, so thank you, Acura.
Would that Mazda could get with that program. In the new Skyactiv Mazda 3, Mazda continues its brainless historical practice of pairing the stick shift with the worse engine, and not offering a stick with the better engine. Which, for enthusiasts, is backwards. The old Mazda 6 came with an underpowered 4 that you could buy with a stick, and a great 6 that was a much better motor for the car but that was only available with an automatic. When I informed the rather officious Mazda product rep factotum person that if I could have gotten an '07 Mazda 6 with both the 6-cylinder engine and the stick shift I would have bought one (true), he said, dismissively, "You and three other people."
Oooh, wrong answer, Mazda man! Very wrong. You need to pander to me even if I'm an idiot, and pretend I'm right even if you think I'm wrong—it's an auto show, and those are the rules.
Meanwhile, I'm almost scared to drive an ILX. I really would like to like it, and I'm more than a little afraid I won't. I think I'll hold off on that, and just continue to imagine, for a while, that it's as good as I think it might be.
Finally, my sentimental favorite of the show—but one I couldn't get a halfway decent picture of because of the cramped space and the barricades in front of it that ruined the view. A proper "chairs and flares" (i.e., the desired seats and fender flares) Dino 246 from the early '70s. I was a good student in high school and was rewarded with unsupervised study halls, most of which I spent in the library reading car magazines. The Dino was one of the cars I daydreamed about from the printed page in those days. A small, low car with a midships-mounted 6-cylinder engine (the reason it wasn't called a Ferrari—to Enzo, Ferraris were 12-cylinder cars), it was intended to serve as a low-cost entry into the Ferrari marque. Kind of ironic, given that they are currently collectors' darlings and go for between $300,000 and $600,000. It actually looked a bit odd in the '70s but has aged very well. They seem to get prettier with every year that passes.
Really nice to see.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Colin Dixon: "I think I always knew you were a secret European. Here's a link to something that probably wasn't at the show but which, since I read a review of it, has seriously affected my ability to be rational about any other car. Fortunately the price is too silly even to start saving for it."
Mike replies: Didn't Jeremy fall for the open-top version of that on "Top Gear"? Me, I just think of how hard it would be to get something like that serviced.
Luke Smith: "I'm really enjoying OT Week. I mostly agree with your general car philosophies, but...modern (twin-clutch, not slushbox) manually shiftable automatic transmissions have become far, far better, more enjoyable, and yes, more 'involving' than stickshifts. Turbo motors have likewise improved. A very small, lightweight motor with a ton of torque is just fun. And coupled with nearly instant shifting, really fun."
Jim: "Will keep my '82 VW diesel Rabbit. Fifty-four miles per gallon on the highway, 46 mpg on the back roads as I am out photographing in the Utah and surrounding desert areas. Paid for more than 25 years ago; 450,000 miles and still going strong."