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S:S:L Salutes David E. Davis, Jr.

When the initial rumors of David E. Davis, Jr.'s passing crept up Sunday, I remarked to some colleagues that the inevitable onslaught of Car and Driver nostalgia commentary wouldn't be far behind. But instead of a long-winded, reflective piece detailing DEDJr.'s career, we're simply going to take the next few days to revisit some stories that we think Mr. Davis would have appreciated. Godspeed, David. Wherever you are, I'm sure there are no boring cars. Previous days' "best of" pieces: Monday: Over the river and through the cones: The 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour Tuesday, part one: Supercar Saturday Part One: Running the R8 and Viper against the clock at MSR Houston Tuesday, part two: Part Two: Supercar Saturday Part Two: Taking it to, um, the streets. Wednesday: Imaginary Internet Millionaire Track Test: Ferrari F430 v Lotus Elise v Dodge Caliber SRT-4 v Ford Mustang GT500  

Korean to go, Part II: The Kia Optima, the Hyundai Sonata, and old-fashioned Americana

When I concluded part I of this feature last week, I said that this piece would be about the Sonata and Optima. It will. But for those of you who came looking for a more traditional road test, I must apologize. You won't find that here. Feel free to ask specific questions about the cars, but for this piece, we're going down a slightly different path. If you ask somebody on the street to identify the most "American" car they can think of, you'll probably get a predictably narrow subset of answers. SUVs and pick-up trucks will probably top the list, with the occasional Corvette or Mustang thrown in for flavor. Some may even identify entire brands--Jeep or Cadillac, for instance. Others may reflect on our heritage of being one of the largest sources of mass-produced goods in the world, and then prattle on endlessly about the Model T. But they're all wrong. You see, the above cars may be icons of the American auto industry, but they simply represent what we're good at. Those are cars of and by Americans, but not for. Anybody can appreciate a well-built truck or a go-anywhere SUV, but for our purposes we must look elsewhere. Indeed, to find a reflection of American culture, you need to look a a segment which, ironically enough, American manufacturers seemed to have virtually abandoned until very recently--a segment so seemingly devoid of character that it has been dominated for nigh on twenty years by the Toyota Camry. Yes, dear reader, the quintessential American car is the mid-sized sedan. That's right. The four-door. The grocery getter. The family car. And what is more American than family? You can put the Bill of Rights, George Washington, Martin Luther King, a truck full of apple pies and every member of the Boston Red Sox on one side of the Americana scale and they wouldn't stand a chance against John and Susie Suburbanite and their 2.3 children on the other. So while trucks may be the most individually successful models sold in the United States, they simply stand in the shadow of the mid-sizer when it comes to brand identity. Toyota owes its reputation in the United States to the Camry, and Honda to the Accord. Just ask Volkswagen why its Chattanooga plant and the B7 Passat are receiving so much attention. Do you remember what VW brought over in this segment in the 1970s and early 1980s? Don't be ashamed. Outside of dedicated enthusiasts and the VW faithful, most don't. Without question, if you, as product planner for an overseas auto manufacturer, seek to launch a full-blown assault on the U.S. car market, you had better start with the best 180", 5-seat, four-door, trunk-adorned family hauler your engineers can produce. And you had better be prepared to see it thoroughly eviscerated by everybody from journalists to politicians to members of the buying public. And if it's praised? Well, it had better be perfect in every way, or you'll get a year out of it, tops (the car advertised above is a testament to that). But it really doesn't matter how good it is. Ask brand strategists from any mainstream foreign auto maker who targeted the U.S. market; you're simply not allowed to get it right the first time. In fact, being the fledgling U.S. arm of a foreign automaker places you squarely at the bottom of the totem pole. Perhaps you're pushing value proposition to draw initial customer interest? To those with stake (be it emotional, financial, or simply the product of overzealous fanboyism) in established brands, this means your cars are cheaply engineered/assembled. Offering aggressive financing deals or significant discounts from MSRP? Your cars are for poor people. Have you built something for John Q. Public to drive daily? You're catering to the sheeple. Is your car more enthusiast-oriented, with performance features not found on most other mainstream sedans? Hah. Clearly you don't understand the U.S. market. For enthusiasts, the above may not make sense. Indeed, niche manufacturers have it pretty easy in this regard, assuming of course that they're content to remain such. A Lotus Elise doesn't rely on other volume offerings the way a Mazda Miata or Volkswagen GTI does. It simply sells on its own merits, isolated by its premium price tag and mission-specific packaging. But in order for Mazda to sell you the aforementioned MX-5, they have to move a good number of rather mundane commuter cars with some degree of regularity. If their volume family sedan doesn't move, there's cause for concern. Enter the Koreans. Hyundai has been in the U.S. Market for more than 25 years, but never really moved in noteworthy volume until the last decade or so. They sold enough to continue the experiment, from the Mitsubishi collaboration in the early 1990s to the eventual purchase of interest in Kia in 1998. It wasn't long after that the first models with said branding on the boot made their way to our shores. As the years went on, volume increased while reliability improved by leaps and bounds, but even as recently as the early-mid 2000s, both brands were still squarely in the "poor zone." Around the middle of that decade, however, Hyundai finally started to take hold with more affluent buyers. The current and previous generations of Hyundai's Santa Fe, Tucson and Sonata have established themselves squarely in Toyota territory, edging out just about everybody in initial quality and long-term service. Volumes are way up. Incentives are way down. Critical reviews are almost unanimously positive. And thanks to Hyundai's bootstraps, Kia is playing a monumental game of catch-up, coming almost as far as its parent has (in 25 years) in just two and a half generations. But to many auto aficionados and even a handful of casual observers, they're both only one step removed from penalty boxes. A strange hierarchy evolved in the world of automobile brand perception here in the U.S. Some variant of this probably exists in every market, but the gist of it is this: At first, there were the domestics. They were the best, because they were it. You bought a Ford or a Chevrolet because that's all there was. And then the premium brands appeared--the Cadillacs and the Lincolns, etc. So now there was something for the luxury buyer to look down upon. This left the Ford and Chevrolet drivers feeling quite left out, so they spent a few years taking their frustrations out on each other, building a fierce rivalry that exists to this day. Then, as if by divine intervention, the imports arrived--small, fragile, European things with two seats and undersized radiators. Suddenly, the mainstream domestic buyer had somebody to pick on. But the imports had something that the Fords and Chevrolets lacked--exclusivity. And so the Jaguars and the Alfa Romeos and the Ferraris took their place above the mainstream domestics, putting them in an odd parallel position in the pecking order with the American premium cars. Their owners looked down on each other, but they also collectively looked down on the lower-tier manufacturers. In this fashion, each successive new entry into the U.S. market becomes the sh*tbox brand du jour, and fans and owners of "established" brands then feel obligated look down upon the rookie with exaggerated scorn, thinking themselves now equal to those who previously ridiculed them, whether or not that is indeed the case. Think of it as "separate-but-conditionally-equal." For evidence of this pecking order, just look at the way fanboys of every stripe take pot-shots at Honda. A Chevy guy calling a Civic Si gutless doesn't think himself equal to the kid who just bought his first 1.8L GTI. Then again, the VW virgin probably thinks he just bought himself a ticket to the BMW and Benz club, but that's a whole different discussion. And what does this all have to do with the Optima and the Sonata? Well, just about everything, as it turns out. See, we journalists love us some good, old-fashioned sensationalism, and a couple of came-out-of-nowhere, class-leading sedans from an underdog manufacturer with a spotty U.S. sales history will make for incredibly sexy copy. Both of these cars stand out, both in appearance and in value for money. Allow me to be boring for a moment: Neither the Sonata nor the Optima is a game-changer. They're class-competitive, yes, and they're easy to recommend against just about anything in the segment without dissonance. They handle and ride well enough, with a nod to the Optima for slightly better chassis dynamics, but another to the Sonata for being quieter and more plush. Both have very good interiors. Both have lots of desirable features. Both are excellent value for money. In the Sonata and Optima, Hyundai/Kia have developed two good cars. Cars which, were they in any other segment, might be largely inconsequential to overall brand image. Instead, being what they are, they're the face of their respective marques and the standard bearers for their reputations. For the reasons we discussed above, these cars are now deliciously controversial. And best of all, they're both legitimately competitive. Throw in a few brand loyalists and a handful of entirely forgivable flaws with the vehicles themselves, and you have a recipe that will magically turn otherwise reasonable people, even individuals who claim to be car enthusiasts, into frothing idiots. But why? After all, they're just family sedans, right? Bottom line, there are many who will dismiss these cars as garbage without a second thought. Those people feel threatened, period, over and done. There's no telling why exactly. Maybe they're true xenophobes who think all Koreans reside north of the 38th parallel and do nothing but tinker with homebrew nuclear ICBMs. Maybe they had friends who bought an '87 Excel and saw it crumple to the ground within a year. Maybe they have a genuine stake in the success of another brand and they're steering you away for financial reasons. Perhaps they simply like the Passat and think anybody who would consider a "lesser" product should be shat upon. Or, quite simply, they hate the idea that their world views are being challenged. Oh, they'll have great cover stories. They were probably mechanics at indy shops for ten years and saw nothing but rusted-out Hyundais with blown engines that would catch fire if touched by children. "Just you wait," they'll probably say. Sure. I'll do that. There are also those who will take only the positives from each available review, spin them into a web of fantastical infallibility, and present it all as fact. And then they'll vanish the instant you demonstrate any discrepancies in their assertions. These people are fools, and they'll be on to the next upstart underdog before you can concoct an intelligent rebuttal. Don't waste your time. But what gets both sides riled up has nothing to do with the quality of the product or its potential for success. No, what matters is that something sacred to the American auto market is being challenged by something that hasn't yet earned the right to sit at the proverbial table. The reality is this: both are good cars, and neither is great, but I'm not taking that word lightly. In my eyes, the great cars are those for which I would put my own money on the table. Most mainstream sedans would be out of consideration immediately, but that wouldn't keep me from recommending them to somebody else. And that's kind of what I do here. So, should you buy a Sonata or an Optima? Go ahead and ask me. I'd be happy to tell you. Photos courtesy of Hyundai and Kia U.S. media offices and various corners of the Interwebs.

Lord Byron — VWVortex.com “Gay-Bashing” incident: How a two-time M.A. failed Web 101

What you see above is a craigslist.org ad for a 1997 Jetta VR6, meticulously restored (well, mostly). As the ad states, it'll do 0-60 in under seven seconds, it's fully loaded, and it's a Florida car. And it could be yours for P-Diddy's pocket lint--just $30,000.00 U.S.

That's not a typo. It's no great revelation that the World Wide Web is an indispensable resource for car shoppers, but sometimes you come across an example of somebody who has failed in every possible way to properly utilize it. When that individual also happens to be the founder, editor and publisher of a multi-platform activist newsletter who holds multiple graduate degrees (including a M.A. in Journalism), well, you have a spectacle in the making. What follows is a step-by-step breakdown of how Stephanie Donald of LGBT-Today went about thoroughly embarrassing herself. Lesson I: Research, Research, Research. Student Grade: 0%. Mrs. Donald failed to complete this particular assignment. If she had, she would have discovered rather quickly that the $22,000 quote for her Jetta's "restoration" will probably go down as one of the greatest automotive rip-offs in history. Indeed, she would have found that figure suspicious if perhaps she had first bothered to research the initial valuation supposedly given by a professional appraiser in Florida. Extra credit was available for this assignment for students who utilized multiple resources and demonstrated an ability to avoid falling victim to confirmation bias--a phenomenon that an individual with a Master's Degree in Psychology should be very familiar with, in which the researcher disregards all information contrary to his or her existing beliefs. Extra credit awarded: 0. Lesson II: The Ad. Student Grade: 60% The student demonstrated adequate classified advertising techniques. The ad was short, descriptive and informative. However, there was no documentation of the supposed $22,000 in recent work performed outside of a reference to the engine being rebuilt "from one end to the other." No link included to externally-hosted pictures or mention of maintenance records. Lesson III: Responding to Low-ballers. Student Grade: 20% Mrs. Donald's initial responses were acceptable, but as time progressed and potential buyers began to realize that she was actually serious about her asking price, she started losing her cool as it became clear that the increasingly outrageous "bids" were nothing but jokes from members of the largest English-language Volkswagen community on the Web--VWVortex.com. In a matter of hours, vortex members concocted wild background stories for their progressively larger offers. The student failed to understand the intent of their correspondence until it was pointed out to her by a third party. This assignment was a prerequisite for Lesson IV. Lesson IV: Have Thick Skin. Student Grade: 0% The student failed to complete this assignment. Participating in anonymous conversation in most online communities requires suppressing any natural reactionary attitude. As incredulity at Mrs. Donald's asking price grew and her responses became more combative, speculation about her motives and sincerity grew. This speculation brought on some crude comments from vortex members, comments that Mrs. Donald later found when the third party discussed above sent her a link to the VWVortex.com discussion thread, now in its third or fourth iteration (the previous versions having been moved to the community "Black Hole" forum for various violations of the community terms of use (mostly surrounding the posting of personal information). Rather than simply writing off the community's attitude as simple juvenile banter, Mrs. Donald elected instead to take it seriously. Very seriously. Lesson V (Final Project): The Internet Is Serious Business. Student Grade: 0% Mrs. Donald completed this assignment, however at no point did she demonstrated any understanding of the lesson or its purpose. The most basic submission should have acknowledged the joking nature of the community's response and, worst case, included registering for the VWVortex.com community, capped off with posting a small rant about proper etiquette. Instead, the student decided to threaten everybody with an FBI investigation and hate crime charges. The student's final submission is here: http://www.lgbt-today.com/news-a-articles/featured-articles/129-gay-bashing-is-alive-and-well-and-living-on-craigs-list-and-vwvortexcom Overall Grade: 16% (EDIT: The original article has been removed. You can see a copy of it here for the time being: http://forums.vwvortex.com/showthread.php?5170704-Related-to-the-30k-F-amp-F-Jetta-Lady...) Kidding aside, what we've witnessed here over the past two days is not member of a protected class being discriminated against. This is a person who is deeply embarrassed over a humiliating set of circumstances that befell her of her own volition. Lashing out in this situation is normal, if unprofessional and unbecoming. Mrs. Donald, you've been fooled twice--once by your mechanic and once by members of the Volkswagen community. Yes, members of the community may act juvenile. They may even be hurtful, but nobody said or did anything publicly that constituted a hate crime. Still others have tried to be helpful, and as you refuse to acknowledge the reality of your situation, it's hard to feel any sympathy. It's not our fault you made the decisions that led you here, and while it's natural for you to desire to lash out, is that really the mature response? As tired as the cliché may be, you've been fooled twice, Mrs. Donald. Shame on you.

2011 NAIAS — Business up front, party in the back.

by Carl Modesette. NAIAS Photography by Zerin Dube, Mark Fields photo courtesy of Ford From 10,000 ft, the glow of Detroit after sunset could be that of just about any other Midwestern city. Altitude and darkness impose a serenity that belies the nocturnal unrest below. Even the vast expanses of unused industrial property and the inch-thick dusting of snow that come into focus right about the time the landing gear drops are anonymous this time of day. The nighttime approach is a stirring equalizer. With the departure of the sun goes any character, and it's not until you cross over from the too-white lighting of the airport terminal into the dingy glow of sodium-vapor lamps that your senses really have a chance to recalibrate. By the end of your cab ride, reality has set in. The auto industry has recently undergone a similar reboot. Self-imposed isolation from the economic and social realities of the last decade finally broke down, and the house of cards came dangerously close to giving way. Two and a half years later, the repercussions are still visible, and even the boldest of manufacturers were cautious in their delivery. Even Ford, a close second to only the Germans for sheer gusto (Volkswagen took the cake here, hosting a media "reveal" for the new Passat for which they opted not to actually bring a car to reveal), stuffed their rhetoric with confidence and bluster, and then filled Cobo Arena not with the glorious roar of V8s, but with blue paper butterflies. The introduction of a new ROW Ford Ranger was mentioned several times, yet they chose not to dwell at all on their Truck-of-the-Year winning Explorer. Make no mistake though, humility was not the name of their game. Even in the midst of a greenie spiel from Ed Begley, Jr., Ford took undisguised shots at the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. They had attitude to spare. And if we weren't privy to the realities of corporate communications strategies, we'd suspect that Toyota's P.R. staff had simply sat in the back of the Arena, scribbling furious notes throughout Ford's conference in hopes of finding some decent material. From an opening shot at Bob Lutz to scripted-in laughter pauses for poorly-written and dubiously-executed jokes, the Prius family introduction felt like a last-minute book report that was due five years ago. As for the Toyota, Scion and Lexus brands themselves? Well, I think Mr. Toyoda confirmed (if only in passing) that they do indeed exist. The stories were pretty much the same everywhere you went. With a few exceptions, everybody was talking about downsizing. "Electrification" was this year's buzzword. Even the manufacturers who had nothing new to show were quite enthusiastic about their electrification efforts, despite the fact that they were showing more or less the exact same electric cars they've been showing for years. Mini, I'm looking at you.

Hyundai and Porsche provided welcome reprieves from otherwise mundane reveals.

So if your only exposure to the show was in sound bites and recaps, you'd probably assume that it was a pretty dull affair. For the most part, you'd be right. It wasn't a thrill ride by any means, and hearing line after line about Ford building the new Focus in the same plant where it once built trucks, well, yeah... it got old. But hit the floor, and you got the feeling that the product communications staff were winking at you as they parroted the details of the hybrid this or electric that. It's as if their eyes were darting over to the Boss 302 Mustang or the loaded-up Explorer. Maybe the bright-freakin'-yellow LFA sitting on the Scion side of the Lexus display. A little nod and a twinkle was all it took. Yep, we're still building those. Step out of the bright lights around the podium and into the darker, seedier, yellow-hued side aisles. Stay here long enough and you almost expect to hear the boo-boop of an illicit slot machine or muffled laughter from an invitation-only poker game. Yes, there's still fun to be had here, even if it's out of the public eye. In a way, NAIAS has become the most cynical of all the American auto shows--Motor City, home of the small-block V8 and Woodward Avenue, hosting the least performance-oriented show on the major U.S. circuit. To be fair to the domestic manufacturers in particular though, it's here that they're most under the spotlight. NAIAS draws more international media than any other in the States, and with everybody watching, nobody--especially not GM or Chrysler--wants to be caught with a hand up Mrs. Horsepower's skirt at a hometown show. Ford, though lacking in interesting debuts, did at least put on a good show, and the Vertrek concept (rumored to be the next Ford Escape) was promising, boasting sleek exterior styling and a throaty exhaust note from what was claimed to be a 1.6L EcoBoost engine. Though I suppose with the hood closed they could claim it's powered by a 2-cylinder diesel and we'd be forced to take them at their word.

1.6L EcoBoost? Sounded more like a 6.1L V8, but we'll take it anyway.

Chrysler didn't show us anything we hadn't already seen to some degree. The 300 was revealed in pictures ahead of the show, and the several years late refresh delivered as expected. There's really not much left to learn about this car until we have the opportunity to drive one, and we look forward to reporting on that in the coming weeks. And then there was Chevy. Phew. What is there to say? They trotted out a crowd of local, overdone hipsters who played a song "live" using instrument apps on their iThings (As if we're to believe that any network service in Cobo is actually reliable enough that they could pull this off), showed us the new Sonic for all of five minutes, and then tried to convince the gaggle to stick around by offering free booze. Did I mention that they were the last show of a nearly-13-hour schedule of conferences? I'm not sure who they pissed off, but if I had to guess, whoever was in charge of booking for the event must have been a former Buick/Pontiac/GMC/Saturn dealer principal.

You won't find this in the transcript of a GM press conference.

So maybe it wasn't the most interesting show in recent memory, but it was far from an outlier. For NAIAS, it was very much business as usual for the 21st century automaker. Up front, anyway.

SSL Road Test: The 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

by Byron Hurd. Photographs courtesy of Volkswagen. *This article has been corrected. See note above feature list.*

A few months ago, while reading one of my favorite Web comics, I came across a bit of a gem. While commenting on the endless debate between competing game console services Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, Penny Arcade's Jerry "Tycho" Holkins wrote something that every auto journalist knows, whether they've consciously considered it or not. "In order to appear reasonable it is sometimes necessary to say things which are untrue." Such profundity and brevity rarely coexist. Normally, when I know I'll be reviewing a car, I do my damnedest to avoid any other commentary on it until I have a chance to drive it. Futile though it may be these days, it's one of my few nods to objectivity. With the Jetta, short of isolating myself completely from the Web, this was essentially impossible. And so I learned too much. With my impressions already colored before I even set foot in the car, it took a concerted effort to reboot my expectations, especially as a former VW owner. It was a 1995 Passat VR6—my first car. It had roughly 60k miles on it at purchase (I say roughly because the original cluster had been replaced already) and hadn't crested 75k when I sold it two years later. In the space of time I owned the car, I replaced the master and slave cylinders, the AC compressor, the PCV valve, one wheel bearing, one CV joint, one set of (run-flat) tires and one center console lid (I say "one" because it broke again weeks later). Some other parts broke or failed as well: the stick-on shift pattern on top of the shifter popped off and vanished into the back seat about a month after I bought it; the battery cables refused to remain torqued down at the posts; and part of the intake ducting disappeared sometime during the first six weeks of ownership. The cruise control worked when the mood struck (which wasn't often) and, to top it all off, the passenger side front fender suffered a small stone chip that resulted in the clearcoat retreating in all directions, leaving a bubbled, chalky mess that was beyond my meager Blockbuster Video-supported means to repair properly. My first car, yes, and my last Volkswagen. But when I think back to my B4 VR, that's not how I remember it. I remember a comfortable, agile, well-appointed car that left me wanting for nothing save for the sundry automotive technologies that had become commonplace in the seven years since it was assembled—like the CD player, for instance—that required only a trip to Best Buy (Blockbuster wages, if you remember) to rectify. It was decently quick as a family car for the time (even for 2002, when VQ35-equipped Altimas were only just trickling down) and it made beautiful noises. I never modified a thing on it—for lack of funds as much as anything else—but I didn't think I really needed to. Maybe it wasn't a reliable car, but it was a good car. Since then, I have driven just about everything Volkswagen has seen fit to sell us. Phaetons, Touaregs, Jettas, Golfs, Rabbits, GTIs, TDIs, TSIs, FSIs, VR6s, G60s, you name it. Short of the Eos, there's no current offering that I haven't sampled. Some are good (GTI); some are great (Golf TDI); some are adequate (Passat); some are puzzling (CC). Ultimately, all of them are decent A-to-B transportation at the very least. But this is the first VW I've driven in an editorial capacity, and as such, I'm experiencing a bit the same dissonance expressed above by Tycho.  We'll come back to that. Our SEL tester came equipped with VW's 2.5L inline-five engine, producing 170hp at 5,700 rpm and 177lb-ft of torque at 4,250rpm, paired to their 6-Speed, torque converter automatic. No DSG here. Despite the high grunt-to-gallop ratio, the Jetta is actually quite sluggish off the line, and enthusiastic starts are bogged down by aggressive traction control that gets progressively worse with additional steering input.

If anything, the 2.5 is surprisingly rev-hungry. Power comes on convincingly after 3,000 rpm and sticks around all the way to redline, but before that, there's just nothing. Switching to "S" mode on the gear selector yielded no improvement off the line, but did push up-shifts further up the tach even while cruising. Fortunately, once at cruise, the 2.5L provides plenty of constant-speed power at fairly low RPM in both drive modes, and will happily chug along at 35mph in 5th or even 6th gear. You won't have any passing power there, but you won't be fighting to keep pace with traffic, either. Dynamically, the Jetta is competent if unremarkable. Steering effort at low speeds is unusually high and doesn't quite match up with the ratio, requiring what feels like a lot more work than one would expect in executing quick parking lot maneuvers. An autocross car, this is not. Over 25mph or so, it's more properly balanced. Cabin isolation is decent, with usable, but not fantastic front-end feedback. While some of the Jetta's platform mates feature fancy electromechanical steering rather than the traditional, pump-driven variety, it was cut here for cost savings. Wind and road noise are low, if not exceedingly so, and high-speed stability is good. The torsion bar rear axle only makes itself known over bad pavement, and the comfort-tuned suspension (there is an optional sport package available, but our tester was not so equipped) does a good job of mitigating axle wiggle, but between the unenthusiastic powertrain and the heavy, slow steering, you won't feel compelled to push the SEL to the point where you'd really test the limits of the chassis. Not that the tires would allow it, anyway. Overall, the car just feels heavy, and not in a substantial way, but a lethargic, mom-I-don't-want-to-go-to-school-today way. Much has been made of the interior cost-cutting on this car, and here's what it boils down to: There are only three soft-touch contact areas in the front of the cabin – the armrest on each door and the center console lid (which doubles as the center armrest). That's it. All other surfaces are hard, black plastic or hard, grey or silver plastic. To VW's credit, the black far exceeds the gray. And as for VW's famed "real metal" accents? Only the steering wheel accent, door handles and gear selector trim are shaped from the real deal. The alumi-like inserts in the doors and dash are painted plastic. The flair ends there.

VW's insistence on using a stalk rather than wheel-mounted buttons for the cruise control persists, and the result is a wheel that is cluttered on one side and bare on the other. Further control of the audio system requires an awkward combination of tuning knobs and touchscreen controls to navigate. The result may look uncluttered, but operation is not. Simplicity like this works well for an iPod or a smart phone—something you can concentrate on during use. It's not ideal for in-car entertainment. Same story with the hands-free phone interface. The seats are well-sculpted and look aggressively-bolstered, but aren't actually very snug (again, no sport package). Leatherette is the top seat trim choice, and it's pretty much what you'd expect. Our interior was black/black, but a beige/black two-tone is available if that's a bit too dreary for you. Moving outside, well, with apologies to Mr. Williams, it do look like an Audi… until an Audi pull up. You're on your own from there. But despite the size, power and equipment similarities, the 2011 Jetta does nothing to remind me of my Passat. On paper, it seems to have the competitive formula right. It's priced for the segment and offers a good bit of equipment for the price, even if a lot of the "little things" that we notice in comparisons have gone away. What Volkswagen has here is something that looks to be quite profitable for the company and reliable for its owners. But is it good? Well, in the interest of appearing reasonable, I suppose I can only say yes. Volkswagen provided the Jetta for the purpose of this review. Correction: It was pointed out to us that the Jetta no longer features electromechanical steering as found in other MkV/MkVI chassis vehicles. The above text has been corrected to reflect this information. Thanks, Jamie. Model: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL with Sunroof (MSRP incl. destination: $24,165) Major options: Power tilting/sliding sunroof, 6-speed automatic transmission, Titan Black leatherette interior. navigation, premium audio and Bluetooth included with SEL trim. Approx. miles driven: 300 Time in Fleet: 12/14/2010-12/21/2010

Lord Byron: 0-60-0

Unfortunately, the rumors surrounding our friends over at 0-60 Magazine are true. The paper side of the operation has been officially dropped by parent company Harris Publications.

Word from 0-60 staff is that they plan to continue with the magazine's online operation and blog/news format, which can be found (for the time being, at least) at http://www.0-60mag.com/. Keep an eye there for any announcements or changes.

It's always a shame when a glossy closes up shop, especially when it's one of the good ones. If you can get your hands on a back issue or two, I suggest doing so.

Good luck out there, fellas.

Lord Byron — The deeper meaning

by Byron Hurd The pilot episode of "The Wire" opens with a scene between Baltimore City homicide detective Jimmy McNulty and a young eyewitness sitting on a stoop, overlooking a murder scene. The victim was shot after running away with the pot from a dice game. The witness explains that the victim, "Snot Boogie," would come to the game every week and let the pot get thick, then pull a snatch and grab. Normally, the other players would chase him down and kick his ass for trying to make off with the cash, but this week somebody got tired of the routine and shot poor Snot Boogie dead. McNulty is puzzled, and asks the witness why they continued to allow Snot Boogie to play if he always ran off with the money. The witness looks at McNulty and then back at the body, then says, matter-of-factly, "You got to. This is America, man." And if Goodby, Silverstein & Partners hadn't cribbed from David Simon's series intro, the new Chevy Volt ad probably would have flown completely under my radar. But right there, buried in the middle of the voice-over (and just as deadpan the original), Chevy makes their appeal to all of us. "This is America, man." Even at face value, the sheer audacity of the line makes an impression. After all, it's hardly the first time GM could be accused of pandering to the nationalistic tendencies of some of its core buyers. But when taken in the context of the above story, it's a far more chilling appeal. The image of GM reaching its hands into the community pot and making a run for it, only to be beaten up, run off, and then allowed to return... well, if you're still not getting it, you're never going to. Whether the reference was intentional or not, it's not much of a stretch to say GM's advertising has been asking for second chances. From direct appeals from their executives to glimpses of humility in their product advertising, it's clear that the GM marketing balloon has been relieved of much of its hot air. That's to be expected when you consider that, just years ago, GM was still the biggest manufacturer with the biggest products and the biggest, nastiest, middle-finger-to-the-hippie-governmentiest ego you'd find in the American auto industry. I can't imagine what it feels like to be bailed out by the people you call some variation of "weenies" on a daily basis. They went from "Too big to fail" to "Government Motors" faster than they could blink, and a change like that requires a shake-up in corporate culture that probably has to be seen to be believed. What I see here is an admission and an appeal. GM is telling us, yes, we know we screwed up. We know you pulled us back from the brink of who-knows-what and have put us in a position to thrive (and with the expectation that we do so). We know you let us off easy. We know we could have ended up like Snot Boogie. Please, just give us the opportunity to make it right and we promise we won't reach in there again.

So, regardless of how you may feel about the "Chevy Runs Deep" tagline and the general tone of the commercials they've debuted this week, you can take solace in the fact that somewhere, somebody in Chevy's ad agency might have a grasp on the bigger picture. And maybe there's a little bit more to this push than superficial flag-waving and heritage appeal. After all, this is America. You gotta let GM play.

Lord Byron — Big Enough to Fail

Some of my regular readers have been inquiring as to my backlog of reviews. Fear not; they'll be along shortly. I'm currently dealing with some logistical issues which have repercussions for the release of two of these pieces. Once that shakes out, we should be back to our regularly-scheduled programming. For now, enjoy some Volkswagen. Friend and fellow SSL regular Jack once called the Volkswagen Phaeton "The best car in the world." He should know, I suppose, as he had two of them. And it was quite good. In fact, it's one of few cars I have ever known to be as satisfying from the back seat as it was from the driver's. It was a wonderful piece of engineering that deserved all of the praise it received. And now that Volkswagen appears to be back in the "on again" phase of what some of our esteemed colleagues depict as an ongoing deliberation as to the future of the Phaeton in America, I feel it's appropriate to issue a gentle warning to our friends across the pond: The Phaeton cannot and will not succeed in the United States. The Phaeton was remarkable because it was a Volkswagen. I don't mean it was remarkable because VW builds incredible machines; I mean it was remarkable in that it was a full-on luxury car with full-on luxury options marked up with full-on luxury pricing, and yet it was a Volkswagen. Here was a feature-rich, (comparatively) no-holds-barred, $70 thousand dollar car being sold alongside New Beetles and leftover (and then nearly a dozen years old under the sheet metal) Golf Cabriolets. Why is that last bit important? Well, quite simply, the Phaeton's identity here was based on it being a complete fish out of water. But it was something else, too. It was—in a sad, sickening sort of way—emblematic of Volkswagen's utter incompetence with regard to the U.S. market. Here they had a car which represented some of the finest luxury features new money could buy, and yet it sat humbly (and comfortably) beside cars that didn't cost a fifth as much, never for once appearing to be out of place. It was in that regard (even if none other), fundamentally Volkswagen. You just couldn't get it for a fundamentally Volkswagen price, and therein lay the rub. For the same long decade that VW of America sold that miserable MkIII Cabrio, they had been laying the groundwork for a fundamental shift for the brand—a true move upmarket—and here was its most obvious harbinger. I need not bore you with the details as I'm sure you're already familiar with them, but the long and short of it was this: Volkswagen fans were in awe of it. Journalists praised its substance but panned its lack of superficial splendor. And consumers? Well, they didn't really have an opinion one way or the other. Almost nobody bought it. Even fewer were repeat customers, and who could blame them? Volkswagen dealers were in the business of servicing middle-aged Apple geeks and the odd child of a BMW or Mercedes-Benz owner, not true luxury buyers.

Interior of the refreshed 2011 Phaeton. Not much changed, but then it didn't really need to.

Today, most of the buying public is entirely unaware of its existence. Why shouldn't they be? Eighty percent of us can't afford one, and the remaining 20 barely looked up from their BMW, Lexus or Mercedes lease agreements long enough to care. For better or worse though (and it was undoubtedly the latter; the Phaeton lasted a mere three years here), that is the Volkswagen Phaeton as we Americans know it—a fantastic car backed by a thoroughly unremarkable effort. And if Volkswagen brings the Phaeton back to the U.S., it will happen again. Why? Well, this is Speed:Sport:Life, so the answer is (of course) branding. "Phaeton" is more than just letters on a trunklid (and if you don't agree, the "Taurus II" anecdote is just for you). It's an international brand which, unfortunately, has a history of failure in the States. And because of that failure, Volkswagen can't win with "Phaeton." Why? Because we're unreasonable—all of us. I'll come back to that. For now, let's talk strategy. There are many ways to relaunch a car, but when it comes to Phaeton 2.0, there are essentially only three paths to take. The first is the most obvious: Just bring it back. Same car. Same options. Sure, maybe you throw in a diesel or V6 model to fill the gap between the loaded CC ($40k range) and the base V8 model, but for all intents and purposes, you do nothing different. Obviously, the greatest risk (and likeliest outcome) is that it drops with the same grace and poise as the previous model. That is to say, much like a loaded dump truck exiting a narrow mountain road by way of the guardrail. And on top of that, those of us with a podium from which to preach will slam Volkswagen for taking the Insanity-for-Dummies approach and making the same exact mistake twice. Result: Loss. The second option is to give the U.S. its own Phaeton, independent of the next generation model that will likely be introduced in ROW markets sometime in the next year or two (the current formula works overseas, so why change it?), and price it as an Avalon/Maxima/300C/Taurus competitor. Sure, it'll still be called a Phaeton, but it won't actually be a Phaeton (and believe me, the automotive media will never get tired of recycling that particular point). It will forever be the Phauxton, scorned by critics as the watered-down, built-for-fat-people variant that will never live up to its European namesake. Result: Again, a loss. And then there's option three. In this scenario, they don't bring back a Phaeton at all. Instead, they follow every step outlined in option two, but call it something else (there are plenty of trade winds and barbaric tribes left, right?). This allows them to bring a range-topping model to market that fits the new face of their U.S. lineup. Will it be compared to the Phaeton? Of course. Even Hyundai's Genesis Sedan was likened to VW's failed flagship, but as Hyundai has demonstrated, America will buy into a luxury car from a decidedly non-luxury brand as long as it doesn't take the formula too far outside of their comfort zone. The Genesis isn't a complete, runaway hit, but it sells well enough to be viable, and at a price that doesn't bring with it certain expectations that the Hyundai dealer network can't meet (whether that will hold true with the Equus remains to be seen). But at least this option has potential. Now, if some of the assertions above seem a bit over-the-top, it's intentional. As I said, we're unreasonable—journalists, consumers, Internet fanboys, however "we" are defined in your particular context. We are, as a whole, devoid of logic when it comes to the issue of branding. Our expectations are so arbitrary that it is virtually impossible for manufacturers to meet them. This really shouldn't be news to you at this point. If you're the type to write a 1,200-word essay demanding a $25,000, all-wheel drive GTI that pushes 350hp, weighs 2700lbs and rides like an S-Class, then consider this your wake-up call, or at the very least your cue to leave. But whether we are reasonable or not, Volkswagen faces a real danger in bringing back a nameplate that was considered by many to be a new benchmark for sub-$100k luxury. This potential relaunch is a fundamental exercise in managing expectations. By bringing back the Phaeton, even if in name only, they've already set themselves up on the losing side of the expectations game. And given their performance over the last two decades, the last thing VoA needs to do is come out of the gate having stacked their own deck against them. The Phaeton symbolized VW's struggles before. Why go down that road again?

Lord Byron — Yes*, it’s got a HEMI

Ray Wert, the Jalop of Jalops over at www.jalopnik.com, recently wrote a piece about the HEMI brand and the upcoming 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. For those who aren't scrutinizing the JGC's launch on the same level as us know-it-alls, let me catch you up. Essentially, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee will no longer have a 5.7L HEMI engine. Instead, it will have a 5.7L OHV MDS V8 with Variable-valve Timing... and an engine cover emblazoned with enormous, embossed "HEMI" branding.

It's okay if you're confused, but it boils down to this: Jeep will no longer feature the HEMI branding within its vehicle lineup. The same engine will be branded as a HEMI in other Chrysler Group LLC products (as Jeep Brand Marketing Head Honcho Jim Morrison put it, they'll be leaving it to "the Dodge and truck guys"), but not in a Jeep.

But why? Mr. Wert proposes that this is green-washing--an effort by Chrysler to minimize the enthusiast value of their vehicles in front of an ever-more-environmentally-focused media. It's not a poor argument. Just look around at the rest of the industry. Ford's twin-turbo, 350+ horsepower V6 monster is dubbed "EcoBoost," for crying out loud. If that's not green marketing, I don't know what is. But in the context of Chrysler, I think Wert's assessment, while not unreasonable, isn't quite on the mark.

When I attended the 2011 JGC launch event in D.C., the real theme that jumped out at me was luxury. Morrison made it a point to use that word and other terms that evoked the idea as often as grammatically feasible, even setting aside product information momentarily to emphatically remind everybody that Jeep essentially invented the premium SUV with the Wagoneer in the 1960s (before the Range Rover was even a blip on the Brits' radar) and brought about the modern incarnation of it with the original Grand Cherokee in 1992.

So how, as a brand marketing manager, could Morrison possibly reconcile that theme with the branding that put Jon Reep on our T.V. screens, screaming, "That thing got a HEMI?" at us for the better part of two years? Obviously, he didn't want to.

And when you look at Chrysler Group as a whole, the divorcing of brands makes more sense. One of the primary goals of the Fiat-Chrysler merger is to differentiate the various brands under the corporate umbrella and play to their strengths. Dodge is the sporty brand. Ram is the truck brand. Chrysler is the luxury brand. And Jeep is the 4x4 brand. Can there be some spill-over? Of course. There have been no announced plans to curtail future SRT development, and with unconfirmed shots of 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT-8 models rolling around, it's clear that the HEMI (Ahem... MDS V8 with Variable-valve Timing) itself isn't going to leave the lineup any time soon.

The homogenization of brand identities has been a disaster for domestic car manufacturers (see Pontiac, Mercury and Saturn). Chrysler was well on its way down this particular road too. Chrysler and Dodge were essentially indistinguishable, and Jeep and Dodge also had heavy overlap in product, if not necessarily in mission.

Remember, marketing isn't simply how a company presents itself to its audience; it's also how a company defines that audience. If your branding is muddled and mired, your brand strategy will follow suit.

And just who is Jeep targeting with the Grand Cherokee? Here's what they had to say about it in their press kit:

"Jeep Grand Cherokee buyers are 55 percent male and 45 percent female. They are affluent and educated with active, outdoor lifestyles and interests and have an income of $95,000. Nearly half have children. More than 60 percent have a college degree and 80 percent are professionals."

Not exactly the sort of people to be chasing a car-carrier down a dirt road in a rustbucket Challenger.

Let's face it. At the end of the day, the last thing a Chrysler Group brand manager wants to hear from his marketing team is, "**** it, let's just tell 'em we have HEMIs. Everybody likes HEMIs!" In fact, I bet Jim Morrison hates HEMIs. I'm certain that if he had his way, every one of those engine covers would be sanded down and painted matte black as part of the initial dealer prep, if not removed entirely. Every time he sets eyes on it, I bet it reminds him of every column inch spent discussing the merits of Jeep's HEMI-free brand strategy instead of their new (and very cool) Selec-Terrain system or the leather-wrapped dash available as an option on Overland models.

So is green-washing involved? Maybe a little, but I don't think that's the focus here. While Morrison did place great emphasis on the Pentastar V6's 23mpg highway rating, the story wasn't just about mileage and emissions. The story was about evolving the premium/luxury SUV segment and demonstrating Chrysler's new corporate image.

And once this HEMI din subsides, I think they have a great shot at doing just that.