“… for those of us who lived through these events, the only marker we’ll ever need is the tick of a clock at the 46th minute of the eighth hour of the 11th day.” -President George W. Bush December, 2001
It’s 1:30 a.m. on Friday, but if you ask my body, it’s still very much Thursday night. I’m cruising southward on a deserted stretch of I-287 in north Jersey. It’s cool and clear, the full moon turning the sparse high clouds a ghostly shade of silver around the edges. I have the music up and the sunroof rolled back, inviting the breeze in to keep me awake, but I don’t really need it. I’ve been on the road for about six hours but I’m still as fresh as if were six minutes. As I gaze out above the trees that line the interstate to take in the beauty of the silver wisps in the stratosphere, I notice something about the coloring of the cloud layer to my east. The misty whites and grays give way to an equally bright, yellow-tinged hue in the center. That isn’t the moon.
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.
I didn’t attend the Detroit Auto Show this year. From what my friends, fellow Speed:Sport:Lifers and other publications told me, it was bleak. Far bleaker than the media reported, even though, at the time, I was kind of surprised by the general nasty tone of much of the coverage. It’s hard to bitch about the car industry, because we want it to survive, because we generally like our jobs.
Locally, there was very little good news in the week preceding the Chicago Auto Show. The Chicago Transportation Agency was forced to cut buses and trains. McCormick Place, the convention center that hosts the auto show, is losing other trade shows at an alarming rate. A lot of colleagues couldn’t make it to town because of a blizzard. Also, I was told there was an earthquake in Chicago the morning of the media preview, but even that was a failure: it apparently wasn’t even potent enough to disrupt my sleep. Doomsday headlines abounded and the prospects for the show weren’t particularly good. But I’d heard there were Fiat 500s in town, so I put on a dress and made an appearance.
Call me skeptical. Go ahead; it’s a label I wear with pride. I’m a half-ass Catholic with a solid education, and though I chose to pursue the arts instead of the sciences, I evaluate the results of both disciplines with a critical eye. Blind faith is another matter entirely (unless we’re talking about the spectacular Magic Hat brew, which is a notion I can fully support). So a couple years ago, when I was a bit more naïve and a steadfast Euro devotee, I chuckled at my auto industry friends’ (and Kia’s and Hyundai’s) insistence that the Korean manufacturers were poised to take the auto landscape by storm.
Exterior Photos by Zerin Dube, Interior Photos Courtesy of Kia Motor Company
Vehicle: 2010 Kia Soul Sport
Price-as-tested: $18,345 incl. $695 destination
Major equipment: 2.0L inline four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual transmission, power sunroof ($700 option)
Approximate mileage driven: 175
If ever there was a car doomed to fail in the American market, surely it was the first-generation Scion xB. The underlying idea — hastily converting a Japanese-market “room-on-wheels” based on the showroom-poison Toyota Echo to left-hand-drive — was so terrible that one wonders exactly what kind of blackmail took place behind the scene to make it happen. Of course, the little xB turned out to be Scion’s success story. Nominally aimed at artsy college kids and even-artsier bohemians, the xB turned out to be a massive hit with small businessmen, housewives in search of a shopping-cart-sized shopping car, and older people who appreciated the basic utility of Toyota’s no-frills wagon. The xB’s runaway success was an object lesson in the fact that some people really do want an affordable urban utility vehicle, but Toyota chose to ignore that lesson by making the second-gen xB half as again as powerful, hundreds of pounds heavier, and utterly devoid of the original car’s simple charm.