Last month, I sang the praises of a number of cars that I'd driven in 2003, including the BMW 645Ci coupe, several new Cadillacsamong them my own 2003 Escalade ESVthe Chevy Silverado HD 1500 pickup, the Mazda MPV, the all-aluminum Jaguar XJ8, and the Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S. Finally, I iced the cake with the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG, which I have driven three or four timesincluding a fantastic drive at very high speeds through the mountains of Mexico, between Oaxaca and Tuxtla Gutierrez on the old Mexican Carrera Panamericana route.
There was no Ferrari on that list, largely because I'm losing interest in contemporary Ferraris. I love the old V-12s as much as I ever did, but modern Ferraris seem to be more and more the province of people who used to own Pontiac Trans Ams. I know perfectly well that plenty of very nice people aspire to Ferrari ownership and that plenty of similarly nice people own current-model Ferraris, but the shrieking bad taste of an object like the Ferrari Enzo can only mean that Ferrari has identified a potential market of wealthy twits whose own lack of taste will dovetail neatly with that which inspired the Enzo.
My son Matt and I sat together at the Frankfurt show and listened to Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo wax ecstatic about the marvelous quality and astonishing performance of his new Maserati Quattroporte. As he breathlessly claimed that it would be the best sedan of its size and type in the world, I thought about BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Cadillac's CTS V, and Audi, and I remained unconvinced. The best sport sedans in the world have been evolving for the last decade, and they are mighty good cars, make no mistake. I don't expect them to lie down and play dead for a marketing exercise with a Maserati nameplate.
Besides, for real car enthusiasts, there's a whole new portfolio of very exciting cars available at prices that wouldn't even get you a 50,000-mile checkup on one of Mr. di Montezemolo's cars. I speak (with awe) of the Mini Cooper S, the Subaru WRX, the Ford SVT Focus, the Toyota Celica GT-S, the Honda Civic Si, the Dodge (Neon) SRT-4, the Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S, and, of course, this year's Automobile Magazine Automobile of the Year, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The Honda Civic Si may come up a tad short in this league, but it has lots of potentialand Civics do enjoy a huge reputation in rice-rocket racing circles.
All of this was running through my head as I tore home in a Mini Cooper S (with the John Cooper Works tuning kit) one Friday night. This latest iteration of the Mini is simply brilliant, and every American male between the ages of sixteen and one hundred and sixteen should drop everything and drive one. If it has any drawback or shortcoming, it might be the very real possibility that you could have so much illicit fun with it that you just might wind up in prison for life. Just about the time you're halfway through third gear, with three gears left to go, you are struck with the truth of the old engineering maxim, "Low mass is its own reward."
You could save money for several years and make a down payment on a Lamborghini, or you could buy one of the several cars I just mentioned and have way more fun than a whole bunch of Lamborghini owners with whom you'd rather not hang out anyway.
And now for something completely different. A gang of friends and fellow enthusiasts have banded together to form an organization called "The Points and Condenser Preservation Society," based in a large warehouse where we can keep our favorite cars warm and dry during the winter months. The Society was having its annual Fall Color Tour not long ago, and I managed to borrow a bright yellow Chevrolet SSR from the Automobile Magazine test fleet for the occasion.
The SSR is part car, part truck, part SUV, and part street-legal cruiser. It is a magnet for citizens who can't take their eyes off it and want to know all about it. I must confess that I had my doubts when I first saw it, and reading the comments of my fellow automotive writers was not reassuring. I wondered if GM had heaved and strained only to produce the next Plymouth Prowler. As it turns out, the SSR is a very pleasant driverexpensive but fast enough, comfortable enough, wonderfully odd-looking, and a very likable vehicle. There is some juddering over washboard surfaces and railroad crossings, but beyond that, I could find nothing to complain about.
On the last night that I had it, I drove to the supermarket. As I disembarked, an attractive older couple came over and wanted to know all about it. They sat in it, admired it, then asked to see the cargo area. I hit the button, the bed cover rose up, and I opened the tailgate and revealed the bed, which would be right at home on a vintage yacht. The old lady clapped her hands with delight and said, "Why, you could put a body in there!" It was clear that her husband had seen enough. "Time to go, dear."