A couple of months ago I was plodding through L.A. traffic when a fantastical creature appeared in my rearview mirror. It looked like the unholy offspring of a Pontiac Aztek and a Subaru Baja, and it wore manufacturer plates. Identifying badges were removed, and the clatter of a pint-size diesel emanated from beneath the hood. I later ascertained that this hot mess of a minitruck was none other than a Ssangyong Actyon.
Like a birdwatcher who spies a rare speckle-breasted ticklenoggin, I was inordinately pleased to spot an Actyon in action — you see Ssangyongs in Britain, but it seems to be one of the few brands sold in Europe that is still off-limits to us. Until recently, you could name a long list of cool cars (predominantly small hatchbacks) that Americans were denied. But those days are over. All the Euro cars are here — or, I should say, all the good ones.
That point was underscored last summer, when I banged a U-turn and screeched into a parking lot to examine what I thought must be some weird, European-market prototype. It turned out to be a Fiat 500L, albeit the first I’d seen in person. So it was just somebody’s car. How cool. This is the sort of vehicle that was supposed to be anathema to Silverado-driving America, a funky little space-efficient people mover. Yet there it was, parked outside of a strip mall in North Carolina, acting like it belonged.
When I first visited Europe in 1998, I felt like Charles Darwin landing in the Galapagos, such was the alien diversity of the automotive ecosystem. Back then, there was very little overlap in the Venn diagram depicting Our Cars and Their Cars. Now we’ve got plumbers driving Sprinters and florists in Transit Connects. Fiats roam free, and the raspy song of the diesel sings out from beneath the hoods of Chevy Cruzes, Volkswagen Jettas, and many a Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and BMW. Our Ford Fiesta and Focus are not dumb versions of theirs. In fact, instead of European divisions deigning to occasionally grace us with the likes of a Cadillac Catera, we foist our cars onto them. Hey, Belgium, how do you like your Fiat Freemonts? Because those are really Dodge Journeys. You’re welcome.
I credit this renaissance to two major factors. First, the resurrection of the Mini proved that Americans would buy small premium hatchbacks, provided they were well executed. Second, gasoline is permanently expensive, and the prices of cars themselves ratchet inexorably higher, creating a business case for a tasty morsel like the Fiesta ST or an inveterate oddball like the 500L. I recently drove the latter, and I can say that no car outside of Italy made me feel more like a Roman taxi driver. Where to? The Spanish Steps? I take you on a tour first! No, no arguing!
But it’s not just small cars that benefit from the influx of Euro influence. When it comes to the qualities that we associate with European ride and handling — composure, balance, the ability to tackle a bumpy road without getting tossed around like a blimp in a hurricane — American cars are no longer much different from their Euro counterparts. Fifteen years ago, Cadillac was pushing sport sedans with V-8s and front-wheel drive. Now we’ve got the CTS Vsport, a twin-turbo case study in handling finesse that I strongly suspect would torch any of the equivalent Germans around a road course.
If there’s a downside to all this upside, it’s that the proliferation of world cars imbued with Euro flavor imparts a kind of uniform competence that, within any given class, can read as homogeneity. Even in the case of the new Corvette, the polish of its interior appointments and handling tacitly affirms that gleeful trashiness doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to conquest the BMW M4 and Porsche Boxster crowds.
Which is why I’m so happy about the new SRT Viper. Not because it’s a better car than the Vette, but because it’s so different. It’s rude and screaming fast and still flawed in many of the ways it has always been flawed, jackhammering its funky exhaust pulses out side pipes that just can’t wait to scald you. Chrysler doesn’t even try to sell it in Europe.
Sorry about that, Europeans. I used to know how you feel.