It’s not surprising that a mid-engined concept stole the 2012 Detroit auto show, but the Acura NSX’s appeal was much stronger than the usual draw of a sexy, unattainable exotic. The NSX concept reminds enthusiasts of better days for the troubled Japanese brand. Its low, sleek lines and sophisticated powertrain take us back to the fourteen-year period when the original aluminum-bodied NSX epitomized Acura’s (and Honda’s) innovative spirit and engineering prowess. Even with the production car three years off, the NSX has already changed how we think of Acura.
Inspired by the NSX’s revival, Automobile Magazine editors compiled a list of ten worthy cars that are primed for a comeback. This isn’t about nostalgia. These niche vehicles are modern halo cars, capable of casting a glow to elevate the entire brand. They ooze passion by delivering design, performance, capability, or purity of character outside of the mainstream. These are the ten cars we want back.
A Real Lincoln Continental
GONE SINCE: 1965
WHY IT’S TIME: The Lincoln MKZ concept from this year’s Detroit auto show is a sleek, elegant, modern, and well-executed sedan. Whether it’s a Lincoln is debatable, because there is little about it that is distinctly and unequivocally American. We’ve got sleek, elegant, modern, and well-executed sedans from all corners of the globe these days. What Lincoln needs is a Continental with the same sort of presence and unmistakable Americanness that the 1961 suicide-door sedan and four-door convertible possessed. A big, unabashedly bold, rear-wheel-drive flagship sedan that resurrects the Continental badge would announce that Ford’s luxury division is prepared to follow its own road rather than chase the Germans, a task best left to Cadillac.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Give us a Lincoln that’s sexy and substantial and that from a hundred yards cannot be mistaken for anything other than a Continental.
GONE SINCE: 1973
WHY IT’S TIME: Recently freed from corporate guardianship, Volvo is clearly feeling its way through a transition phase. The latest concept cars propose a flagship sedan influenced by the clumsy PV444/PV544 of the 1950s and ’60s, but there’s a far more beautiful Swede from the same era that should inspire Volvo’s reinvention.
A sports car in the vein of the 1800 coupe could deliver the same halo that Volvo sought in 1961. Since the design of that car had been farmed out to Italian firm Frua, there was no visual similarity between the 1800 and the family-car mainstays. Rather, Volvo wanted to convince shoppers that the engines in other models were spry enough to power a sports car. That same technique — shared DNA to elevate the awareness and significance of lesser models — still works today. With 40,000 sales in twelve years, Volvo’s sport coupe was a moderate sales success, but the real measure of the 1800’s influence is its legacy that lasts to this day.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A flagship is a fine way to attract the attention of retired hedge-fund managers, but everybody loves a beautiful, swift sports car.
An old-school Ford Bronco
GONE SINCE: 1978
WHY IT’S TIME: Of the dozens of SUVs that fill dealer showrooms, none are much like the original Ford Bronco, a small, versatile, utilitarian off-roader that was there at the origin of the species. Launched in 1965, the Bronco was a compact two-door available in three body styles: four-seat “wagon” with a lift-off hard top, two-seat pickup with an open bed, and two- or four-seat “roadster” with an optional soft top. Four-wheel drive was standard, and a straight six supplied the — modest — power (a small-block V-8 quickly joined the options list). The Bronco stuck around for more than a decade before it was supplanted by the much larger, O. J. Simpson version. The original, however, remained a favorite of off-road enthusiasts, and today, unmodified examples are snapped up by collectors, who appreciate their rugged simplicity and now-classic style. Now that the Explorer has gone crossover, Ford lacks a true off-roader, opening up an opportunity to bring back the Bronco. Ford obviously has been thinking along the same lines, as it showed a Bronco concept in 2004, which struck us as a skillful reinterpretation of the original; it was even equipped with a four-cylinder turbo-diesel, which would provide decent fuel economy.
THE BOTTOM LINE: With a trail-friendly size and true off-road capability, a new Bronco would ooze authenticity.
GONE SINCE: 2002
WHY IT’S TIME: A sporty, good-looking two-plus-two-seat coupe at an appealing price, the Prelude was a popular offering from Honda for more than twenty years. Despite its attainability, it also was an effective halo car for Honda, helping to give the brand a fun-to-drive image. Now, after years of turning out highly competent but increasingly uninspiring vehicles, Honda once again could use the image boost of a sporty offering, and the econo-miser CR-Z isn’t it. Whether based, like the previous Prelude, on the Accord or on the Civic, a modern Prelude would need to be sporty yet still somewhat practical. The styling would have to be more aggressive than any of Honda’s current coupes, but the back seats would need to be sufficient for at least occasional use. Due to its longevity and relatively high profile, Prelude is a name that still resonates, and a modern version could help power Honda out of its doldrums.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The Honda lineup could use a dose of sportiness.
GONE SINCE: 1980
WHY IT’S TIME: The VW Microbus was a beguiling vehicle. With a top speed of 50 mph, no torque, and no climbing ability when loaded, it nevertheless was capable of serving as both transport and sleeping quarters for cross-county road trips. Most people who’ve experienced them have very fond memories of the Microbus. VW needs to bring back the Microbus’s funky looks and its zillion windows, add 140 hp and four disc brakes, and watch another whole generation have real fun with a car that can’t do 200 mph but can get 60 mpg. Today, there’s digital electronic media; back then, the Microbus was even more effective as a social connector, and it is unmatched by any car since.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The world needs a smaller eight-seat, non-SUV mobile box.
GONE SINCE: 1993
WHY IT’S TIME: America needs a reasonably sized pickup truck again. We’ve watched the Toyota Tacoma morph from a smallish truck to something almost as big as a half-ton. Meanwhile, Ford, a brand synonymous with pickups, recently abandoned the segment completely. Jeep is the only brand that can get away with a back-to-basics pickup in its portfolio, and basing the pickup on the next-generation Wrangler makes a ton of sense.
The Comanche was affordable, had very respectable payload ratings, and never succumbed to the size creep that essentially killed the small-pickup segment. For a modern interpretation, a turbo four-cylinder from Fiat would give the Comanche enough power to haul cargo without swilling too much gasoline. Keep the options list limited to functional upgrades, and make sure it’s offered straight from the assembly line instead of through a complicated Mopar kit, a la JK-8.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The only way to curb America’s appetite for oversize trucks is to offer a credible small truck that actually uses less fuel than a full-size.
Alfa Romeo Spider
GONE SINCE:</strong 1993
WHY IT’S TIME: If America is ever to take Alfa Romeo seriously again, it isn’t going to be from some front-wheel-drive hatchbacks with pretty styling. It’s not going to be from ultraexpensive exotics or from BMW-wannabe sport sedans. And crossovers? Get real. For Americans, the Spider is Alfa Romeo, and any attempt to bring back Alfa that does not feature a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive, rev-happy roadster is doomed to fail. Positioned just above the Mazda Miata but below pricey European roadsters like the BMW Z4 and the Mercedes-Benz SLK, the Spider would reestablish Alfa’s credentials as a maker of characterful, fun-to-drive, sporting machines (or simply establish them, for the whole generation of car buyers who never experienced the original Spider). A proper Spider is the basis around which Alfa can expand into higher-volume categories. It’s a car we want, but it’s also one that Alfa needs.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Message for Sergio Marchionne regarding Alfa Romeo in the United States: It’s the Spider, stupid.
GONE SINCE: 2003 (1999 in the U.S.)
WHY IT’S TIME: Akio Toyoda’s vision to redeem his family name is fairly straightforward: build sports cars, reignite passion for the brand, wash away the banality. It all made sense to us — until the company’s four-year collaboration with Subaru to produce a minimalist, 200-hp, rear-wheel-drive coupe ended up as a Scion.With the low end covered by the FR-S, a slightly larger, more powerful, and pricier car — a Supra — is Toyota’s ticket out from passenger-car monotony. A $35,000, six-cylinder Supra hits the sweet spot of the sports car market, rekindling the Z-Car rivalry with Nissan and competing against Hyundai’s Genesis coupe and the Detroit pony car trio. The obligatory turbo model faces off with the V-8 competition and serves as fodder for the inevitable 1500-hp tuner specials. One important detail: a Camry engine won’t cut it. If Toyota’s commitment to the enthusiast is legitimate, it’ll line up all six cylinders in a single row.
Chevrolet El Camino
GONE SINCE: 1988
WHY IT’S TIME: Forget for a moment the mighty 1970 El Camino 454 SS. Forget its 450 hp, 11.25:1 compression ratio, and four-speed manual transmission. Remember instead the far more common six-cylinder, 155-hp El Camino. In an era before $4-a-gallon gas, global-warming worries, and CAFE regulations, this humble El Camino offered carlike efficiency in a cheap, hard-working truck. Now consider the Ute, marketed by GM subsidiary Holden in Australia. With its 3.0-liter V-6, it tows 3500 pounds and achieves the equivalent of about 24 mpg. Those figures would, we suspect, impress many individuals and small businesses. How can Chevrolet, as it tries to meet tougher fuel standards, afford not to sell such a vehicle? Of course, as long as we’re saving the planet, we might as well have some fun. Again, our friends Down Under provide inspiration in the form of the 362-hp Ute SS. That’s more power than a vehicle with barely any weight over its rear tires ever needs, but we’ll assume Chevrolet would do better than that by installing the Camaro ZL1’s 580-hp, 6.2-liter V-8.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Carlike fuel economy, trucklike utility, Camaro-like burnouts. What’s not to like?
GONE SINCE: 1974
WHY it’s time: Buick currently fields its most competent lineup in decades. Reclaiming its place as a luxury contender, though, will take more than front-wheel-drive sedans and crossovers. Buick needs style, glamour, and performance. In other words, it needs a Riviera. Not, mind you, the generic models of the late 1970s and ’80s or the overwrought, front-wheel-drive concept the brand rolled out at the 2007 Shanghai auto show. We’re talking about a dashing, understated coupe in the spirit of the 1963 original — stylish and sophisticated enough to be parked next to European coupes and yet accessible to the upper-middle-class buyer. Buick could come close to the original’s price — roughly $35,000 in today’s money — by using the rear-wheel-drive architecture that underpins the Chevrolet Camaro. Those bones would guarantee a capable performer, but the “Riv” need not be a sports car. Wearing a modern interpretation of Bill Mitchell’s clean styling, which, by the way, did without faux portholes or an oversize waterfall grille, the Riviera would offer buyers a comfortable, distinctly American alternative to the likes of the BMW 6-Series and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class coupe.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Never mind German sport sedans and premium small cars; Buick needs an all-American Riviera.