OF HOVERCRAFT, HEROES AND HENS
c.2013 New York Times News Service
We writers enjoy bemoaning that there are no more surprises in the automotive world, but the past year was full of them, from an exhaust note that caused constant double-takes to a Rolls with unexpected avian appeal. And then, of course, there was the hovercraft.
The Jaguar F-Type V-8 S has the most outrageously boisterous factory exhaust system on any car at any price. One night, I mounted a GoPro camera to the rear bumper and went out to ascertain whether fireballs shoot out of the tailpipe. (They don’t.) One day, while leaving an airport parking garage I consciously took it easy, for fear that a trip to the redline would echo off the walls in such a way that fellow travelers might mistake it for small-arms fire.
HOVERCRAFT OF THE YEAR
Hovercraft are inherently, indisputably cool. So why don’t they look cool? Most small hovercraft are build-it-yourself kits that have all the sex appeal of a bathtub mated with a giant leaf blower. A Chicago company, Mercier-Jones, aims to address that problem, reconciling high design with the futuristic appeal of a machine that flies on a cushion of air.
I checked out the company’s first prototype at the Charlotte Auto Fair last fall, in North Carolina. With a carbon-fiber fuselage and two tandem seats, the hybrid-powertrain Mercier-Jones looks like something a supervillain would use to commute to his private island in 2300. In other words, it’s what a hovercraft should look like.
The prototype wasn’t fully functional but could maneuver around on a pond enough that you got the idea. I recently asked the company’s co-founder and chief executive, Michael Mercier, how the progress is coming, and he said improvements had been made to the thrust and hover systems to allow better performance on land. A second prototype is to be ready in February, and the company hopes to start production in June. After that, who knows? Villains and superspies alike could soon be undertaking their amphibious travels in newfound style.
CAR MOST LIKELY TO ATTRACT FANCY CHICKENS
I had a real-life Beverly Hillbillies moment at a friend’s farm, where an inquisitive chicken tried to climb into the back seat of the new Rolls-Royce Ghost Extended Wheelbase. I let her get as far as the doorsill, where she took a good look around before I shooed her away. The chicken did not cross the Rolls.
CAR THAT TEMPTS YOU TO STARE AT IT
When Aston Martin’s former owner, Ford, borrowed Aston’s signature grille for its Fusion, I wondered whether that mass-market dilution would lessen the visual impact of actual Astons.
It seemed as if every time I parked the Vanquish Volante I ended up in a conversation involving either the price (about $300,000) or the horsepower (565). A grand total of zero people thought that this carbon-fiber-body V-12 roadster had anything to do with a Fusion. Anyway, there’s more to an Aston than the grille: This is a car that compels you to linger in your garage just to look at it.
BEST CAR THAT YOU BUILD YOURSELF
To build a Factory Five 818S, you need three things: the $9,990 kit from Factory Five, a 2002-07 Subaru Impreza or WRX, and a bit of handiness with a wrench. Given some time and tools, you dismantle the Subaru and use its guts to create the 818, an elemental 1,800-pound two-seater with a midengine rear-wheel-drive configuration. The result sounds like a Subaru and performs like a gutsier Lotus Elise. And, depending on what you spend on the Subaru donor car, the entire project could cost around $15,000 (although $20,000 might be more realistic). I attended the open house event where Factory Five unveiled the car, and a mob of customers validated the appeal of the concept. I’ve since driven the car, and it’s as entertaining as you’d expect of a vehicle with 265 horsepower and half the weight of a Camaro. (There’s also the 818R track-oriented version, for those who desire additional speed.) Dynamic virtues aside, I imagine that there’s a healthy level of satisfaction when someone asks who built your car and you can reply, “I did.”
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CAR THAT MAKES YOU GLAD YOU’RE NOT 6-FOOT-4
One day while I was testing the new Corvette, I emerged from the gym to find a Camaro ZL1 convertible parked alongside the gray Stingray. The ZL1’s owner, a doctor named Mark, soon arrived and we talked about the relative merits of two of General Motors’ quickest products. It transpired that Mark wanted a Corvette but, at 6-foot-4, couldn’t fit in the 2013 model, so he bought the Camaro instead. I handed him the keys and invited him to see if the 2014 Vette is any more capacious, but sure enough his knees were against the dashboard no matter which way he adjusted the seat. I’m 6 feet tall, and it never occurred to me that certain cars would be off-limits if I were several inches taller, but subsequent conversations with my more vertically gifted friends revealed that they find plenty of cars inhospitable. (The Honda Accord, for instance, simply needs longer seat tracks.) As for Mark, it’s unfortunate that he is denied the pleasures of the new Stingray, but a six-speed ZL1 convertible with a manual gearbox is not a bad consolation prize.
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SURPRISE BUDGET FAVORITE
Rolling on steel wheels, upholstered in what appeared to be wet suit fabric and bearing a sub-$20,000 price, I wasn’t expecting much out of the Fiat 500L. And yet this odd little Eurowagon conceals a 160-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder and a six-speed manual transmission, ingredients that made it an unexpectedly fun way to carve the back roads. At a price point populated with nondescript sedans, the 500L is an unrepentantly weird machine — check out the dual rear interior rearview mirrors and a shift knob that magnifies the gear pattern like an optometrist’s eye chart. Late-model Saab owners, I submit to you your next new car.
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CAR THAT MADE ME WISH I HAD A WEATHER MACHINE
I think it’s inevitable that the upper echelon of supercars will soon embrace all-wheel-drive across the board. My three days with the McLaren 12C Spider underscored the dilemma posed by high horsepower and wet roads — with 616 horsepower, full throttle on anything less than dry pavement invites incredible wheel spin, even at highway speeds. I found one stretch of road that dried out during a pause in the deluge, and the 12C momentarily displayed its true talents. Oh, golly. But the rest of the time, I’d say that 40 percent of McLaren’s finest horsepower remained in the stable.
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CAR OF THE YEAR
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but anyone who grew up in the ’80s could never refuse a drive in the quintessential hero car of the era, the Lamborghini Countach. My friend David had the uncommon good sense to buy one, a 1988 Countach 5000s Quattrovalvole, and the ill judgment to let me drive it.
The Countach has a reputation as an unmanageable beast, a legendary sex object that’s not a very good car. I am delighted to report that, contrary to its mythology, the Countach is wonderful to drive. Yes, I had to remove my shoes to cram my feet into the narrow pedal box, but that was the only concession to outrageous Italian ergonomics.
By modern supercar standards, the Countach isn’t extravagantly powerful, but it is small, light and unexpectedly delicate, its unassisted steering providing unfiltered road feel that would be the envy of any new Porsche on the road. The shifter is direct and slick (even if the clutch is a bit heavy), and the V-12 pulls hard but smoothly, its high-rpm torque curve in no danger of overwhelming the comically wide 345-section rear tires.
It didn’t mind going slow, either. There was no overheating or stuttering or stereotypical 1980s Lambo antics. And when I did get snared in a bit of traffic, I noticed that everyone was staring at the Countach. And this was in Los Angeles, where a chromed Fisker Karma doesn’t warrant a second glance unless Justin Bieber is behind the wheel.
On paper — in terms of power, 0-to-60 times and even outright cost — a Countach now looks almost reasonable. But in person, it’s still the definition of excess. The legend lives.