Divisions were shuttered, workers sacked, supply contracts abrogated. The government put its right foot in and then put its right foot out, and change came to the American auto industry. Now, profits are returning, ludicrous executive bonuses are back, and, best of all, we have many new and improved domestic cars vying for our attention. Here are the notables
Chrysler 300 SRT8
If the BMW M5 is like a Predator drone (deadly, requires little human input) then the 300 SRT8 is a pipe bomb full of rusty nails, built by an angry 17-year-old: crude but effective, and highly skill-dependent. The recipe is simple but effective: Stuff a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 into a regular 300C, with minimal tip-offs as to the 465 horsepower lurking beneath the hood. Add a machine-gun exhaust note and big brakes, then hang on for dear life. Cheap(ish) and worrisomely effective.
Chevrolet Camaro ZL1
Not to be outdone by the Dodge Challenger SRT8, Chevrolet's hottest Camaro packs a 580-horsepower supercharged V8 shared with the Cadillac CTS-V. It's said to lap the Nürburgring in 7:41—but considerably more relevant, we suspect, will be how long a patch of rubber this 21st-century pony car will leave in front of your local pizzeria.
Ford Explorer/Edge EcoBoost
The last time you could sell Americans a four-cylinder truck with a straight face, alcohol was illegal and folks were doing the Lindy Hop. But Ford is rolling back the clock while turning it forward, betting big on EcoBoost turbo engines, and pitching their 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower motor as a premium option for their Explorer SUV and Edge crossover. Towing capacity is said to be slightly diminished, but fuel economy is up to 21/30 mpg. For most buyers, this is all the ponies they'll ever need, and a sub-$1,000 premium makes it a worthwhile option.
It only sort of looks like something your parents bought for you with no money down, but the Sonic is the American-built car (engineered in Korea, Europe, and America) we've been promised since the Feds' bailout: decent quality, fuel-efficient, quick, and practical. While Ford's Fiesta may have gotten all the ink, here's another small car that doesn't make you feel like you're stuck in the penalty box, whether you're battling pimples or drawing a pension.
Buick's image has been liberated by parent GM's deep-sixing of Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Saturn, and by the brand's runaway success in China. Together, they've created the need to occupy greater psychic floor space, so it's no surprise that the Verano—the smallest Buick in ages—was crafted from the underpinnings of Chevrolet's best-selling Cruze, or that Buick's goal was to build a supremely quiet appliance that could help shift its traditional Perry Como-listening customers into something more fuel-efficient without alienating potential younger, hipper customers. With a 250-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder among the available powerplants, everyone's image of Buick, not just its own, may have to change.
The perfectly respectable outgoing Malibu was a long-overdue riposte to the Camrys and Accords that had stolen Middle America's one-time mid-sized favorite's lunch. Now as GM works to extend the global reach of Chevrolet—what was once primarily an American-market brand—with ahigh-profile launch in Korea, the 2013 Malibu has been designed with the rest of the world's peoples and tastes in mind. It's smaller on the outside and gets a choice of four-cylinder engines, while at the same time getting more rear legroom, the sort of feature that plays as well in Seoul as it does in Scranton.
Ford Focus ST
Highly regarded in England, hot hatches formerly based on Ford Escorts and Fiestas were rowdy cars for hooligans with a taste for knife crime, public housing, and army surplus jackets. We've had a few nibbles on this side of the Atlantic, but nearly three decades after the Thatcher era, we're finally ready for our first extended taste of a European-engineered "Fast Ford." We can imagine a more mental Focus, but for now the option of buying one of these sure-handling machines with a 247-horsepower turbo four-cylinder, suspension upgrades, and a six-speed gearbox makes us want to slip on our hoodie, make a dash for the nearest cell-phone store/sneaker emporium, and start rioting. Most compelling, innit?
Ford's Euro-style seven-seater was supposed to make its way over here in all its variants, but now we're just getting the hybrid with five seats. Not sure we understand the reasoning behind that—with Ford you can never rule out internecine corporate politics—but no biggie, since this compact van is intended to be the replacement for the Escape Hybrid. We wish it still had a third row option, though to be honest we didn't ever want to be stuck sitting there. The plug-in C-Max Energi will be a slightly more expensive powertrain option for urbanites with young families, and the hybrid of choice for tomorrow's super-green.
The outgoing Mazda-based Escape turned out to be a surprise home run for Ford. But, with nearly 10 years under its belt and Ford and Mazda unwinding their technical association, it was time for Ford's homegrown (er, mostly European) engineers to lead the charge. Offering much swoopier style, along with multiple four-cylinder engines (including, yes, an EcoBoost) and a trick tailgate that offers hands-free operation via a sweep of your foot under the rear bumper, the new Escape has its work cut out for it, facing off against Honda's new CR-V and Mazda's excellent CX-5. But chances are it will still be swinging the heavy lumber for the Blue Oval in the sales derby.
Ford Mustang Boss 302
The second-most powerful Mustang is the baddest by far, with a no-nonsense interior, a tweaked 444-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8, side exhaust pipes, and an available TracKey that lets the owner get the most out of his car during a lapping day...or stoplight Grand Prix. Chassis composure which defies the humble on-paper suspension design, a super-slick six-speed manual gearbox, and a satisfyingly sophisticated exhaust note make this one Mustang that can't help but run with the real sports cars.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
One of the universal rides of choice for young-adult douchebags everywhere, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is actually pretty cool, in a sort of "no SUV should be able to do this" kind of way. Trotting out the winning combination of the 6.4-liter Hemi—Chrysler's go-to parlor trick—and all-wheel drive, the G-Cherk should be able to lay down sub-five second 60 times all day long. This will keep the douchebags occupied, but let's hope they can muster the good sense to remember this one's more show and go than tow. You hate to see smoky burnouts and Airstream trailers in the same sentence.
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