Newsmakers ’09: Wheels of fortune

Winners and losers in a big year for the auto industry

by Colin Campbell

American muscle
Forget the hybrid. This year, the American auto industry went back to doing what it does best: making affordable sports cars with big, throaty engines. The Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro (above) and Dodge Challenger were all surprise hits for the Detroit Three. While overall car sales saw double-digit declines, muscle car sales jumped over seven per cent. Perfect for the driver who wants to get where he’s going fast—and preferably in a straight line.
Detour ahead
A Swedish couple travelling in Italy planned to visit the idyllic Isle of Capri. Instead, they drove 650 km off course to the industrial city of Carpi. They had mistyped the destination into their car’s GPS device. “Capri is an island,” noted a local official in Carpi, in northern Italy. “They did not even wonder why they didn’t cross any bridge or take any boat.”
Roadside assistance
For the auto industry, the month of August stood out like a gleaming new Ferrari in a junkyard. That was when the U.S. government’s US$3-billion cash for clunkers program kicked into high gear and Americans were offered as much as US$4,500 to trade in their old cars for new ones. Car sales spiked and the entire North American economy was given a brief boost.
Dream machines
Toyota, perhaps best known for making reliable, if bland, family sedans, launched a US$375,000 supercar, the 552-hp Lexus LFA. Not to be outdone, Porsche introduced its first four-door sedan, the Panamera, which costs US$133,000 for the turbo version. Audi has a new version of its R8 supercar (above), the V10—a US$146,000 car that auto critic Jeremy Clarkson called “spectacularly good. It’s like Scarlett  Johansson’s lips.”
Liftoff
Car doors have been an overlooked design element. But the doors of the new Mercedes SLS, which swing straight up, are a thing of beauty. This latest take on an old idea gives the car its moniker, the Gullwing. Swedish manufacturer Koenigsegg is also taking door design to a new level with what it calls the dihedral synchro-helix actuation system. The doors on its cars slide forward and away from the car, then pivot up. Somewhere, an engineer earned his keep.
Got a boost?
Chrysler disbanded the group of engineers working on its electric-car program. The world’s most hyped electric car, GM’s Volt (above), is still a prototype. Canada’s Zenn Motor Company said it was getting out of the electric-car-making business to focus on battery technology. The only real electric carmaker in North America is Tesla, with its $100,000 Roadster. Are electric cars the future? We’re still waiting.
Exit ramp
The meltdown that industry watchers have taken to calling the Carpocalypse saw the demise of some much-loved brands. Saturn was dropped by GM, as was the storied Pontiac nameplate, despite its loyal following and a critically acclaimed new model, the G8 GXP. Rick Wagoner, GM’s long-time chief executive officer, also didn’t last (he was forced aside by the Obama administration). Car dealers felt the
sting, too—GM is shuttering 42 per cent of its Canadian dealerships.
Autopilot
The new BMW 760 Li (below) is a fortress on wheels. It is big, comes with a V12 engine, and features a host of high-tech features: night-vision technology, radar sensors to detect cars in its blind spot, and cameras on the front fenders to help drivers see what’s coming at intersections. Mercedes has a comparable monster, the S63 AMG. One advantage it has over the Bimmer: front and rear massaging seats. Both sell for about US$135,000 (chauffeurs not included).
Formula Won
It was a tough year for Formula One racing. Toyota announced that it would pull out of the circuit. Renault was found guilty of race-fixing. The good news: Jenson Button. The British driver came out of nowhere to win the world championship while driving for a brand-new team, Brawn GP. Asked to describe in three words what it’s like to be an F1 driver, he told the BBC, “Wow, wow, and wow.”
Roadside Distraction
A driver crashed his $2-million Bugatti Veyron into a saltwater marsh near Galveston, Texas, after he said he became distracted by a low-flying pelican. In Peterborough, England, the driver of a $125,000 Lamborghini Gallardo (above) noticed smoke billowing from his car. He stopped to search for a fire extinguisher, but the vehicle burned to a blackened crisp. Both incidents ended up on YouTube. Lovers of fine sports cars quietly wept.
Cruise control
Ford’s new sonar-based parallel parking system can guide your big SUV into the tightest spots. It automatically steers; you simply work the gas and brake. Not to be outdone, Volvo has a system on its new XC60 in which the vehicle will automatically brake if you’re about to hit the car in front of you. Future young drivers rejoice—with cars like these, driver’s licence tests will be a snap.

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