There was a time not long ago when cars were all about having fun. They were designed to look hip, engineered to handle well and drive fast, and destined to become cultural icons. Then came the economic downturn, when practicality, utility and affordability were all the rage.
Now, with automakers back from the brink, fun is making a comeback. For proof, look no further than the L.A. Auto Show, where cars that are just plain fun are featured prominently. Among them are convertibles and themed one-offs, as well as 21st-century revivals of some of the wheels that made driving such a pleasure in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s.
“Fun is in,” said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com “The deep recession put a bit of a damper on fun car offerings, as consumers concentrated on getting through it. But the auto market is so competitive that it was inevitable that manufacturers would once again offer fun-to-drive, fun-to-own versions of many of their models.”
Volkswagen has given the New Beetle Convertible a total makeover for 2013 with a drop-top that can be lowered in a mere 10 seconds, stows neatly behind the rear seats and doesn’t obstruct rearward visibility. The breezy Bug top also has new safety features like an automatic rollover (roll bar) support system and head-thorax airbags.
Not to be outpaced by one of its rivals in the hipster market, Mini is launching the Paceman in North America next year. The seventh model in the Mini family of small-but-stylish autos, the Paceman is being positioned by the British brand as the world’s first “sports activity coupe” in the premium compact segment.
Featuring two doors, a large tailgate and two individual seats in the rear, the Paceman is both practical and powerful. Its go-cart-like performance derives from a brawny engine, six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, and sports suspension, plus the enhanced versatility of optional four-wheel drive. As with all Minis, there’s also a wide selection of paint finishes and graphics that allow for greater individualization.
After a 27-year absence, Fiat broke back into the U.S. market in 2010 with the zippy little 500 — a modern homage to one of the Italian carmaker’s most beloved models from half a century ago. Making its debut at the L.A. Auto Show is the 500e, an electric version that Car and Driver magazine named as one of its “25 Cars Worth Waiting For” earlier this year.
Fiat said it’s too early to reveal the exact technical specifications. But the auto grapevine said the 500e will most likely feature a 100-horsepower electric motor and lithium-ion batteries.
For the fun-loving driver with a little more dough in his or her pocket, the redesigned 2014 Porsche Cayman will also make its world debut at the 2012 Auto Show. Although details are still sketchy, the new Cayman will be based on the 2013 Boxster.
BMW has linked up with global ski equipment giant K2 to create the winter-prepped BMW X1 Concept K2 Powder Ride that will appear at this year’s show. This limited-edition compact crossover SUV is branded with K2 snowboard graphics and special “mountain party” features like a Harmon Kardon sound system and monster amps, as well as matching K2 skis and a roof luggage box.
Moving even further up the food chain, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series is expected to make a splash at this year’s auto show. With racing-inspired design, the sleek machine can reach a top speed of 196 mph and sprint from zero to 60 in just 3.5 seconds. Mercedes-AMG chairman Ola Källenius calls the new Black Series SLS “a perfect study in the 100% transfer of technology and engineering from motorsport to road.”
Channeling the beloved E-Types of long ago, Jaguar brings the 2013 F-Type convertible to the auto show. “At the high end,” said John O’Dell, a senior editor at Edmunds.com, “there are people with money, and fun exotics like the Jaguar F-Type help persuade some of them to part with some of what they’ve saved up.”
Much like its chic, road-hugging predecessors, the F-Type is a love-at-first-sight type of car. Featuring active differential and advanced, dynamic engineering, the $80,000 convertible is capable of 186 mph and zero to 60 in 4.3 seconds.
“Tough times usually make people long for fun things and automakers understand this,” O’Dell said. “We’ve been in a terrible recession and are in a snail’s-pace recovery, so offering a ‘fun’ vehicle — especially if not overpriced — can help boost consumer interest, increase a manufacturer’s sales and perhaps bring in an audience it didn’t have before.”
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