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In New York, automakers reveal optimism

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  April 6, 2010 05:14 PM

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(All photos: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff)

The biggest show surprise was the 2011 Kia Optima, a stunning design inside and out that exudes sportiness and luxury.

NEW YORK—Recession, you were a jabbing pain in our side, and nearly killed a few of us. You drained our balance sheets, made us sacrifice some of our private jet flights, and even forced a few journalists to pay for meals on press trips. Please, let's forget last year and get back to selling cars.

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Automakers want you to know, despite tough government mandates and below-record sales, that they're recovering fast. At the New York International Auto Show in Manhattan, optimism (and a new Optima) is back.

Breakout designs, advanced hybrid vehicles, and increasing fuel efficiency paired with higher performance were at nearly every stand.

Nissan’s radical mini crossover, the Juke, looks like a dune buggy with its stubby, jacked-up proportions. Its closest competitor is another Mini crossover, the Countryman, which puts a Goofy hat and two extra doors on the popular Cooper hatch. Both rely on small, high-revving four-cylinder motors, the Nissan’s turbocharged unit squeezing 180 horsepower from just 1.6 liters. These are a strange bunch, but they’re funky enough to create yet another vehicle category.

Some automakers are feeling so good they've curbed sticker shock. BMW dropped the all-new 535i’s base price by $1,650 and its 550i — packing more power and an 8-speed transmission — by $900. The second-generation Infiniti QX56, now with active suspension and a more efficient V-8, stays at $56,700.

Detroit was rather quiet. Ford showed the Lincoln MKZ version of its superb Fusion Hybrid, Chevrolet a 40 mpg-rated “Eco” model of its upcoming Cruze compact, and Chrysler, nothing.

It was the Koreans who took over New York. Hyundai and Kia continue to weed out their 1990s-era also-rans thanks to skilled US and European designers. The results, like the 2011 Kia Optima, are shocking in their sophistication. Fluid curves, high-quality interior materials, and features like a panoramic sunroof and Microsoft voice recognition make the Optima unrecognizable from the cheap, frumpy car it was last year.

Ditto for the new Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which uses lithium-polymer cells that are lighter than traditional hybrid batteries. The Sonata promises 62 mph in electric mode and an impressive 37 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. Hyundai is so confident it will sell a $60,000 sedan, the Equus, in the fall. Initial inspection proves these cars are more than up to snuff, but recent testing of several Hyundais and Kias reveals a general lack of ride quality and powertrain refinement.

Further evidence of an automotive boomtown comes from Porsche, which unveiled a hybrid version of its best-selling Cayenne SUV. Where regular hybrids turn a blind side to performance, the Cayenne S Hybrid can run at 97 mph on electric power — triple that of a Prius, for nearly triple the cost. Some gas may be saved.

Then there’s the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3, the stripped-down race version of the company’s “gullwing” exotic. And Cadillac, in defiance of low production volumes and minimal profit, is honoring enthusiasts with the CTS-V Wagon, a 5-door with 556 horsepower.

Great cars are here again, and the best ones aren’t that fast. It’s time to raise our chins back up.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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