The British are Coming
English automakers created the standard for high-line vehicles. Now after wrestling turbulent economies, they introduce some of their best and most competitive cars.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010
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The original Mini went out of production in 2000, but a new version debuted a few years later, and for the first time, was backed by a serious U.S. distribution channel. Sales quickly outstripped supply. Volumes dipped a bit in 2009, but several factors seem poised to drive a comeback, especially the likelihood of another fuel-price spike once the global recession ends.
And there’s plenty of new product, with most of the attention focused on the all-new Countryman. It boasts a variety of firsts, starting with the fact that it’s the first Mini SUV/crossover. It’s also the brand’s first four-door and the first model with all-wheel-drive.
“We’ve gone from astonishingly small to small,” laughs Jim McDowell, Mini’s top American executive, noting that even now the Countryman remains one of the tiniest vehicles on the American market.
Mini is also launching a new roadster and a coupe. And it is field-testing the battery-powered MiniE. Early results were so positive the maker agreed to extend the initial leases for some of its American drivers. Expect battery power to be a key part of Mini’s strategy, going forward, suggests McDowell.
Aston Martin: How Do You Say “007” in Arabic?
“We would have disappeared if Henry Ford II hadn’t come along,” says Aston Martin’s charismatic CEO Uli Bez of the Ford Motor Co. heir who purchased the foundering British maker in 1987. But Aston, which thrived under Ford’s stewardship, was the first PAG brand to be sold off exactly two decades later. And again, the buyer proved a surprise—in this case a consortium headed by Kuwaiti investors and the chief of the Aston Martin Racing team, David Richards.
Competing in the same rarified air as Ferrari, Aston has been struggling through the economic downturn, relying on arm-twisting and hefty incentives to keep dealers moving the metal and its assembly lines rolling. But as it prepares for a future without a deep-pocket automotive parent it is taking some risky, if intriguing, gambles.
At one end is the new Rapide, which Bez describes as “the most elegant four-door sports car in the world.” Until recently, that might have seemed a contradiction in terms, but suddenly this space is becoming crowded, what with offerings that also include the new Porsche Panamera. At Rapide’s heart is a 470-horsepower, 6-liter V12. Like Panamera, Aston is billing the new model as more of a daily driver than its typical sports car, something “the entire family can enjoy together,” said Bez during the Rapide’s introduction at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show.
Aston’s other new offering, the Cygnet, is yet again a response to changing government regulations—if not evolving consumer trends. The winged logo on the hood might seem familiar, and there’s plenty of Aston’s plush leather in the cabin, but nonetheless a minicar seems a stretch for the maker. All the more curious was Aston’s decision to partner with Toyota on the project. Based on the mainstream maker’s little IQ, Aston will charge $45,000 to $75,000 for its version. While we can imagine the legendary superspy James Bond behind the wheel of the Rapide, it’s a little more difficult to see 007 wending his way through London traffic in a minicar, whatever the brand.
Lotus: A New Fantasy
Have a fantasy of going up against the likes of Michael Schumacher? Lotus, with models like the all-new 125, Formula-One-class racer that can be run by a team of one, rather than by 80 people, has historically been the place to go. Now, the rarified, but economically fragile, British marque announces the rollout into 2015 of a fleet of new models that seem to portend—by tiny Lotus measures—a move toward more practical rides.
The announcement, made on September 30 at the Paris Motorshow, introduced five new street-worthy versions, including the entry-level (about $56,000) Elise, Elite, Elan, Espirit and Eterne, a four-door, four-seater with hybrid technology, meant to compete with the Rapide. The hoopla comes with a website devoted to the as-yet unavailable models (lotusnewera.com) and bespeaks a new dawn for the company (owned since 1994 by Malaysia’s Proton) with buzz phrases like “the end of compromise,” “the icon is back,” and “the grown up.”
Also due for new expressions is the already on-the-market Evora. They include Evora S and Evora IPS, the second of which will be the first automatic-transmission Lotus in quite a while. While details are sketchy on what is to come, the current Evora has already proved itself a winner. The latest offering, which was developed under the codename Eagle, is a punchy mid-engine two-seater—and the marque’s first 2+2 since the 1992 Excel. With its featherweight aluminum chassis and 276-hp 3.5-liter V6, Evora can keep pace with some of the best sports cars on the road, hitting 0 to 60 in just 4.9 seconds and topping out at 162 mph. It’s also as nimble as a go-kart—if only a wee bit easier to climb into.
Of course, if extra seating and easy access isn’t why you look to Lotus (and you also have an extra million dollars lying around) you can sign for the 125. But you better move fast, as the British-based company plans to produce only around 25 of what is, for all intents and purposes, a copy of the British marque’s 2010 Formula One design. Except you get a slightly longer cockpit—to handle drivers measuring anywhere from 5'4'' to 6'2''—and a downsized Cosworth 640-horsepower V8 with the luxury of an on-board starter.
Yet Lotus promises, “there’ll be a bit of Formula One in most of the new entries.” The Eterne will be one of numerous models offered with the KERS hybrid system developed for the marque’s F1 racing program.”
Morgan: Forward Into the Past
While the days of the empire are long gone, there’s something about the products of the Morgan Motor Co. that harks back to a bygone era. The very retro-influenced design, for one thing, with sweeping, offset fenders that could be lifted nearly whole from the 1930s. And the fact that the boutique brand continues to use wood for the underlying chassis, even today, 101 years after its founding by Henry Frederick Stanley Morgan.
HFS, as he was generally known, ran the maker until his death in 1959, when son Peter took over. Today, Charles Morgan, the grandson of the founder, is at the helm, and he has been carefully crafting a new generation of products that have one axle in the past, the other in the future.
Consider the Aero Max, with its distinctive split-window boat-tail rear. The 367-horsepower two-seater falls into the rarified supercar class, capable of launching from 0 to 60 in just 4.4 seconds, with a top speed of more than 170 mph. Yes, there are still modified running boards, and the body frame is yet again made from ash, but the chassis is lightweight aluminum, and the overall car weighs well less than the more modern-looking BMW M3.
Morgan is producing just 100 copies of the $220,000 Aero Max, slightly more of the soft-top Aero 8. But the company is about distinctive, classic, even quirky design, not about volume. It typically produces well under 1,000 cars annually.
Morgan is the most obvious tie between past and present for the British auto industry. Things have changed dramatically since the days when British warships ruled the seas—and the roadways. The U.K. has created more brands that remain on the market than most countries in the world, but today, the majority of those nameplates are foreign owned. And while that may be a bit of a blow to British pride, marques like Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar and Land Rover are now producing not just some of the best cars in English automotive history, but some of the best products in the world. Rule Britannia.
Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com on the Internet.
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