The Shape of Things to Come. Again.
By Kevin Miller
More than two decades ago, Saab launched their long-serving 9000 series, and the luxury five-door was born. Combining a spacious and well-appointed cabin, large cargo area, rare safety features such as ABS and a driver’s airbag, and good driving dynamics, the 9000 wasn’t the only large five-door sedan available in the late 1980s. Other European offerings for sale in the US included the Merkur Scorpio and the Sterling 827, while Japanese automakers sold five-door versions of the Toyota Camry, and Mazda 626; and briefly, GM gave us the awkward five-door Chevrolet Corsica. While both the Merkur and Sterling were in the same class as the 9000, both were sales flops and were pulled from the US market in 1990, while the large Saab remained the sole luxury five-door available in the US, offering outstanding utility in the large luxury car segment until its overdue demise in 1998.
The 5-door bodystyle makes a car very useful, with a large hatch opening that allows larger sized luggage to fit into the boot than a sedan with a smaller opening to a similarly-sized luggage area. Suddenly, now, the luxury five-door sedan is back, though the genre is being referred to as a Coupe. Conceived by designers around the world as a sporty alternative to more upright, staid crossovers, wagons, or SUVs, they are the must-have bodystyle for 2010. Unfortunately, most of these five-door “sedans” hitting the market have been hit a few times with the “ugly stick” on their way out of the design studio. Let’s take a look.
Honda’s Acura division is showing its new ZDX. Burdened with the corporate “chrome plinth” schnoz, the new vehicle is not good looking. Calling the car a “provocative four-door Sports Coupe”, the ZDX has an attractive side profile, though shapes get a bit complex and convoluted at the angular front lamps, oddly-rounded front lower openings (the only soft curves on the whole exterior other than the wheels), and with the dark shape of the glass on the rear hatch. The ZDX actually sits tall like a crossover rather than being low-slung like an actual sports coupe, which will serve to raise the center of gravity with the consequential effect on handling.
Porsche’s long-awaited Panamera is also a five-door sport sedan. With styling meant to be vaguely reminiscent of the firm’s evergreen 911, just bigger, the Panamera looks great from some angles, though around the back it unfortunately looks like it’s pregnant with a Boxster. Here’s a hint to the designers at Porsche- when you’re creating a five-door, you’ve got to be careful with the proportions to keep it looking sleek rather than bulbous out back. Could you share this secret with the people over at Honda who’ve penned the upcoming Crosstour? Thanks. Fortunately, the Panamera is said to drive better than it looks. Hopefully I’ll have some seat time in the Panamera soon, to confirm whether the ugly is only skin-deep.
The BMW X6 Sports Activity Coupe was BMW’s first entry in the sporty five-door segment. Based on BMW’s X5 Sports Activity Vehicle, the X6 shares powertrains and major interior bits with its more upright sibling. The X6 is available with a 300 HP inline turbocharged 6, a 400 HP V8, or a 555 HP turbocharged V8 in the X6 M (not to be confused with MX-6, which was a shapely Mazda two-door coupe from the late 1980s until the mid 1990s). Referring to a five-door chop-topped sport ute as a Coupe is a bit of a stretch- while the X6 has an interesting shape when viewed from afar (and by itself), the vehicle’s tall ride height and subsequent center of gravity become apparent when the X6 is near almost any other vehicle.
Next up from BMW is their 5-Series Grand Turismo. Based on the upcoming 5-series sedan, the 5GT should perform in a way that the X6 cannot. While the 5-Series GT shares its architecture and technology with sedan and wagon variants of the next 5-Series, it features an interestingly-complex two-piece tailgate/decklid for added cargo utility. Unfortunately, BMW felt it necessary to offer a taller ride height in the GT than in normal 5-Series vehicles. Evidently, the engineers over in Munich wanted to be sure the GT was able to offer ride height comparable to a Toyota Venza, which is a pity as the Gran Turismo otherwise looks to offer an excellent blend performance, luxury, and utility.
Audi is getting into the five-door game as well, with the A5 Sportback. Pay special attention to the name, as A5 in Audi’s naming convention denotes a coupe bodystyle for this five-door sedan; the A5 Sportback is yet another five-door sedan masquerading as a coupe. The Sportback looks to offer the best blend of performance and utility, since it shares its sensible ride height with the A4 Sedan and Avant. Unfortunately, Audi does not intend to offer the A5 Sportback in the US, so the best five-door of the bunch remains out of our reach.
Aside from having five doors, the one thing that all of these upscale five-doors have in common is that their manufacturers are marketing them as the first-of-their-kind. An entirely new segment. The re-invention of utility. You get the idea. While the shapes (and, in many cases, the elevated ride height) are new, the idea of a premium five-door vehicle is not. While American buyers have not typically appreciated this bodystyle, automakers are giving it another try in an effort to lure buyers to their showrooms. Time will tell whether the new-for-2010 five-door coupes mark the beginning of a new era as the 9000 did for Saab, or simply fade away as an afterthought, like the Sterling 827 and Merkur Scorpio. But in either case, it is time to break out the Milli Vanilli and Richard Marx CDs, because the shape of the late 1980s is back.
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