I just completed a two-week test of the all-new Ford Explorer Sport. It was a revelation. The last time I spent two weeks with a Ford Explorer—or, indeed, any time at all with an Explorer—was in 1996. I rented a handsome ice-blue version of the then-innovative SUV and drove from my new home in south-central Texas to do some book readings and meet up with family members in Washington, D.C.. (Ah, those were the days. K Street! The Mall! Billary in the White House!) It took, if memory serves, most of three days, with stops on the way in Hope, Arkansas, where a cornucopia of kitschy Clintoniana greeted the visitor to the great man’s birthplace, and the following night in some dump in Tennessee whose name escapes me because I deleted it from my memory banks as soon as it faded into the distance; I remember a dank motel, surly desk manager, ominous sounds in the night.
About Roger BoylanAside from being the only Autosavant writer with a Wikipedia page, Roger Boylan is an American writer who was raised in Ireland, France, and Switzerland and attended the University of Ulster and the University of Edinburgh. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 by Dalkey Archive Press and has been reprinted four times. In 2003, a sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad,” was published by Grove Press, New York. Roger’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on Amazon.com and other online bookstores. Boylan's light-hearted memoir, "Run Like Blazes," has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also now available on Amazon.com.
I’ve commented elsewhere on the fact that Japanese cars, even the finest of them, have always suffered from a certain blandness, not to say lack of character, so that you could be driving your Acura, Infiniti, or Lexus along a thoroughfare teeming with car lovers (an unlikely scenario, admittedly) and not a single head would turn, whereas the driver of, say, an aging Jaguar S-Type would draw the gaze of the most jaded. (I know whereof I speak, being that driver.) Face it: Jags have character and Toyotas don’t.
Once upon a time there was a French hatchback, and a very nice hatchback it was. It was called the Renault 16, and it caused a revolution in automotive design and functionality whose reverberations can still be felt. It wasn’t the first hatchback—the Kaiser Traveler and Renault’s own 4L came before—but it was the first mass-market, middle-class hatchback to sell in large numbers: over 1,845,959 R16s were produced during the car’s 15-year lifespan.
It was a long time ago, like almost everything else. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, De Gaulle was in the Elyseé, Khruschev was in the Kremlin, and I was in the back seat of a 1961 Renault Dauphine. My father was driving and smoking, my mother was reading the map and smoking, and I, too young to smoke, was smoking by proxy. We were tearing through central France at a dizzying 55 mph or so, on those long, straight treelined Roman roads, our objective: Omaha Beach in Normandy, where my father’s infantry division, the 29th out of Philadelphia, had spent an unpleasant few days sixteen years previously. He wanted to salute a few dead comrades up there. I didn’t care; I was as happy as could be, just looking out the sliding rear window at the passing farmhouses and wheat fields and vineyards and mentally totting up my favorite cars, most of which, quite naturally, tended to be French.
After returning from one of her periodic forays back in the early ‘80s into the German Democratic Republic—a.k.a. East Germany—at the wheel of her Volvo 343, my mother mystified me at first by complaining about the number of warthogs she had encountered on the roads of the workers’ paradise. They traveled in convoys, she said, and were all over the place, and moving at high speed, too. Only Trabants could slow them down. At the mention of the GDR’s iconic crapmobile, it dawned on me that she was referring not to bristly African piggies but to East Germany’s other automotive icon, the Wartburg, named after the ancient castle that dominates the town of Eisenach (birthplace of J. S. Bach). They were less famous abroad than the Trabis, but were much better cars, all around, coveted by the citizens of the little dictatorship, and even had sporting ambitions. Alas, they were still East German, made by and for committees, and, like their pocket homeland, were doomed after ’89.
Back in ’08, I wrote a brief ode in these pages to the Dutch manufacturer DAF (Van Doorns Automobiel Fabriek), long defunct as a carmaker but still in business making trucks, whose little cars, equipped with the innovative Variomatic continuously variable transmission, were once common sights on the roads of Europe, often in Dutch-tulip hues of red or yellow. After 1975, persuaded that DAF’s transmission technology was way ahead of its time, which it was, and that its access to Renault mechanicals was a valuable asset, as it turned out to be, Volvo wrote a big check and took over the automotive side of the firm. The surviving DAF model, the 66, became the Volvo 66, “the tiniest Volvo ever,” in the words of my colleague Andy Bannister, who wrote an article about it for Autosavant.
Question: What did the Shah of Iran, Cheech and Chong, Leonid Brezhnev, and Idi Amin have in common, apart from being wild and crazy guys? Answer: They all owned at least one Citroën SM each (Idi had seven). Good taste isn’t something we associate with these gentlemen, but in this case it emerged, no doubt accidentally: the SM is one beautiful machine, an artifact for the ages. And its beauty is more than skin-deep.
Next time you’re in the Kalahari Desert or the Hindu Kush, check out the cars. Chances are you’ll see two kinds: Land Rovers and Toyota Land Cruisers, with maybe the odd Jeep Wrangler or Nissan Patrol lurking in the background. But if the UN peacekeeping forces are anywhere nearby, they’ll be exclusively in Land Cruisers, of which the UN has bought approx. 12,000 copies over the years. Why? That’s easy: Land Cruisers are big and practical and they don’t break down. Go-anywhere durability has been their stock in trade since 1953, when an early-model Land Cruiser scooted up Mount Fuji, setting a record for the first and highest automotive jaunt up Japan’s sacred mountain. “The Land Cruiser,” opined the New York Times, “may be the world’s most admired off-roader.”
The Chevrolet Tahoe is one of the best full-sized SUVs. It looks good, it rides well, it offers towing capabilities up to 8,500 lbs., and it can haul up to nine passengers, admittedly at a pinch for a couple of them; or two passengers and a bunch of stuff; or numerous variations on these themes. The first two rows—captain’s chairs in the LT and LTZ, split bench in the base LS—are very comfortable and have as much leg- and head room as most sedans but more wiggle room for shoulders and hips, because the hefty Tahoe is 6 ½ ft. wide. If you fold down the second row of seats and remove the third row (not without some heaving and grunting) the Tahoe boasts almost 109 cu. ft. of cargo space.
The contrast between my previous test vehicle and this one could hardly have been greater. Last week, a mighty GMC Sierra 2500 Crew Cab; this week, a tiny Scion iQ, second smallest automobile on the road (after the Smart Fortwo). It’s a squat amphibian with a stunted body, designed for metropolitan lifestyles, meant to slip easily into half-sized curbside parking spaces and nip between stray shopping carts at your local mart. Japanese sales began in 2008 and European sales the following year, and in both markets it’s doing quite well. Overseas it’s a Toyota, but Stateside, where sales began earlier this year, the Scion brand better suits its bespoke individualism and intended youthful clientele.
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