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.
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.