Chrysler brings back rear-wheel drive.

Reviews of cars, trucks, and other autos.
May 9 2003 6:02 AM

Advance to the Rear

Chrysler brings back the big, rear-drive sedan; plus more Bangle torture.

Jagt Mickey Kaus endlich zum Teufel! The Stop Chris Bangle petition now has 4,977 signatures  ... The Stop Mickey Kaus petiton has ... er ... one signature. ... Eine! ...  Ha, ha, ha. ... Ha, ha, ha, ha! ... [Maybe nobody knew it was there-ed Hey, I'm gloating here, all right? Don't look now but it's up to 30 signatures. At this rate you'll pass Bangle before Christmas-ed. Not after the 5 Series comes out. 31-ed]   3:20 A.M.

Rear-drive uber alles!
Rear-drive uber alles!

Rear-drive trend gathers momentum!  Now, here's a significant car: The Chrysler 300C. Why? Because it represents another laudable attempt by DaimlerChrysler to bring a Mercedes feel to Detroit? Sure. But mainly because it marks the return of the big, rear-wheel drive American sedan. In this, Chrysler appears to have stolen a march on GM and Ford, both of which still seem committed to the aesthetically inferior but more efficient front-drive format. (Click here for why front-drive is inferior.) ... What about the 300C's styling? It's pompous ... but in a good way! I love it. ... While the gifted J Mays has seemingly been wasting his (and Ford's) time with retrofuturistic nostalgia exercises, Chrysler may be on the verge of building a car people will one day be nostalgic about. ... 2:48 A.M.

What's it so mad about?
What's it so mad about?

Angry appliance, unplugged: GM's Pontiac Aztek, long considered the most pathetic vehicle for sale in the U.S. market, will go out of production in December of next year. ... It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes the Aztek so instantly ludicrous. Probably the awkwardly empty and square front wheel wells, and the gratuitous, fierce animalistic snout, which may have been what prompted incoming GM executive Bob Lutz to famously say that many of the company's products looked like "angry kitchen appliances." Plus the sheer, grandiosely lame corporate delusion of thinking that this tippy box with cheap zoomy cladding would somehow become the hip, cool plaything of America's youth. ... I still claim that if the Aztek had been a great or even good car it would have soon been considered lovably homely. But it wasn't (though reliability actually isn't bad, according to Consumer Reports). ... 2:45 A.M.

What's worse than BMW design chief Chris Bangle's force-fed Gaudi-esque eccentricities? Answer: BMW models in which the painful struggle to mute and pasteurize Bangle's force-fed eccentricities is all too obvious. ... The latest tortured half-Bangle is the crucial 5 Series sedan, shown here (click on the picture to enlarge). ... The Kia Rio influence is apparent, especially in the rear three-quarter view--what a mess!--though I think I see a bit of homage to Hyundai in there as well. ... BMW sales fell 7.3 percent in the first quarter of this year. That must be because Bangle's new designs are the "greatest breakthroughs in visual art since Michelangelo," or whatever it is he says about them! ... BMW blames the effect of model changeovers, with several models (such as the 5 Series) about to be replaced. ... 2:30 A.M.

Retro-flop
Retro-flop

Ford kills the T-Bird--and not on a Friday: Ford announced today it would cease production of its much-hyped Thunderbird in the "2005 or 2006 model year,"according to an AP report on MSNBC. This should be a humiliating announcement for Ford. The Thunderbird got a huge wave of press when it was introduced in 2001, but then took forever to actually hit the streets, thanks in part to the discovery of cooling-system problems. Cynically, Ford expected buyers to pay $39,000 for a car that recycled the dreary, budget interior from the Lincoln LS, on which the T-Bird was based. The car handles flabbily, according to the car mags. I thought the chrome wheels looked cheap, too.

More important is the failure of the concept behind the T-Bird. I have in my hand a fancy $35 coffee-table book called RETROFUTURISM, produced for an exhibit at L.A.'s  Museum of Contemporary Art. It's a pretentious tribute to J Mays, Ford's celebrity design chief (who also sketched the far more successful, retro-comical VW New Beetle). The future of Ford, the book says, is a "melding of the iconic past with a vision of the future." The uncritical text continues:

The new Thunderbird is a good example of retrofuturism in car design. While it evokes the classic Thunderbird, it also possesses a very contemporary and individual identity. "It's not retro," insists Mays. "While the Thunderbird concept is loaded with heritage cues, it is a decidedly modern machine." Mays' incorporation of retrofuturism into his creative process has enabled him to draw from the past and design for the future, while remaining firmly grounded in the present.

Advertisement

The book charts out the course for Ford's future "Living Legends" cars. There is upcoming  Ford GT40, based on the 1965 race car, and the Ford Forty-Nine, based loosely on the late-'40s model that revived the company. At this year's auto shows Ford has displayed its apparently soon-to-be produced  Mustang GT concept--a giant four-wheeled "heritage cue," being basically an updated '60s Mustang.

Ford Forty Nine: It's better in person--trust me!
Ford Forty Nine: It's better in person--trust me!

The obvious question: If the first "living legend"--the T-Bird--has now flopped, what does it say about Ford's grand strategy of building its brand with a succession of similarly nostalgic Boomer Retro-Cartoons?   Instead of producing a parade of warmed-over updates of new car ideas people fondly remember from 40 years ago, why not come up with some new car ideas people will fondly remember 40 years from now?

Keep in mind that Ford only began producing the Thunderbird in June 2001, but (thanks to those production glitches) it really wasn't available in large numbers until much later that year. So it's being effectively euthanized after not all that much more than a year on the market. Ford predicted sales of 25,000 annually, but only about 19,000 were sold in 2002 and about 4,000  through March of this year. "The demand is nonexistent right now," a Georgia Ford dealer told the Detroit News.

That 2005-2006 phase-out date is suspicious, though. The car will now apparently spend more time dying than it did living. Combined with the failure of Ford to announce the T-Bird's demise on a Friday during the Iraq war--which is the day you'd choose if you wished to bury bad news--it suggests Ford actually wanted the world to know the T-Bird was doomed. Why? One explanation: It's a pathetic attempt to promote a wave of buying by collectors who now know the production run is limited--but who have a couple of years to spend thousands on one of the "last" Thunderbirds.

Boomers weren't big enough fools to fall for the half-rebaked T-Bird in large numbers. Will they fall for that trick too? I'd have buried the announcement on Friday. 10:51 P.M.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 21 2014 1:38 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? See if you can keep pace with the copy desk, Slate’s most comprehensive reading team.