The New Car Scene from the LA Auto Show

Report by Martin Swig

Subaru BRZ pictureWhat a recovery! Two and three years ago, the Detroit manufacturers were almost dead, and their exhibit spaces reflected that. The Los Angeles Auto Show was alive in 2011. Domestic and import manufacturers have a ton of enticing new product.

As you wander through thinking “which one would I buy?” you can’t narrow it down to just one. The Toyota/Subaru joint venture RWD sport coupe is number one on my list. But maybe I want to wait for a production Audi E-tron, easily the handsomest car there to my eye. Close behind, the Audi S6-S7-S8 trio are enticing. And at another level, Hyundai and Kia offerings are handsome bargains.

The revenge of “cheap” cars: While the top tier cars are better than ever, so much good stuff has migrated down to less expensive cars that it’s tempting to be an anti-snob and pick a cheap and cheerful model. A Nissan Versa, from $11,000, is a staggering bargain. A Chevy Spark, Ford Escape, Toyota Yaris and Fiat 500 are all under $20,000 and have considerable ability, and maybe even charm. Mini-Cooper continues to dazzle, and the new VW Beetle is better than ever.

I drove the 800-mile roundtrip to L.A. in a new Lexus CT 200h, which I was fully prepared to dislike. But in real life I found it to be very adequate, with a capable chassis, firm leather seats, and a thoroughly Germanic feel. Except for the hybrid part. But that was okay too. Fuel consumption, a little heavy in 90 mph running – 33 miles per gallon. But it’s quiet and capable. NOT an enthusiast car, and costing around $40,000, I’ll still stick to my first choices.

I recently tried an $88,000 Range Rover non-supercharged. Beautifully done inside and out, and more interesting than a $60,000 Mercedes Benz ML Diesel, but neither had the verve and driving balance of a $50,000 Infiniti FX35. The big shocker was a fourth SUV I drove recently, a $23,000 Nissan Rogue. This car will never get you front and center with the valet parker, but it’s tastefully designed, nicely finished in a simple way, and handles crisply and comfortably. Although it was front wheel drive, 4WD would only add about $1,500 and would make it competitive with the three much more expensive alternatives.

One friend of mine suggested that the car to buy was the newest Toyota Camry – a totally capable, inoffensive car that didn’t make my personal cut. But his reasoning makes sense: Buy the least costly, most reliable, all-around capable car you can find. Then you can spend all your time and money on some stupid, demanding collector car that you find irresistible.

[Source: Martin Swig; photo credit: Subaru]

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