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Posts filed under ‘What Might Have Been’

What Might Have Been:
The 2006-2010 Dodge Charger

July 23, 2013 by Matt

Dodge Charger R/T Red

It coulda been a contender.

I wanted so badly for this car to be good. Really good. Five years ago, I pinned my hopes for a genuine American sports sedan on three vehicles: The Cadillac CTS-V, the Pontiac G8 and the car featured in this article—the 2006-2010 Dodge Charger. And while Cadillac got it and continues to refine the formula, and Pontiac got it—briefly—when they offered a 6-speed manual in conjunction with the G8’s top-of-the-line V8, the Charger never received the same treatment. It was a missed opportunity.

Dodge Charger R/T Engine Motor Hemi V8

All the ingredients of excellence were present and accounted for: A workable RWD chassis developed from that of the previous-generation Mercedes E-Class, a world-beating 5.7l, 340-hp V8 engine, a team of suspension tuners potentially lifted from the Viper program and a plethora of 6-speed manual transmissions to choose from. And yet…it never came together, whether through Chrysler’s ignorance of what to do with the bits at their disposal or willful refusal to spend capital creating a car that would make enthusiasts salivate but would hold little appeal in the larger market.

Dodge Charger R/T Red

The styling reflects the same so-close-yet-so-far aura that afflicted the drivetrain and chassis dynamics. Highlights include a rakishly swept-forward nose, clean and elegant front and rear treatments, tastefully unadorned flanks and a jaunty pair of “hips” just forward of the rear wheels. All the elements are there, and yet…viewing one in the flesh, I can’t help but be let down by the fact that the proportions are just a little bit off, the whole car looks too bathtub-ish and not lithe and athletic like it should. Again, it’s a shame, since out of the three cars I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the Charger’s details gave it the most potential to be a real head-turner.

Dodge Charger R/T Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard

For what it’s worth, the 2011-present redesign didn’t bring the car any closer to a state where it would hold any appeal for the true enthusiast, instead removing many of the more tasteful and appealing styling elements and introducing several, including the side scallops, that are distinctively chintzy. Furthermore, the curb weight increased a few hundred pounds and a three-pedal setup, or at least a dual-clutch transmission, is still notably absent from the option sheet. And the handling still leans (pun intended) more toward that of its cousin’s, the plush Chrysler 300, rather than targeting the taut responses of a BMW 5-Series or Audi A6.

Hopefully one day, one of the Big Three will come around and deliver something sports sedan buffs can get excited about—and for longer than the aborted tenure of the Pontiac G8. Shame the Charger wasn’t it.

Image credits:

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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The 2006-2010 Dodge Charger

What Might Have Been:
The ’92-’95 Pontiac Bonneville

April 17, 2013 by Matt

Pontiac Bonneville

It had so much going for it; if only Pontiac had had the resolve, resources and most importantly, the vision to really make this car what it needed to be.

Who knows; perhaps they had the desire to but were simply hamstrung by the corporate culture at GM. All I remember is that when I first became aware of the 1992-1995 Bonneville, while I was pleased with the looks (until a 1996 refresh spoiled them), I was thoroughly disappointed that Pontiac had chosen to build it on a staid FWD platform shared with the contemporary Olds 88 and Buick LeSabre, and that they had declined to offer a manual transmission option.

Would either choice have made any economic sense? Highly unlikely. Pontiac made a killing in the ’90s selling cars that promised excitement based on their looks but routinely wound up near the bottom of comparison tests when pitted against their rivals, helping to consolidate the claim that the average American consumer was more drawn to the appearance of dynamic competence rather than the actual presence of it. So there’s no reason to believe RWD would have been a selling point to the typical Pontiac buyer of the era. Same with the option of a stickshift—the sales of three-pedaled versions of more recent cars such as the Lincoln LS and Cadillac CTS have had enormous difficulty rising out of the single-digit percentages.

Pontiac Bonneville

So from a business standpoint, with the 1992-1995 Bonneville, the blinders-on, here-and-now mindset prevailed, and Pontiac squandered one of their best opportunities to fundamentally alter the brand’s perception. GM had wanted for years to position Pontiac as an “American BMW,” the luxury + performance sweet spot of the GM constellation of marques, and as much as the division’s development team may have wanted the same, they were always constrained by the platform-sharing dictates of upper management. GM’s corporate philosophy seemed focused on giving the customer what they wanted at present, never educating, never driving, never leading, never generating excitement by exceeding the customer’s expectations in opening his eyes to a more complete, satisfying driving experience the way Pontiac’s erstwhile German competitors did.

Pontiac Bonneville

It’s really a shame. If only its handling and general refinement had lived up to its looks, the 1992-1995 Bonneville could have been the perfect BMW 5-series fighter. From the outside, it’s a very handsome car; the fascia and resolution of the C-pillar and decklid are particularly well done. Sure, some of the details are crude, like the awkward position of the side mirrors and the overwrought body cladding, but it’s a great start. If only Pontiac had been set free to turn the supercharged, 225-hp V6 90°, hook it up to the rear wheels via a 5- or 6-speed manual transmission and invest in suspension tuning, they would have drawn a crowd of enthusiasts overnight. It turned out to be another missed opportunity for Pontiac to be who they really wanted to be.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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The ’92-’95 Pontiac Bonneville

What Might Have Been: The Infiniti Q45

January 12, 2012 by Matt

Infiniti Q45 Q-45 White Early

The early first-generation (’90-’96) Infiniti Q45 is an absolutely fascinating, compelling car. It’s just a shame its automaker didn’t have the resolve to commit to the concept.

The year was 1990. Toyota and Nissan, following Honda’s lead with their Acura luxury sub-brand, had just created upper-crust divisions of their own, Lexus and Infiniti, respectively. For their part, Lexus had done obsessively meticulous market research and development to perfectly optimize their flagship LS400 for the American market, and were rewarded with an eminently successful car. Infiniti, on the other hand, seemed more to shoot from the hip, offering a car that was perhaps less harmoniously in-tune with American luxury tastes, but was a beautifully refreshing take on the range-topping luxury sedan concept.

So what made the Q45 distinctive? Its design, for one—the car was drawn without the snooty waterfall grille that typified its rivals’ looks. Instead, we were treated to a smooth, clean aero look that, if perhaps a bit dated nowadays, is still as striking as it was two decades ago. Next, the car was uncommonly performance-focused, fitted with quick-ratio steering, firm suspension and seating, a muscular 278-hp 4.5l V8 engine and, with the Q45a trim line, active suspension that could raise or lower the car’s ride height in real time based on speed and actively combat body roll in corners. Car publications praised the Q45’s performance and capability compared to the LS400, Mercedes S-class and even the E32 BMW 7 series, but they wondered openly whether the car’s target demographic needed or wanted its speed, handling prowess or daring styling choices.

Infiniti Q45 Q-45 Silver Grey Gray Gunmetal Early

Their concerns were valid. As it happened, the well-heeled customers in the Q45’s market segment were much more accepting of a car like the LS400, which accommodated their tastes, rather than the Infiniti, which was more challenging but ultimately had the potential to be more satisfying from a driver’s standpoint. The automaker’s initial marketing campaign didn’t help, either, choosing to echo the Q45’s mold-breaking nature by featuring advertisements without a single image of the car, attempting to create a sense of anticipation, but ultimately completely losing the occupants of the car’s target niche.

So what was Infiniti’s response to the Q45’s initial setbacks? A determined show of confidence in their flagship’s ethos, a doubling-down on the qualities that alienated some buyers but would, over time, shift attention in the Q45’s direction as it maintained its distinctives compared to the LS400? In a word, nope. After a few short years, Infiniti veered hard back to the squishy center, softening the car’s suspension, tacking a grille on the nose, and injecting a dose of lard into the car’s responses in a somewhat pathetic attempt to ape the qualities that had made the LS400 a success. But there was a problem: The LS400 was already available and established, and the desperate game of catch-up carried on for more than a handful of years—12, in fact, through three generations, from the initial toning-down of the Q45 in ’94 through its eventual mercy killing in ’06. Through it all, the car got ever blobbier, ever more Caprice-like until, in the end, it was just kind of a nasty lozenge of a luxury car, a shadow of what it had been when it burst onto the scene in ’90: A taut, potent Japanese BMW. It’s a shame Infiniti hadn’t had the conviction to preserve the Q45’s initial identity.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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What Might Have Been: The Honda S2000

October 25, 2011 by Matt

Honda S2000 S-2000 Red Convertible Roadster Cabrio Cabriolet

So, what’s up? This is a great car; what about its model run could have possibly been better? Don’t I have bigger fish to fry?

Well, let me be clear: None of this will change the car’s status as one of the very few cars of recent vintage I’d seriously consider owning. Honda concentrated their strengths in the S2000; from the eager 240 hp 4-cyl to the light 2850 lb weight to the laser-beam steering and shifter, it’s a usable, focused, angry, fling-about sports car.

The design in particular is very well done. The shape is simple and monolithic, befitting such a single-minded, “pure” car. And details like the rocker panel undercuts and meager distance between the tops of the front wheel arches and tops of the fenders truly shine.

Honda S2000 S-2000 Red Convertible Roadster Cabrio Cabriolet Interior Inside Cockpit

It’s no coincidence, then, that what Honda could have done differently doesn’t include altering the existing car, only “augmenting” the concept with some add-ons, like a coupe version of the car. Cars originally designed as roadsters don’t always make a smooth transition stylistically to being enclosed, as in the case of the Triumph GT6 or the BMW Z3 Coupe. But done carefully, a coupe can breathe new life into a previously convertible-only sports car; witness the BMW Z4 M Coupe or even the sadly-unproduced Mazda Miata Coupe. A nicely-fitting hardtop was offered for the S2000, but it’s not the same. I wish they’d shown us what a smooth resolution of the roof and trunk lines into an elegant fastback could have looked like. And then made it.

Additionally, between the CRX, NSX and then the S2000, Honda has an unfortunate history of “one-and-out” cult cars. Like the other two models, the S2000 had the potential to become a dynasty, but instead of continuing to develop the car, releasing a full update instead of a revision like they did in ’04, Honda unceremoniously axed the model altogether in ’09. At least the automaker didn’t let the car age into complete irrelevance (see: NSX), but there was so much potential to build on their front-mid-engined, RWD foothold, if not with a completely new model, then with a freshening of the S2000 concept. As it is, Honda is frustratingly absent from a market segment they belong in.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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What Might Have Been: The BMW 840Ci

August 19, 2011 by Matt

BMW E31 840Ci 850i 850Ci 850CSi

This one’s a bit dissimilar. In the case of the ’94-’99 BMW 840Ci range-topping GT, it’s not one, but two decisions I wish the automaker had made differently: They should have made the 6-speed manual transmission available with the V8 engine option in the US, and they should have trimmed at least 500 lbs from the car’s curb weight. Actually, the last wish really should have been something built into the car from its inception—4350 lbs (an even 4 grand for the V8 car) is ridiculously overweight for anything short of a Bentley with pretenses of sporty capability.

I’m well aware the market for big coupes was incredibly soft in the mid-late ’90s. Unlike the previous installment in the What Might Have Been series, where the alternate course of action I laid out made a certain degree of business sense, my desire to see a lighter, 6-speed 840Ci make it to our shores isn’t really driven by a regard for BMW’s bottom line. Rather, it’s borne out of a longing for a true E24 6-series successor—something the E31 intentionally was not. Even though it would have likely flopped in much the same way as the actual car did, a more downscale BMW E31 variant would provide an additional buffer of sorts between the much-missed E24 and its “official” successor, the perilously hideous E63. In other words, the E31 had the styling chops to follow the E24 (and how!); it just didn’t have the moves, a deficiency a manual tranny and a diet would have handsomely rectified.

BMW E31 840Ci 850i 850Ci 850CSi Interior

For what it’s worth, the E34 and E39 540i shared the 840Ci’s M60/M62 V8, and could be had with 6-speeds in the US, so in theory, a manual swap is very possible (if pricey). Also, the early V12-powered 850i was offered with a manual on our side of the pond, but the extra 4 cylinders added even more weight, the extra poundage being more than enough of an issue to excise for its lesser stablemate.

Again, I know full well the desires of enthusiasts frequently make little sense from a financial perspective, especially when the entire E31 program was a dubious investment in the first place. And truth be told, BMW actually did briefly consider a further downmarket expansion of the 8-series with the 830i, before having second thoughts and scrapping all but a single prototype. Still, the idea of a lighter, more driver-oriented BMW in the jaw-droppingly gorgeous E31 shape is an appealing one.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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What Might Have Been: The Eunos Cosmo

July 20, 2011 by Matt

Mazda JC Cosmo

How might the automotive landscape been different had an automaker made a critical decision differently? Decided to see a particular concept through to production? Persisted with the production of a flawed model a little longer? Kept developing a promising technology? Changed a key part of a model whose sales were flagging?

It’s hard to play revisionist historian, what with the infinite number of variables that swirl around us on a daily basis. That said, there are definitely cars, ideas and technologies that deserved a lot more success than they actually achieved. This is the first installment of a new series examining “What Might Have Been,” key decisions by various automakers that, frankly, I wish they had made differently.

Today we discuss the Eunos Cosmo, a RWD luxury coupe built by Mazda between 1990 and 1995 for their upmarket Japan-only Eunos division. Never heard of it, you say? Good reason: It was never exported outside Japan, and remained a right-hand-drive domestic-market-only vehicle.

It was a technological tour de force. The first mass production car to feature sequential twin turbochargers, it remains also the only production car equipped with a 3-rotor, 300 hp version of Mazda’s signature rotary engine, the 20B-REW:

Mazda 20B

The innovations continued inside the car, with the world’s first built-in GPS navigation system as well as a color touchscreen. Sadly, no manual transmission option was offered on a production car, though a few enterprising owners have adapted the later third-generation RX-7’s manual to their Cosmos.

The late ’80s saw an explosion of luxury sub-brands associated with Japanese automakers: Honda launched Acura, Nissan debuted Infinti and Toyota unveiled Lexus. Mazda was set to follow suit, building momentum for their upcoming Amati luxury marque. The Cosmo, along with a car which later became the Mazda Millenia, were pegged as the two Amati “launch vehicles.” But for reasons unknown, Mazda decided to change course and shelve plans for the new sub-brand. As a result, the Cosmo never crossed the Pacific, and remained a vision from afar for American enthusiasts.

It didn’t help us, either, that the development of the Cosmo occurred during a period of great aesthetic success for Mazda, when they released some their best-ever looking models, and some of the most beautiful cars to arise from Japan, ever. The lines of the stunning third-generation RX-7, Mazda’s final 929 and MX-6 were penned by their then-brilliant design department, but the Cosmo’s sinuous curves arguably topped them all. Had it been released here, between its technological prowess and overwhelming styling grace, I’ve no doubt it would have been a credible rival to the successful Lexus SC coupe. If only, Mazda, if only.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

7 Comments on What Might Have Been: The Eunos Cosmo