Back in the days before index funds, when the Dow hovered precipitously around 700 and 800, savvy stock pickers kept their eyes on skirt lengths: “The hotter the market, the higher the hemlines” was the old way of sizing up the economy.
Today, with our pecuniary passions stirred to a frenzy by irrational exuberance, the stakes are much higher. The Dow is mowing down benchmarks by thousands rather than hundreds; it blew by 7,000 so fast this summer that it didn’t even say goodbye. Forget the scanty hemlines. Now the mood is positively topless; if you’re harboring any doubts, you need only survey the crop of sporty roadsters and convertibles that are destined to transform the Automotive Class of ’98 into the wind-in-your-hair generation.
The single biggest blip on the auto aficionado’s radar screen for ’98 is the trio of Teutonic roadsters from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. Performance from this sophisticated threesome ranges from mild to wild; of the three, Mercedes-Benz has opted to take the high road of refinement. The SLK, which boasts a supercharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder, offers 185 horsepower and a 5-speed automatic transmissionno manual is available. With its $39,700 base price (before destination charge), the SLK stickers out toe-to-toe with Porsche’s inimitable Boxster ($39,980 base).
Apart from price, the personalities of these two roadsters couldn’t be more different. The Boxster features a 2.5-liter, six-cylinder boxer (i.e., horizontally opposed) engine that produces 204 horsepower. It’s the kind of car that twisty back roads were meant for; power, while hardly exorbitant, spools out in only the most animated and fast-revving way.
Of these three new German roadsters, Boxster is the most finely tuned; in other words, it’s perfect for the knowledgeable enthusiast who’s looking for spirited performance. BMW’s Z3 is spirited too, but compared to Porsche’s Stradivarius, it’s more of an Irish fiddle. At $35,900 (’97 base price) and with a 189-HP 2.8-liter engine, Bimmer’s is the least expensive of these German roadsters. This price advantage will fade next spring, however, with the arrival of the 240 HP M-power. While the Boxster should manage a handling superiority in the hands of able cognoscenti, the sheer, raw power and light weight of BMW’s M-roadster will add bravura power slides and tire-smoking get-offs to the Z3’s arsenal. With this kind of additional firepower, the car’s already aggressive-looking character will have even more reason to swagger.
All-American heavy metal
This is not to say that raw power is by necessity rough-edged. Take Chevrolet, for instance, which has nestled 345 HP into its brand-new fifth-generation Corvette in such a way that even a novice can exploit it. The C5 coupe, of course, appeared earlier this year, but the big news for ’98 is the return of the roadster. At $44,425, the new Corvette convertible is not only less expensive than its 1996 predecessor, it’s also, pound for pound, one of the world’s premier performance buys.
The convertible’s aesthetic signature is its most conspicuous feature: The “speedster” nacelles in the tonneau behind the driver and passenger headrests merge into the cockpit with a sweep of bodywork that Chevy calls a “waterfall.” This clever design trick may serve as homage to the original ’53 roadster, but no previous ’Vette convertible has ever driven like the C5. Thanks to an aviation-style, hydro-formed steel perimeter frame that’s buttressedbelieve it or notby flooring made from balsa wood composite, the C5 is one rock-solid roadster. Cowl shake and frame flex are reduced to mere memories.
With a flip of the molded tonneau behind the seats, Corvette’s manual soft-top folds easily out of sight, leaving behind a harmony of gentle body sculpts and design cues that only hint at the car’s daunting potential. The Dodge Viper RT/10, on the other hand, displays quite the opposite persona. Back after a year’s sabbatical, the roadster version of the Viper is the very image of coiled tension and venomous aggression. Even the rank novice harbors no doubt that 450 horsepower lurks underhood, or that 8.0 liters of V10 engine displacement are capable of a searing, 4-second zero-to-60.
Since its debut in ’92, the Dodge Viper roadster has defined the limits of automotive flagrancy. The first models didn’t even provide glass windows, opting instead for expendable little side curtains that stored in the trunk. In its updated iteration, roll-down glass windows have finally arrived, and so has a standard-equipment, removable hard top. New independent suspension at all four corners actually improves the car’s manners considerably in combinations of twisties. Lest these “refinements” appear to have softened Viper’s bad-boy image, you can be assured they have not. The Viper is still a brute-force sports car that tackles obstacles by powering through them, not driving around them. With its reappearance in Dodge’s lineup this summer, the Viper RT/10’s base price is listed at $66,700.
Perhaps no new model better reflects the return of top-down respectability than Volvo’s alluring new C70. The C70 convertible, which will appear next spring on the heels of this fall’s C70 coupe, is Volvo’s sportiest model in decadesmaybe ever. After all, here’s a car company whose entire reputation is based on engineering principles dedicated to saving livesoften at the expense of joie de vivre.
With a design “massaged” by Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) in the UK, the C70 is a spirited performer. Despite front-wheel-drive, the 236-HP, turbocharged C70 tackles tortuous mountain roads with all the aplomb of a rear-drive sports car. Much of the reason stems from TWR’s specifications, which include a wider rear track and special suspension tuning. With the C70 coupe officially priced at $38,995 (base), the convertible is expected to sticker under $45,000 when it arrives in the spring.
The C70 convertible, of course, is brimming with Volvo’s vaunted safety featuresspecial roll bars, for example, deploy in micro-seconds in the event of a crash. But by no means has Volvo sanitized the open-air experiencenor have any of the other manufacturers, for that matter. Neither have they thrown caution to the wind. It’s just a simple fact that if times are good, you let the good times roll. And if clouds do suddenly appear upon the horizon, you can only hope you’ll have time enough to pull over, latch the roof, and roll up the windows against the squall.
Off the floor
After months of preparations, deferments, and reschedulings, Andrews Land Rover finally won unanimous approval from the Brentwood Planning Commission last week to proceed with its off-road center in Maryland Farms. According to general manager Nelson Andrews, the freestanding Land Rover Centre will house not only Andrews’ showroom and service facilities, it will also incorporate the only off-road test track maintained by a Middle Tennessee dealership. The design of the test track and the Centre overall follows Land Rover guidelines established for its dealerships nationwide. Expected to open by late Spring ’98, the lodge-style dealership will, according to Andrews, incorporate an “Abercrombie & Fitch-type” retail area for apparel and off-road accessories. When asked if competing vehicles will be allowed to try their abilities at the track, Andrews chuckles, “They might not want to. There’s word that a Ford Explorer tried to tackle a similar track in North Carolina and wound up totaled with a bent frame.”
All you can eat, all you can ride
Nashville’s inaugural European Bike Show & BBQ roars to life Saturday, Sept. 20, at Collier Cycles, 7401 Charlotte Pike. Factory reps from both Triumph and Ducati will be on hand to conduct demo rides of their latest Brit-bikes and desmo-Ducks. The event begins at noon with a Vintage Bike Tech Session moderated by Brian Slark, formerly of Norton Villiers in the UK and current shop manager for the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Ala. Slark will be accompanied by Norton drag-racing legend Leo Goff of Memphis.
An evening of blues, BBQ, and bench-racin’ kick-starts at 4 p.m. Featured music includes performances by The Mavericks, John Cowan and Reese Wynans, The Mojo Men, Bobby Bradford, and Miranda Louise. An admission charge of $5 per person goes to support the European Motorcycle Club of Nashville; all-you-can-eat BBQ will be an additional $5.
The final Ford Thunderbird flew the coop last Thursday as the car maker ended production of its 42-year-old “sports coupe” at its Lorain, Ohio, assembly plant. Ford built more than 4.2 million T-Birds since their debut in 1955. The last ’Bird was a laser-red model, which the company is donating to a Thunderbird club.
Doc, I got this pain...
OnStar, GM’s newest division, announced last week that its satellite navigation and assistance capabilities will now offer remote, on-board diagnostics. Using global positioning system (GPS) technology and hands-free cellular-phone service, OnStar can now “interrogate” vehicles via satellite to determine mechanical and electronic malfunctions. An OnStar representative can then advise drivers what course of action to take for solving the problem. The system is literally push-button-operated from within an OnStar-equipped vehicle.
The company will also make fax and data capabilities available in ’98. Drivers will be able to plug into a standard phone jack with a laptop computer to send faxes, to go online, or to access a database from inside the vehicle. The OnStar option is available on all ’98 Cadillacs and Buicks as well as selected models from Olds, Chevy, and Pontiac-GMC.
Dealer news and other views are invited by fax at 615.385-2930 or via e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.
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