(Read Part 1 here.)
In the noughties, I discovered the wonders of the internet. No longer did I have to rely on physical magazines to access car information. This further opened up the world of American cars to me as US publications had always been rare here. To my delight, the noughties proved to be a decade rich with wild and wacky American cars.
Seriously, let’s stop and reflect on the first decade of the new century for a minute. The retro design movement was in full swing, having been started by the Plymouth Prowler. Chrysler followed up on that with the enormously popular Chrysler PT Cruiser and, several years later, the exciting return of the Dodge Challenger. Ford reintroduced the Thunderbird as a throwback convertible. GM, under the guidance of Bob Lutz, embarked on a decade of both improved mainstream products and unexpected niche models from its sprawling menagerie of brands. There was the convertible pickup Chevrolet SSR and cute HHR wagon. The Chevy Camaro returned after being endlessly teased.
Perhaps the most surprising and delightful niche product spearheaded by Lutz were the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky (#12). The Kappa platform twins injected some much needed excitement into the Pontiac and Saturn brands. The Solstice showed Lutz had a vision for Pontiac as a niche performance brand, selling only cars like the Solstice and the excellent, imported G8 (which, being Australian, doesn’t qualify for this series). Sadly, reluctant management and desperate dealers saw Pontiac continue to peddle flimsy rebadges like the G3, and both Pontiac and the Kappa platform died with GM’s bankruptcy. While never superior to the Mazda MX-5 they targeted, these were stylish, competitive roadsters. Surely we can never have too many of those around.
A weaker offering from Pontiac was the Grand Prix GXP (#13). The GM Performance Division was tasked with keeping the aging W-bodies interesting, something they achieved with a new, optional 5.3 V8 engine. The GXP received the most attention with unique suspension tuning and performance equipment. Critics were relatively complimentary of this bizarre, performance-oriented melding of a 303-horsepower V8 to an old FWD platform and this incongruous match-up always intrigued me. Of course, the replacement G8 – from my homeland – was a far superior car.
Another neglected GM platform was the FWD G-Body, which underpinned GM’s full-size sedans. By the time the G-Body Buick Lucerne arrived in 2006, the premium full-size segment had moved on. Rivals could get more power and better fuel economy from their V6 engines and six-speed automatic transmissions. Despite this, the Lucerne CXS and Super V8s (#14) appealed to me for a few reasons. They were the first of many Buicks that would interest me after the untimely demise of Oldsmobile. They were basically rebodied Sevilles, even receiving the ’03 STS’ Magnetic Ride Control, and they looked handsome inside and out.
When I was around 5, I sat in a Holden VR Caprice at an auto show. As I sunk into the cushy leather seats, an appreciation formed for luxuriously-appointed, full-size sedans. However, when I began driving, I realized the importance of responsiveness and dynamics. I’m really not a Brougham man. I want ride and handling. The flawed Lucerne V8 offered both, to some degree, and plenty of room. As for its platform-mate, the Cadillac DTS? I’m not a fan.
The Lucerne may have been nice but it was outshone not only by its direct rivals, but also by a cheaper Chevrolet. The 2008 Malibu (#15) was not only cheaper, it had a nicer interior, was faster (in V6 guise), more economical, had better handling, and even looked more dapper. It wasn’t just a nice car that was well-received by critics. It heralded a new era for the Big 3 of global platform-sharing and relatively short model cycles. It showed the domestics could produce a stylish, mainstream car, competitive in size, price, ride, handling, economy and build quality, after years of cost-cutting and stagnant products. No excuses or qualifiers needed.
The 2002 Ford Thunderbird was nice but it looked to the past. Its platform-mate, the Lincoln LS (#16), looked to the future. Namely, a future where then-Ford-owned Jaguar and Lincoln shared platforms, and a future where Lincoln battled the Germans. It was the wildest idea Ford ever had with its domestic luxury brand, with which it had always been exceedingly pragmatic. All of a sudden, they had a sport sedan with rear-wheel-drive, 50/50 weight distribution, a SelectShift tiptronic auto, and even an optional manual transmission. Unfortunately, the LS was burdened with reliability issues, a bland interior, and a non-descript, if well-proportioned, body. Ford’s precarious financial situation precipitated a change back to their old model of luxing up Ford platforms, leaving the LS an exotic orphan.
If I had fond feelings already towards Cadillac due to the ’92 and ’98 Seville, the Art & Science cars turned me into a bona fide fan. While Lincoln cautiously dipped into the world of German sport sedans, Cadillac dove in. Here in Australia, we had been shoving V8s and manual transmissions into sensibly-sized sedans for years but the U.S. demurred, preferring coupes. That changed with the first CTS-V (#17). Its razor-edged styling looked best in V trim and its 400-horsepower 6.0 V8 and 6-speed manual were nothing to sneeze at, even if the car was a little rough around the edges. Cadillac made a big splash in the RWD sport sedan world with the first CTS and demanded attention and reconsideration overnight.
The first truly impressive premium crossover in my eyes was the inaugural BMW X5. It was quite remarkable, really: a proper, performance-oriented RWD platform and an interior and exterior that was as close to a BMW sedan as an SUV could get. The Cadillac SRX (#18) followed this model, earning critical acclaim despite an initially sub-par interior. The SRX actually bested the X5 in one regard by offering a third row of seating. For whatever reason, the SRX never sold as well as expected and so its replacement pursued the more milquetoast Lexus RX instead, switching to front-wheel-drive and losing both its optional V8 and my interest. Sales skyrocketed.
You already know how I feel about the Cadillac STS and STS-V (#19). I loved its distinctively Cadillac/Art & Science styling. I loved Cadillac’s return to rear-wheel-drive. I loved the improved Northstar V8. If the Seville made me appreciate Cadillac, the STS made me love GM’s luxury brand. Alas, it’s hard for non-German offerings to succeed in the mid-sized luxury sector. Just ask Lexus and Infiniti. Cadillac’s lazy 2008 refresh didn’t help, nor did the arrival of the second-generation CTS and CTS-V (#20).
The second-generation finally brought a truly competitive interior, shading the STS, and the new V was even more bonkers with a 556-horsepower supercharged V8. The new base 3.0 V6, introduced in 2010, was the CTS’ only major weakness with its so-so fuel economy and paucity of torque. Fortunately, Cadillac had a turbo four on the way. I was very disappointed when GM announced at the eleventh hour that Cadillac would not be returning to Australia, even as a ship sailed here loaded with CTS sedans.
The arrival of the future classic CTS-V wagon in 2010 allowed me to have a quick answer ready when I was asked the usual, “What’s your dream car?” It was even available with a stick! To trenchant opposition from many of you, I called the CTS and CTS-V wagons the most beautiful wagons ever made.
What is this, “27 Favorite American Cars” or “27 Favorite Cadillacs”?! The final car of this instalment is the Cadillac XLR (#21). Cadillac has since softened its Art & Science design language but these early designs were delightfully polarizing. To some, the XLR may be ugly. To me, these are absolutely stunning luxury roadsters. A polished version of the C5 Corvette with a Northstar V8 and a folding metal hardtop, the XLR was Cadillac’s first entry into the luxury roadster market since the Allanté. Critics found it competitive with the Mercedes SL but it lasted only a single generation.
My family’s cars, growing up, had been General Motors products from Australia and Europe. The noughties showed me GM also produced a wide range of appealing products in North America. In the final instalment, I’ll share with you some Ford and Chrysler products first introduced in the noughties – and some more recent products from other brands – that keep me thoroughly enthralled in the American automotive industry.