After a short break, it’s time to look again at cars of the new millennium that will attract the attention of the Curbside Classic Cohort. We come to this site often because we are tired of reading articles and looking at pictures of shiny red trailer-queen 1964 Mustangs. Many of us will walk a couple of extra blocks or drive a little out of our way because we spotted a car that is becoming increasingly rare with time, or perhaps always was. I propose the following cars will be attracting our gaze when we spot them in 10-15 years’ time, although we may not have the fondest of memories for them.
Ran out of gas
Sometimes you have to wonder why some automakers completely avoid hot segments until years later. Dodge was extremely late to the small SUV party, and like a guest who didn’t read the invitation, came wearing entirely the wrong outfit, and carrying the wrong gift.
Chrysler had plenty of time to do recon on what small SUV buyers really wanted. Previously, the only small SUVs you could buy were more agricultural trucklets like the Geo/Chevrolet Tracker, which were better suited to off-road driving than the grocery store run. Along came Toyota’s Corolla-based RAV4 in 1996, with butch styling but refined, car-like dynamics. Honda arrived shortly after with the Civic-based CR-V in 1997, and then Ford in 2000 with the Mazda 626-derived Escape, which offered a V6. Those three entrants established dominance in the segment, and it was plain to see what was so popular. To succeed, an automaker just needed something pleasant enough to drive, preferably based on an existing front-wheel-drive car platform, but with the command seating position and tough looks of a more conventional SUV. Easy.
top: Dodge Nitro, bottom: Jeep Liberty
Tell that to Chrysler, because when the Dodge Nitro arrived in 2007, it couldn’t have been further from that formula. The Nitro rode on the same unibody platform as the 2008 Jeep Liberty, with a live axle rear suspension and standard rear-wheel-drive, a combination far more truck-like than that of its competitors. To differentiate the Nitro from the Liberty, Dodge gave it an aggressive front fascia and bold crosshair grille, although the exaggerated flares over the wheel arches cast my mind towards tractors and 1930s cars. The Nitro also had a high belt line and small glasshouse, similar to the Chrysler 300, but from behind the resemblance to the Liberty was very apparent. Like it or loathe it, though, the Nitro sure stood out, especially in R/T trim with 20-inch chrome wheels and body-colored bumpers.
The Nitro was marketed as a compact, urban-dwelling SUV. Of course, where the RAV4 and CR-V were doing duty with 2.0-2.4 four-cylinder engines, Nitro came with some heavier artillery. There were no four-cylinder engines (except the 2.8 VM Motori diesel four available in Europe and Australia), with the base engine being the Jeep Liberty’s 3.7 PowerTech V6. In grand 2000s Chrysler tradition, it was low on power compared to rivals: just 210 horsepower and 235 ft-lbs of torque, hauling almost 4000lbs of curb weight. Contrast that with the RAV4 V6, new for 2006, which had 269hp and 246 ft-lbs, hauling 300lbs less. Interestingly, for the first couple of years, the 3.7 came with a six-speed manual transmission as standard. The automatic was an old-tech four-speed unit, however you got a five-speed with manual shift control if you ponied up for the 4.0 six. The bigger engine was more in line with the RAV4 V6, with 260hp and 265 ft-lbs. The Nitro may have been down on power against the Toyota, but it made up for it by being able to tow 5000lbs.
Of course, while the Nitro could tow like a conventional SUV, it couldn’t go off-road like one. In their efforts to differentiate the Nitro from its Liberty cousin, Dodge gave it a more street-tough look. This meant the Nitro rode lower to the ground, and was also longer and wider. These tweaks afforded the Nitro a roomier cabin and better ride than the Liberty, but at the expense of off-road ability. Where the cousins were lineball, however, was in their cheap, plasticky interiors. The Nitro’s aluminum-look trim and straightforward dash layout looked pleasing from a distance, but like all Mopar interiors from the dreary DaimlerChrysler days, the quality was most definitely not there. I remember visiting a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealer and checking out the lineup at the time, and the interiors gave me vivid flashbacks of my sister’s old first-generation Kia Rio. Now she drives a 2012 Journey with a fairly high-quality interior and the powerful Pentastar V6, so I know Chrysler is back on track.
It seemed like Chrysler didn’t have a lot of faith in their concoction, because just two years later they released the not-quite-midsize Journey. Then, there was also the Caliber to consider. Dodge thought because small SUVs were so popular, they should make their compact car look like one. A novel idea, but whether because the idea was too out-of-the-box or the car just poorly executed (underpowered engines and a garbage interior), the Caliber actually saw sales halve from the numbers the cute, more conventional Neon had been moving.
The Nitro didn’t have an immediate predecessor to fall short of (the last compact Dodge SUV was the Mitsubishi-sourced Raider in 1990), and its 2007 sales tally was around 74k units. However, this was 20k shy of the Liberty, which was still the old-shape model. Despite a base price of roughly $2000 less than its Jeep cousin and the Nitro-exclusive 4.0, the Nitro could never muster more than half of the Liberty’s sales. While other problem Chrysler Corporation models like the Sebring and Compass received extensive revisions, or even simple tweaks like the 2010 Caliber’s improved interior, the Nitro soldiered on unchanged. In 2010, the Nitro’s model lineup was renamed, with try-hard trim levels including the Heat, Detonator and Shock. The Shock was the luxury trim, of course (this was around the time Dodge sold the hilariously-named Avenger Mainstreet for one model year). Ultimately, the Nitro sold on its bold looks and value proposition, because its car-based competitors were more pleasant on-road and had better gas mileage, and SUVs like its Liberty cousin and the Nissan Xterra vastly outperformed it off the beaten track.
Perhaps what was most mystifying about the Nitro was not its late arrival, but that it was chosen as one of a select group of Dodges to take the brand global. That expensive debacle is something that I will cover in more detail in a future article, but suffice it to say, the Nitro didn’t do too well in Europe. This SUV wasn’t a case of a day late, a dollar short: it was a decade late, and thousands of sales short.
Failure to soar
The 2003 Aviator is not being lumped into my usual Obscure Rebadges feature because, although its short model life and fairly low sales performance suggest “obscure”, it was not a “rebadge”. Instead, the Aviator was a nicely differentiated Ford Explorer – sharing only doors and roof with its lesser cousin – and was actually quite an impressive vehicle.
But how can a $39k Lincoln derived from a $27k Ford SUV be so impressive? After all, with Lincoln steering away from the path it tread with the dynamic LS, co-developed with Jaguar, the luxury marque has earned a lot of criticism over the past decade for not differentiating its models from the Fords they are based upon. The Aviator, though, was very different to the Explorer. Take the Explorer’s bland, utilitarian interior, for instance. No, seriously, take it. The Aviator had an entirely new interior, with a striking, symmetrical dash just like its big brother, the Navigator. There was a lot of satin-nickel trim, which was very much in vogue, but also a lot of real burled walnut and soft leather. The neatly laid-out dash featured an elegant analog clock, and the stereo was hidden behind a panel at the top of the dash. Outside, the styling was very much Navigator Junior, right down to the oversized taillights. The familial resemblance would make Audi proud.
So far, though, it’s just cosmetic improvements. Is this just a case of lipstick on a pig? A shiny new body, but the same $27k truck underneath? Wrong. Pop the hood and you’ll find an engine shared not with the lesser Explorer or Mountaineer, but rather the Mustang Mach 1. A 4.6 V8 pumping out 302hp and 300 ft-lbs, the Aviator’s engine was actually more powerful than the Navigator’s larger 5.4 mill and endowed the smaller truck with best in-class acceleration. The Aviator hit 0-60 in 7.6 seconds, which was pretty damn impressive for a 4000lb truck in 2003. And when the road got twisty, the Aviator could actually keep up with it. Critics were impressed with how well it handled, not just compared with an Explorer but with its competitors, as well. The Explorer’s steering rack was cast off with its interior and engine, replaced with variable-assist, variable-ratio steering gear from ZF. A five-speed automatic was the only transmission, and earned universal praise for its quick upshifts. The suspension was all-independent. New shocks and springs completed the mechanical improvements. All in all, critics were surprised at how the Aviator not only rode smoothly and quietly, but how it could match the car-derived Acura MDX with a 0.74g figure on the skidpad. Gas mileage was nothing to write home about, with a 13/19 city/highway mpg score, but its truck-based rivals were little better in that regard.
So it handled well, looked good, had a quality interior and even had enough differentiation from the Explorer to justify the higher price tag. How did it sell? In its debut year, the Aviator shifted around 30k units, but that fell in 2004 to 23k. Finally, in 2005, the Aviator shifted a meager 15k. One of its key rivals, the Acura MDX, was selling almost 60k annually in this time period. The Lexus GX, which like the Aviator was based on a mainstream, mid-size truck platform, sold around 30k units annually in this time period, as did the Aviator’s bigger brother, the Navigator. For some reason, the Aviator just couldn’t get much love. Perhaps it was a lack of advertising that was to blame, or maybe people who entered the Lincoln showroom would just rather pony up the extra dough and get the slower, less dynamic, thirstier Navigator. The Aviator had a very short life at Lincoln, replaced by the car-like MKX. In the shape of things to come, the MKX was more similar to its Ford Edge donor, sharing more sheetmetal and mechanical components. This likely made it much more profitable for Ford, although the MKX wasn’t a sales success either. However, there was less of a sharp drop-off, and since launch, the MKX has sold consistently. It is frustrating to see Lincoln develop a solid entry, fail to support it and then discontinue it for something easier. The Aviator wasn’t a clean-sheet design like the LS, but it earned praise from critics and could perhaps have sold better with better marketing and advertising support.
Honda Crosstour/Accord Crosstour
We won’t reach an accord on this
Boy, I just know I’ll be in the minority on this one! The main criticism leveled against the Accord-derived Crosstour crossover is indisputably its styling. At first I found it challenging to look at but with time, I have come to appreciate it (especially after the 2012 facelift). I’m also coming to come right out and admit, hot on the heels of my admiration for the final Mitsubishi Eclipse (add link here), that I caught myself admiring a Honda Element SC the other day, I have always liked the 1996 Ford Taurus, I think the AMC Pacer is groovy and the Acura ZDX is rather sharp.
Now that I have completely lost your respect, let’s talk about the Accord Crosstour! First thing’s first, let’s just set aside all this crossover business. Yes, it has more ground clearance than the Accord from whence it came and yes, it’s offered with all-wheel-drive, but this is really just an Accord hatchback in platform shoes. Many enthusiasts long for hatchbacks and wagons, and they don’t realize that there are slightly more on the market than they think. The Ford Flex? It’s just a modern-day Country Squire. The Lincoln MKT? The same thing, in uglier skin (that we can agree on). The Toyota Venza is the only way Toyota can sell a Camry wagon to a notoriously wagon-averse public, and all they had to do was make it a bit taller and put the gearshift up on the dash. Are these cars as sexy as an Opel Insignia Sport Tourer? No, but they’re as close as we are going to get until The Next Big Thing. Wagons were in, then minivans, and then SUVs and then finally crossovers. Maybe hatches will be the car du jour in 5 years’ time?
Frankly, the Accord Crosstour (simply Crosstour after 2012) looks better to me than the just-superseded and super-sized Accord, with its bulging head lights and slab sides. The problem with the Crosstour, though, is it sacrifices potential substance for arguable style. With 25.7 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats (51.3 with the seats folded), it doesn’t really offer much utility compared to other crossovers like the Venza and only offers 10 more cubic feet than the Accord sedan. Then again, if you want utility, Honda can sell you a Pilot with available seven seats for $2k more. Of course, an Accord starts at around $22k, or a whole $5k less than a Crosstour. No matter how high you go up the Accord price ladder, though, you cannot add all-wheel-drive. That’s where the Crosstour would start to make sense, appealing to buyers in Canada, the Northeast and Midwest who want all-wheel-drive traction without driving something too bulky. However, the Crosstour is still based on the previous-generation Accord, and misses out on the handsome new Accord’s more desirable interior, as well as its base Earth Dreams four/CVT drivetrain. That drivetrain is good for 27/36mpg (30mpg combined), while the Crosstour’s base four comes with a five-speed auto and around 500lbs extra curb weight and thus gets 22/31mpg (25mpg combined). The poorer gas mileage can’t even be blamed on all-wheel-drive, which is available only on the V6 Crosstour. The V6 AWD Crosstour gets 22mpg combined, or 23mpg combined in FWD trim; contrast this with the V6 FWD Accord, with 26mpg combined.
The Crosstour’s gas mileage figures are more flattering against the previous-generation Accord, but Honda has moved its own game forward. Now, it is time for them to bring the Crosstour to a new generation. That is, if they choose to. The Crosstour debuted to reasonable demand, with around 28k units sold. That dipped by 10k units the following year, before rising and falling once more. The Crosstour is selling well under half the volume of its chief rival, the similarly-priced Toyota Venza. Is the Crosstour the better car? It’s less practical, sure, but if you really wanted practicality you would arguably be looking at the Pilot or Highlander. The Crosstour has a better, more fun-to-drive donor car and thus is the superior driver’s car. If you are taken by its style, or you want an all-wheel-drive Accord, then the Crosstour is hardly a bad choice. The main problem for it now is the classy Accord sedan sitting next to it in the showroom.
But the Crosstour does look beautiful in brown.
What do you think of this lineup? Do you find the Dodge SUV Nitro-active, or do you want to drop it like radioactive waste? Is the Aviator a forgotten gem? Should I check myself into a psychiatric care facility for liking the Crosstour? Discuss in the comments below!