Vintage Reviews: Car And Driver’s 1997 New Car Issue – European Brand First Drives

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In contrast to the rather staid news from Asian brands for 1997, the Europeans let loose a slew of interesting new products.  Car and Driver served up some “Short Takes” and “First Drives” on some of the newest European hardware in the October 1996 issue, including the Jaguar XK8, Bentley Continental T, Porsche Boxster, Volvo C70 and Audi A8.

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Of all the “retro-look” Jaguars, the XK8 is my absolute favorite.  I still think it looks good even today.  In 1997, the look was a fresh but very identifiable take on classic Coventry styling cues.  The interior, with the big, beautiful “plank” of polished wood trim looks particularly luxurious and striking, and the array of gauges is a nice old-school touch too.  Even though it was a 20+ year-old XJS underneath, the XK8 looked great, handled well enough for a grand touring car and offered smooth power with the new AJ V8.  While definitely not cheap at $78,308 ($120,209 adjusted), the XK8 convertible undercut the Mercedes SL by 25% and was half the price of its Aston  Martin DB7 Volante platform mate.  A gorgeous half-priced Aston with a V8?  I’d take that any day!

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One of my quirks as a car enthusiast is that I am just not particularly excited by “super cars” and “exotics.”  Don’t get me wrong, I love expensive, beautiful and special cars, but find the ones that can be obtained by “mere mortals” to be the most interesting.  I also love rare cars–I’m thrilled to see a 1970 In-Violet Hemi ‘Cuda, for example.  But while the restored ‘Cuda prices today are obscene, when new, the Plymouth was probably first purchased by a “normal” car enthusiast, not Daddy Warbucks.  There’s something about the over-the-top extremism of these “exotic” cars that I find off-putting.  Maybe it’s the fact that, other than exclusivity, they really are no better than top luxury and sports cars costing half as much.  Or the fact that only trust fund babies, hedge fund operators, drug kingpins, top athletes and Hollywood types seem to drive them.  Just.  Too.  Much.  That’s also why I find today’s buff books so boring to read–since all they seem to cover are these types of unreachable and unrealistic machinery.  And that’s why, even if I won the biggest PowerBall jackpot ever and could go wild buying fun cars, the one I’d pick for its engine-turned aluminum dash trim would be a mint-condition 1977 Firebird Trans Am, not this Bentley Continental T.

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The Germans were looking to drive the 2-seat roadster phenomenon upmarket in the mid-1990s.  BMW introduced the Z3 Roadster for 1996, while Mercedes announced the SLK and Porsche introduced the Boxster for 1997.  Of the German two-seat trio, naturally the one that came closest to being a true sports car was the Porsche.  Though sometimes derided as not enough of a “real” Porsche (like the 914 or 924), in reality the Boxster was pure Stuttgart and in many ways a reinterpretation of the original 912/911 concept.  Nor was the Boxster particularly cheap: at $45,000 ($69,078 adjusted) it was even pricier than a 911 was in 1965 ($6,490–$49,623 adjusted).

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I must admit I had completely forgotten that this Volvo coupe ever existed.  Clearly, the “wild and crazy” intentions of this “sexier” Volvo were never really realized.

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Here’s a rare and rather exotic car I do find quite interesting.  The 1997 A8 was the most aluminum-intensive car available on the U.S. market that year.  While the aluminum body work was extremely inconvenient to repair after an accident, the benefits of aluminum in the form of lighter weight, better performance and better efficiency were significant advantages.  Sure, it looked like a jumbo A4 (a perennial Audi styling problem), but it was good looking nonetheless.  Given the amount of sophisticated technology, safety, roominess and comfort on offer, the $65,000 ($99,780 adjusted) wasn’t unreasonable for an über-luxury sedan.  A select few buyers were bold enough to “go aluminum” with this car, and for that alone it should be considered something of a milestone.

By 1997 it was clear that European makers were intending to push back against the Japanese onslaught that had stunned them in the early 1990s.  Whether all-new or nice re-skins, there was a lot of distinctive product on offer to regain traction with America’s top-tier car buyers.