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Sophisticated Side

23 October 2001

By David Rubie

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The Sydney International Motor Show, October 2001

Head...pounding. Dry throat. Need water. What happened? I'm blinking at the sun streaming through the open curtains. I'm in a strange room. Oh, now I remember.

Here was the plan. Wednesday night was supposed to be drinking-with-old-buddies night, a long-put-off get together to celebrate lost youth and the dawning ugliness of middle-aged reality. Afterwards, pop into a hotel near Darling Harbour for the evening. Next day, ring in sick and spend the day wandering around the motor show and enjoy a tasty free lunch. Things didn't quite work out that way.

Lets wind the clock back to Wednesday evening. Reminiscing is a dangerous business; we all tend to colour the "good old days" with a glowing tint when the reality wasn't so hot. Way back when, drunken pub conversation largely concentrated around work, chasing girls (and occasionally catching them) and whose shout it was next.

No kids, no commitments, money wasted on cars we couldn't quite afford, frequent hangovers that were grim but manageable.

Eight years on, the conversation has shifted. It's busted relationships, the joy of mortgages, and at what point in your life a Volvo becomes a realistic motoring choice. Unfortunately, I had forgotten what a mess a bender like that can make of you the next day. Motor show trade day. Supposed to start at 6:30am and I'd only stumbled into the hotel after 2:00am. My drunken brain calculated that three and a half hours sleep was plenty for a youngish man like me.

It was wrong.

At 6:30am the sun stabbed through my eyelids no matter how much I attempted to squeeze them shut. Reluctantly, I dragged myself through a shower, dragged a comb through my hair, realised I had forgotten to bring a razor. I dressed shabbily - too lazy and queasy to iron the change of clothes squashed into a sports bag with a camera and a toothbrush.

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I made it to the show while keeping the contents of my stomach internal. It was now around 8:00am and I had missed the breakfast and most of the opening speeches. On the up side, I had found my press pass. I had even made it there on time for the start of the "walk around", that part of the show where the stands are each visited in turn, so press packs can be handed out and speeches and model launches made in an orderly fashion. Unfortunately, just as the sheets were being raised on the Monaro I was rudely interrupted by reality in the form of a phone call from my day job. They wanted me: I would have to come back another day...

Even so, I remember walking away from the Monaro stand in awe at the impact the Monaro was having. Industry day at the show is brimming with cynicism - the most common phrase you hear is "I've been in this industry too long...". Despite that, the assorted car salesmen, jaded journalists and assorted hangers on crowded around the Monaro such that getting a photo was near impossible.

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On the way out, I clocked the Mini Cooper and did a double take. I'll definitely have to come back, I thought. Then I stumble across the small CMC power systems stand and goggle at the scotch-yoke engine display. The square bearing that absorbs most of the drive before transmitting it to the crankshaft has me foxed, but scotch-yoke engine man comes to my aid and explains everything, which I promptly forget as a belch brings up a tiny taste of yesterday. Time to go.

Wind forward five days and I'm walking past the display of classics arrayed before the entrance to the show. Of the assorted vehicles on display, I was wishing that the Maserati Ghibli was a little more affordable. At the entrance gate, I switch off my phone and silently give thanks that the after effects of that bender have finally worn off.

It was actually nicer to be at the motor show with ordinary people, hearing the quiet comments and watching them pawing the wheels and controls of the accessible cars. It's fun to see prospective buyers usher their wives into the seats of a Jeep or a Subaru, hoping to prise a few pennies out of the housekeeping to pay for a bit of automotive nirvana. The kids running around, pointing and saying "wow" are often a better barometer of what is actually cool - adults are too reserved for that.

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The Ford stand was a scene of quiet desperation. It's obvious they're j-u-s-t hanging on until the AU can be heavily revised and forgotten about. The AUIII is the shallowest of tweaks, makeovers and optional features made standard. There is a palpable sense that the budget for the AUIII was cut to allow a bigger one for the replacement. Just quietly, I think the AU has to be the buy of the decade on the used car side of things, even with the misgivings I have about the long-term quality.

The new Tickford TS50 tries too hard to be HSV, hand-built 5.6 litre engine a giveaway that they are struggling against the mighty onslaught that is the 5.7 litre Generation III. Holden seem to have recaptured the Australian motoring public's imagination with this engine, turning an otherwise ordinary car into something of an affordable supercar, perhaps even more so than the now-uninsurable Subaru WRX. Ford has little choice now but to resurrect some other name from the past, like "GTHO". Count on it.

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There was nothing else on the Ford stand that even faintly registered, other than the StreetKa. The StreetKa is a roadster that has done the rounds of various motor shows, nice in its way - but in reality it shows that the funkiest interior design company on the planet is TVR, at least judging by the number of copies of TVR interiors you now see. Rumours abound that Jacques Nasser is about to get the chop at Ford HQ, so it's not just Ford Australia that are dropping the ball.

Holden, by contrast, were all smiles and confidence. Their current range is selling gangbusters, lead by the unstoppable Commodore. You would think that the HSV range does plenty for Holden in the "halo car" role, but not content with making Ford look plain, they're now trying to make them look silly as well. Monaro is a kick in the guts to their rivals who were already squirming on the floor.

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The Monaro isn't quite retro-style, although there's something of the HG Monaro in the C pillar that is a faint echo, rather than a direct grab. The car in profile reminds more of the Peugeot 406 coupe, like a chubbier copy of a chubby copy of a Ferrari. The script is a mildly updated version of the original Monaro badge, in brushed aluminium instead of chrome, but obviously evocative. I'm not sure I like the way the rear window curves down and cuts squarely against the horizontal line of the bottom of the window; it looks a touch unfinished. The Commodore front guards still look like a surfacing baleen whale, but you can't deny the public appeal of the concept, and the overall shape is pleasing. That massive plastic engine cover on the V8 engine is a complete waste of time - why don't GM spend a couple of extra dollars and put those evocative chrome intakes off an Alfa V6 on there instead? It couldn't be much more expensive than that complete waste of plastic.

When GM-H were contemplating building the Monaro after the original concept car debuted, I wondered at their sanity. Now I'm not so sure. My guess is that it will be the most repossessed car in finance history, judging by the number of people looking skyward and counting on their fingers after sitting in one.

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You could almost hear the mental conversations: "If I stop wearing Levi's, shop at K-Mart and make a sandwich every day instead of buying a Four and Twenty pie...". Well, it wasn't quite that bad. There were also a huge number of aging baby-boomers who couldn't afford a Monaro the first time around dreaming behind the wheels of the show cars. It's big money though: AUD$47,990 as a starter, up to AUD$57,000 for the V8 version. I suppose if you were buying a highly specified Berlina (the middle-market Commodore sedan), the Monaro would be in your sights, but entry-level funster it ain't. You do get a lot of equipment for your cash, but dollars against passion says that there are probably better things to do with $57,000 than spend it on a two door Commodore. Having said that, I hope it's a huge success so that there are plenty around. That way, the price of a second hand version will drop to the point where the majority of people who really want one can afford it.

For old times sake, I prowled through the Chrysler-Jeep stand to have a look at the new Cherokee. Now a Jeep Cherokee might seem like a strange choice of transport for a car nut, but the original was appealing for a range of reasons. It was basic, its square-cut looks were Tonka Truck simple. The interior was made for cleaning, constructed of cheap but durable materials. The basic car (truck?) hadn't changed much since its debut from American Motors in the early eighties (although it had been through several engines), but it was still passable to drive. The performance was startling, not that you'd buy one for drag racing, but there are an awful lot of cars out there that are easy to embarrass at a set of traffic lights.

The new one seems to have dropped a lot of that basic appeal. Its looks are softer, the nose has conformed to "traditional" Jeep looks with round headlights (although the Cherokee always had square ones). The interior priorities have changed; the original Cherokee was a two-door vehicle, the four-door an aberration revealed when you tried to use the rear seats. The new one has a much better rear seat area, but as a result the cargo area is tiny. The tailgate is now a split affair, with one big, side-ways opening door and a flip-open window. This makes it less useful than before, as the old lift-gate could be opened in a relatively small area, while the new door requires almost a car width to open fully. The dust seal between the rear door and the flip up window has to be seen to be believed; I hope Jeep stock up on seals as the flapping bit of rubber will get torn off within days of somebody swinging a load at it. By dropping the basic, stone-age appeal of the original they're getting very close to a Prado or Pathfinder style of vehicle. Nissan and Toyota do this sort of thing better, without the embarrassing design flaws around something as basic as a window. Plus, real station wagons have acres more room that a wasteful 4-wheel drive wagon, despite the daggy connotations.

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I expected to be underwhelmed by the new Mini but I'm smitten. This car should set off cynical alarm bells all over the shop, but the funky little shape, wheels out at each corner, had me searching for a price tag. At AUD$32,000 it's a tempting little commuter that makes a Proton Satria GTi look decidedly old hat. I want one. I wish I knew why, as it's worth 20 times my current commuter and will be slower. BMW have added a nifty little vent at the top of the front guards to remind you who's pulling the strings at Mini and that works too, even though I hate the fake vents on the Z3. The middle of the show stand is occupied by a Mini Cooper with outrageous wheels and a Union Jack painted on the roof.

Cool Britannia is now available for sale at a German car showroom near you...

I wonder if we promise to buy enough Minis, that in return somebody in the UK will take pity on us and make sure that "the naked chef" stays home. On second thoughts, they're probably sick of him too.

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The rest of the show? Lots of same-old, same-old. Jaguar is now so overpriced as to be near self parody. The X-type, BMW 3 series rival looks like its bonnet is made of corrugated iron, there are so many pleats in it. The scaled down, "baby jag" look doesn't work for me and the price overlaps the S-type so much that any potential customer will be terminally confused. Two sizes would have been plenty. Ford's product planning people should all get the sack. Nobody in their right mind would buy this cartoon when you can have a grown-ups BMW 3 series for the same money.

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The more prosaic end of town could do with some weeding and whittling too. Just when you think the market for nearly big cars was about crowded out, some idiotic far-east car company produces another one. Folks, at a rental car place near you, look out for the Daewoo Magnus. Named almost after a Mitsubishi (or a great dane, I never found out), this mid-size car is just like every other pointless mid-size car. Nobody will buy it. Nobody buys Grandeurs, nobody really wants a Toyota Avalon, or Nissan Maxima. Definitely nobody wants a Proton Wira. I'd dump the Mondeo in there too, it's not from the far-east but it might as well be. They should all just give up.

I thought Ducati had put one of their classics on a stand, but it was a re-interpretation of the shape instead, in the form of the MH900. It was fabulous. Still on bikes, BMW had an odd-looking bike with an asymmetric head light on it. It looked surprisingly good, but the cylinders poking out of the sides confirmed it was one of their weird R-series bikes. I don't think I'll ever grow a beard long enough to ride one. Honda keep making bigger and bigger luxury bikes - the Gold Wing almost needs a hall of its own. I'm sure that next year they'll make a model that seats four (or two obese people, like the current one).

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The Alfa stand features a car that's been a major disappointment to me. Several years on from its launch, the 156 remains expensive as a used car proposition. This makes no sense with respect to history, as it should be a ten thousand dollar dunger by now. That way, I'd be driving a 156 Selespeed instead of a 1978 Alfetta GTV. Damn those rustproofing, good engine building Italian bastards. Surely some horrifying design flaw will come to light soon, bending the depreciation curve my way. The new 147 looks neat, if a little bland - bar the grille which is faintly ridiculous. Like Alfasud meets Ford Edsel. Against the Audi A3 it also looks like great value, but unfortunately a little too rich for my mortgage and kiddie battered wallet. The Spider still looks terrific and you can at last get a 3.0 litre V6, which probably suits its cruiser role better than the Twin Spark four.

I can't remember what Honda had on their car stand. They might have been doing a joint promotion with Fisher and Paykel but I may have been hallucinating.

Porsche and Ferrari had their usual closed stands. OK, so the cars are expensive and you don't want 400,000 people piling through your $600,000 car, but can we at least get closer than 10 feet away?

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Having left the show, I realise that I've missed dozens of stands. Can't remember Mitsubishi at all (hang on, the bizarre Lancer chop-top is, well, ugly). Mercedes have some kind of Uber-sports on their stand, but everybody is drooling over the Gullwing 300SL next to it, as if worshipping silently at a vision of perfection. The newcomer is gauche by comparison.

Audi had a racing car (the LeMans thing? I don't know!) and the stupid A2. The A2 is a try-hard A-class Mercedes but nowhere near as clever, attractive or desirable. Like somebody at Audi woke up and decided they wanted to build a Kei-class (Japanese miniature) car but had only heard a description of one from a half-blind tourist. The rest of the stand was filled with every different variant of the Golf they can dream up, none of them remotely desirable and all of them overpriced. Hang on, that might have been the Volkswagen stand, the cars are getting hard to tell apart...

I was car-stand tired all of a sudden. I went looking for the CMC stand to talk to the scotch yoke engine man again, curious as to exactly how the square crank bearing was lubricated, but his stand was gone. I guess show-bag toting kiddies weren't who he was trying to interest, which is a pity, as they seem like the only attendees left with any original imagination. Still, the Mini Cooper - shallow copy though it is - looks a bunch safer than the tiny Issigonis original, so progress isn't all bad news.

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