DETROIT (TheStreet) -- Going into the 2011 model year, the auto industry is getting short on funk. That's about to change.
As carmakers' 2010 vehicle lineups depart, so do some of the industry's more eccentric offerings. The
PT Cruiser? Crushed by reorganization and market concerns.
New Beetle? Old news, with no 2011 replacement in sight. The
HHR? History, as
gears up for life after its bailout. Even
slide into the industry's scrap heap belies the fact that its brand at least stood out among a crop of conservative crossovers and standardized SUV leftovers.
None of this inspires great confidence in creativity as September's vehicle-sales pace of 11.76 million eclipse August's 11.47 million, but still lags behind 2007's 16 million. In an industry where mundane, middle-of-the-road, mid-sized sedans bring home all of the hardware while perennial standbys like pickup trucks and larger passenger vehicles draw the press, is there any room left for offbeat offerings?
At least five automakers think so and are taking big chances on smaller cars and unproven concepts, with these models adding some flare to faceless showroom floors:
Nissan (NSANY) Juke
The rear looks like a Nissan Z, the front resembles a rally car, the doors make it appear like a grocery getter, the console is as chromed-out as a motorcycle's and the 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbo engine belongs in a street-racing subcompact. So what is the Juke?
In two words: delightfully weird. Nissan made up terms, including "sport-cross," to define this SUV for the subcompact set, but it's really just an excuse to give someone who would have bought a Pathfinder SUV a decade and pay grade ago a reason to step down in tougher times without sacrificing too much. Loaded with tech toys -- the console's rear-view monitor, Bluetooth and
iPod connections, navigation system and sensor-key ignition -- this five-seater also has cargo space (36 cubic feet) and luggage capacity (10.3 cubic feet) to compete with other subcompacts but enough ground clearance to see above them.
Despite what its average 30 miles per gallon and commercials featuring an office drone's "Ride of the Valkyries"-scored doughnut run imply, it's turbocharged ride seems more fun than mundane.
Having seemingly cornered the market on cute, eccentric automobiles as soon as it launched stateside, Mini still felt the need to fend off upstarts like the Juke with its first foray into SUV/crossover territory.
Coming in more than a foot longer and half a foot wider and higher than its little sibling the Cooper, the four-door Countryman's four-cylinder, 1.6-liter engine still packs punch in the S model, where the turbo engine pushed performance to 181 horsepower. The base model's 121 horsepower is slightly more pokey, but this Mini, which looks like it just testified at the BALCO hearings, has enough bulk to hold 16.3 cubic feet of cargo as-is or 41 cubic feet with the seats down.
Throw-ins like a regenerative braking system with a hill-holding parking feature, sport seating, leather steering wheel, Harman/Kardon premium audio system and DVD-based navigation also help maximize this Mini-cross.
More than 3,000 of the tiny Fiestas sold last month, part of a 46% surge in Ford sales since last September. Ford spokesman Ken Czubay noted that the Fiesta's 57% conquest rate was the highest among Ford models, which means that its Bluetooth and digital media player compatibility through
SYNC and 29 miles per gallon city and 40 highway are chipping away at category leaders like the Nissan Versa and
More importantly, its bug-like design, broad color palette and bevy of playthings like a power moonroof, heated leather-trimmed seats and capless fuel intake help to insert much-needed fun and funk into a strong, but sometimes subdued, Ford lineup.
Chrysler dealerships are battling for the rights to sell the first
when Fiat returns to the States for the first time since 1984.
Forget about "Fix It Again Tony" and all the bad jokes once made at Fiat's expense: The new 500s in Europe have climate control, a power panoramic roof called the SkyDome and combined mileage ranging from 37 miles per gallon in a base model to 60 miles per gallon in a multijet diesel version. It has that funky
look that Americans loved about the Mini and, like the Mini, garnered a five-star crash rating in Europe.
It's cool, it's cute and it should make ill-prepared U.S. competitors extremely nervous.
Chevy Volt/Nissan Leaf
Yes, Chevy's plug-in hybrid looks like a stodgy sedan, but 40 miles on a single charge, a two-year waiting list, an LCD touchscreen console, an LCD instrument panel, built-in Bose sound system with
satellite radio and a 30-gigabyte music hard drive and a navigation system with voice recognition make it far more funky than the subcompact down the street.
As for the Leaf, svelte little hatchbacks are usually good enough, but a strictly electric car that gets 100 miles per charge, has a remote battery meter and throws in Bluetooth and navigation for good measure is definitely the auto equivalent of an art student with an environmental-sciences minor among a field of MBAs.
--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.