Buick Riviera

  • Looks like: Tiger Woods is going to enjoy driving it
  • Defining characteristics: Gull-wing doors
  • Ridiculous features: Gull-wing doors
  • Chance of being mass-produced: Not very likely; Buick needs to boost its sedan lineup before it can dip into the sports car arena

GM recently figured out that different parts of the world like different slices of Americana, and perhaps these areas are where it can get the best ideas to reinvigorate its brands all over the globe, even in the U.S. General Motors originally introduced the Buick Riviera concept at the Shanghai Motor Show and says this is the look of Buick's new global design direction.

Yes, that means future U.S. Buicks will start to look like this. We've already seen enlarged grilles on the 2008 Lucerne and LaCrosse, as well as on the upcoming Enclave crossover. Now, GM's Asian design studio will take the reins of the future of Buick's style, with a catchy blurb from a GM exec: It's not East, not West ... it's Buick.

As for the Riviera, it looks a little too compact for American tastes. The last Riviera rolled off the line in 1999, and even if it didn't enjoy the mass popularity then that it did in its heyday, it always maintained a look disinct from the competition. The concept features a new hybrid powertrain that will end up in a future production car — although probably not the Riviera — to debut in China prior to the 2008 Olympics.

Hummer HX

  • Looks like: A shrunken H3 was mounted on the H2's undercarriage
  • Defining characteristics: Seven-slot Hummer grille, massive wheels, armored underbody
  • Ridiculous features: Pie-in-the-sky interior, more removable parts than a post-op celebrity
  • Chance of being mass-produced: Unlikely in its current form, but elements could make their way into a future compact Hummer

Make no mistake — Hummer's HX concept takes direct aim at a certain Jeep. Behind its big-boy face, the HX has all the ingredients you'd expect in a compact off-roader: Locking front and rear differentials, a disconnecting stabilizer bar and the most underbody plating this side of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Hummer calls it a "four-wheel backpack," citing its numerous trail-friendly provisions — among them a first-aid kit, flashlight and shovel — and snidely adds that the bumpers have tow hooks for "wrangling others" who've gone astray. Your move, Chrysler.

Smaller than the H3, the HX comes in at 171 inches long, just a hair shorter than the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. Under the hood is a 304-horsepower V-6 cribbed from GM's direct-injection engines. Ground clearance is a healthy 13 inches, besting the Wrangler by 2.5 inches, and Hummer says the HX can ford 2 feet of water. Should you need to build a lean-to at base camp, the doors, roof and fenders are removable.

Like many concepts, the HX's cabin borders on pure imagination. Its boxy confines house four neoprene seats with exposed framework and four-point racing harnesses. The dashboard mounts on a crosswise aluminum frame, with central pods for the navigation system, auxiliary dials and stereo. In the press photos, the stereo is playing the Village People's "Macho Man" off a device called "Jeff's iPod." Everyone together now: We're laughing with you, Jeff, not at you.

While the HX is strictly a concept, it could presage Hummer's future Wrangler-fighter, which some have dubbed the H4. There's been no official confirmation of a baby-Hummer yet, but the HX certainly advances its possibilities.

2009 Nissan Murano

  • Competes with: Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Looks like: Nissan designers were watching a bit too much "Battlestar Galactica"
  • Drivetrain: 265-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 with CVT
  • Hits dealerships: January 2008

Nissan really surprised people with the original Murano back in 2003. It handled much more like a car than the other midsize SUVs of the day. Now, the company is surprising us again with a radically updated look centered around a futuristic front end. The rest of the exterior design may be more middle-of-the-road, but no one will miss this coming down the street.

The 2009 model looks to be a significant redesign built on a new platform shared with the Altima sedan, with an all-new interior and the solid 3.5-liter V-6 used in many Nissans and Infinitis. The Murano comes in S, SL and LE trim levels and front- and all-wheel drive.

Standard on all trims is keyless ignition, keyless start, stability control, active head restraints, a tire pressure monitoring system, and both side-impact and side curtain airbags. Prices will be announced closer to the on-sale date, but we expect them to be similar to the current starting price of $27,830.

2009 Volvo XC60

  • Competes with: BMW X3, Land Rover LR2, Acura RDX
  • Looks like: Safe comes to the compact luxury SUV market
  • Drivetrain: 281-hp, turbocharged six-cylinder
  • Hits dealerships: Early 2009

Volvo is jumping into the small luxury SUV game with the XC60. It joins an ever-growing group of very good vehicles, like the BMW X3, Acura RDX, Land Rover LR2, Infiniti EX35 and Mercedes-Benz's upcoming GLK. Can Volvo play the safe card and win buyers?

That's what the company says it isn't doing, at least with the design. While it certainly isn't boxy, we're not sure if the lines are as universally appealing as the Infiniti EX35 or as true to their brand as the Land Rover LR2. At first glance the interior looks similar to other Volvos, but the floating center stack is actually off-center, skewing toward the driver. It's an odd effect, but it might turn out to be quite practical.

Under the hood is an energetic turbocharged T6 six-cylinder pumping out 281 horsepower — more than any other SUV in this segment. It will be the only available engine in the U.S. when it goes on sale in early 2009. All-wheel drive will be standard, which makes us worry that the entry price might be high. But considering that parts of Volvo's lineup — like the S80 and XC70 — are priced well below the competition, we'll have to wait and see.

As for safety, the XC60 comes with a crash-avoidance feature that can tell if you're about to run into the car in front of you, and it then applies the brakes to avoid the accident. Volvo is calling it "City Safety" in the XC60, but it sounds much like the collision warning system in other vehicles in Volvo's lineup, sometimes as part of a $1,700 option package. City Safety is standard in the XC60.

Little Things Add Up for Honda Pilot


There were no “wow” factors for my family in the 2009 Honda Pilot, but there were a lot of little touches that were noticed and appreciated.

First off, the third row splits 60/40. While that may not seem like a big deal compared to the 50/50 split in the other third rows we tested, it was a huge help. We returned home in a 14-hour trip over two days, and giving the kid in the third row that extra 10% of space made things much more comfortable. In addition, as my 11-year-old pointed out (and his siblings agreed with him), the Pilot had the most legroom of any of the four cars we tested. That meant a lot more peace and quiet for my wife and I up in the front row, I can tell you.


Up next, my 11-year-old also noticed a certain lack of pain when he climbed in the Pilot. This was because it was the first car since the Flex where he didn’t smack his head on the DVD screen hanging down from the car’s ceiling. It was a marked difference: In both the Journey and the CX-9, the DVD screen hung down dead center in my rearview mirror, making it harder to look back (of course, in the Journey it was a moot point because our luggage blocked my view anyway). In the Pilot, though, it was recessed into the ceiling, so my 11-year-old avoided injury, and it stayed above my view out back. Additionally, like the Journey, we loaded the DVDs into the center stack, while in the CX-9 the DVD had to be loaded into the player in the second row. If I’d had young kids, I would have had to do that before leaving, and would have had to pull over to change movies for them. That’s inconvenient.

The Pilot also had a USB hookup for an iPod, which was great, but Honda could learn something from Ford. Ford splits up artists, songs and albums into groups (such as A-F, G-L, etc.), while in the Pilot you have to scroll through what can be an incredibly long list to find a particular artist, song or album. Picking a playlist is very easy, but sometimes my family was in the mood for something more specific.

Finally, my wife was pleased that the Pilot had a separate power control for her seatback on the passenger side. That was also true in the CX-9 and Journey, but the Flex inexplicably only let her rock the seat forward or back. She really hated that about the Flex.

While the Pilot’s boxiness continues to annoy me, it certainly is a comfortable-riding SUV. Check back to see how it fared for gas mileage and packing ability.

Smart Roadster/Coupe Brabus

Combining great looks, an attractive price and individuality, the Smart Roadster and Coupe would seem to have it all. But there's something that sports car fans have said has always been missing - in terms of performance, the duo could easily cope with more power.

Combining great looks, an attractive price and individuality, the Smart Roadster and Coupe would seem to have it all. But there's something that sports car fans have said has always been missing - in terms of performance, the duo could easily cope with more power.

It's a fact that's not lost on exclusive tuning company Brabus, which has sent both machines to its famous automotive gym for a major tune-up. Officially recognised by Mercedes, the conversion will go on sale through Smart dealers in April, fully protected by the manufacturer's warranty.

With 101bhp, the carefully modified three-cylinder, 698cc engines that power both Coupe and Roadster carry a meaningful 19bhp power increase thanks to a new turbocharger, cooling system and engine management chip.

An eye-catching set of 17-inch alloy wheels, a Brabus radiator grille, side skirts and body-coloured spoilers add a high-quality finish to the package. Inside, however, the results are less successful. The cabin - although funky and fresh with aluminium and leather detailing - doesn't share the exterior's attention to detail. The plastics reflect the car's humble beginnings, and the over-sized steering wheel does little to represent its sporting nature.

On the road, the Brabus entertains and frustrates in equal measure. With the neat electric roof folded away, the Smart introduces you to its powerplant upgrades with a high-pitched giggle emitting from the turbocharger wastegate as you shift up through the six-speed sequential gearbox.

The engine note - embellished by a sports exhaust and new silencer - growls like a Porsche's. But while the Smart makes all the right noises, it feels less special than expected when it comes to outright acceleration. The gearchange is a little slow, but it's smooth and matches the car's adequate performance. With a 0-62mph sprint time of 9.8 seconds and a top speed of 119mph (122mph for the more aerodynamic Coupe), there's a feeling the car could handle more power.

That said, the Brabus conversion has had a big effect on the suspension and chassis set-up. Both Roadster and Coupe ride stiffly, but thankfully the modifications deliver handling that is balanced, even at the limit. However, keen drivers who want to fling the Smart around will be disappointed.

Quite simply, the huge tyres offer far too much grip, and the low-geared steering means you're always winding on lock to get through tight bends. We can't help feeling that the original wheels and tyres, combined with standard suspension, would be more effective. The steering weights up suddenly in mid-corner, too, giving an unnatural feel, and the brake pedal is soft and difficult to get feedback from.

Smart has yet to announce a price for the Roadster and Coupe Brabus - but expect to pay ΂£18,000-΂£20,000. To put that into perspective, you could buy a tidy used Porsche Boxster for the same money. But in Brabus' favour, the newcomers do get close to the perceived value of the German roadster. From the outside it really does have the expensive look of a Porsche, and the brand badging to match.

Sadly though, these Smarts appear to have been sent to the gym to look better, rather than get healthy. And keen drivers will still be crying out for more power, less grip, sharper steering and a faster gearchange.