There are times when I truly enjoy stepping back and consider the possibilities. Our universe is one where it can be done – even if you're asleep in your own comfortable home.
During the summer of 2010, I did a series of Five Favorite pieces that explored these themes. In my mind, two pieces stood out above the rest. One dealt with automobiles that have never been available in the USA market – forbidden fruit, as we might say. The other dealt with driving experiences that I would love to do sometime before I kick off this planet.
To put this year to an end, I decided to look further into these two themes – by combining them. Let's see what I came up with this time…
THE PLACE: MILAN, ITALY
THE VEHICLE: 2012 ALFA ROMEO GIULIETTA 1.4 TURBO MULTIAIR TCT DISTINCTIVE
Even though it will be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in a couple of weeks, there are some of us who could not wait for the first full glimpse of the 2013 Dodge Dart. In the meantime, there is something you could drive that would almost match the experience of the Dart – the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
To explain, the Giulietta is built on Fiat's latest C-Evo platform. The Dart is being built on the same platform, but widened a tad for North American tastes. However, initial mules of the Dart were actually Giuliettas. Therefore, the two are linked at the hip, so to speak. In this case, the Giulietta I picked will have one of the engines available on the Dart – the 1.4litre MultiAir turbocharged petrol mill. I tacked on Alfa's latest TCT 6-speed automatic gearbox to placate my neurological lack of clutch reflex.
Since Alfa Romeo is not sold in the North America, you have to go elsewhere to experience it. I picked Milan – the home of Alfa. For this, I chose a very long drive from the one of the fashion capitals of the world to Sitges in Spain – the resort of choice for European gay men. I also heard there were guys that are either my type or are attracted to me there…maybe the Giulietta will enhance my attractiveness.
Nonetheless, this is a run covering over 1,000 kilometers with an approximate drive time of 10 hours through three countries worth of high speed limited access roads along the Riviera. One could break up the trip easily. Most Europeans don't. I like that idea – just start early enough to get enough time for stops along the way and make my destination in time for dinner in Spain.
The point of this drive is to enjoy a preview of a coming attraction. The Giulietta's DNA may be all over the upcoming Dart, but at least I could get a feel of what we could possibly expect when the new Dodge compact hits our showrooms. Rather, how much we miss Alfa Romeo stateside. To do so on its home ground – priceless!
THE PLACE: BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
THE VEHICLE: 1982-91 FORD FALCON GHIA
Thirty-five years ago, Argentina was under military rule. No one by the name of Peron was running this vast and beautiful land. No one truly liked being under an imposing and restrictive rule, yet there were consequences if you defied the powers to be. A dissident "disappeared," taken in the back of a drab green-colored old-looking Ford Falcon to be never seen again. It took a dispute over a group of islands in the South Atlantic with the UK to topple the regime. It also helped that the mothers of the "disappeared" openly defied the government by their own form of protest.
The car in question was the most feared vehicle of the time. Not even a Soviet-bloc vehicle struck as much fear as the perpetually-built first generation Falcons manufactured by the Ford Motor Company of Argentina. Decades after the North American and Australian units of Ford disposed of the original 1960 design, the Argentines kept it on the line. They were the most successful of the new compacts of the era after all. In fact, Ford built these cars until 1991 where it seemed that no one really wanted a 1960 sedan with a 1980s front end that held a tainted image for those on the other side of history.
I see the Falcons of the junta era as the Trabants of Argentina – a car that symbolized the abuse of power over the people, but liberated as a satirical symbol of the time. In my case, I'd find a 1982-91 Falcon Ghia with an automatic. That would mean either a 3.6litre six under the hood. Ford "modernized" the Falcon to keep in line with contemporary vehicles of the era – meaning more plastic where good ol' metal used to be.
Having never considered South America as a destination, Buenos Aires seems like a good start for a journey. The car will be driven in and around the city just to experience it. Maybe the Falcon could go into the countryside outside Buenos Aires just enough to find some rural spaces. A long trip may not be in the offing since I may end up with one spanning 20-30 years old.
Understanding there is still a generation polarized by the sight of the old Falcons in Argentina, consider this: How many Trabants are still running in Germany? Are there people who react negatively to a Trabant driving around Berlin or elsewhere in Europe? Perhaps we should see automobiles that were associated by the worst of power forces as satirical nostalgia. The Argentine Falcon is included in this group.
THE PLACE: SYDNEY, NSW, AUSTRALIA
THE VEHICLE: 2012 TOYOTA HILUX SR5 4X4 DOUBLE CAB
On some level, there is an American-ness you might find in Australia. We both frontier-loving people, though most of us are happy in our cities. The countryside breeds familiarity. There are other similarities that I'd rather not delve into as it might stir up a few emotions from you.
One thing Australians have in common with Americans is a love for the pickup truck. While the good ol' separate cab/bed type have popped up in the suburbs, Australians still hold true to the car-based version we once sent off into the wilderness for good. The “ute” may be for tradies and other hoons down under, one could find some use for them out somewhere in the vast island continent.
My choice is a big seller in Australia, as well as one of the best selling vehicles in the world – the Toyota HiLux. Though our Tacoma's may have some its DNA, the HiLux has some distinct differences apart from the North American mid-sized pickup. Under the hood is a 3.0litre turbocharged diesel engine connected to a four-speed automatic and four-wheel drive. I picked the top shelf model of the HiLux since I would always end up with models that are all-kitted up to begin with.
Since it really doesn't make sense driving the HiLux in and around Sydney on a regular basis, a road trip is called for. Again, I chose the drive along the coast to Brisbane – a 960 kilometer run worth over 12 hours of drive time. There are a couple of options: Either stay along the coast and enjoy some time along the beach or go inland towards the home of Australian Country Music – Tamworth. No matter which way I go, I would guarantee attracting some sand or dirt on the truck. I figure I’ll do a car wash once I get into Brissie.
It would make sense to pick a rear-drive Australian large sedan for the job. Not if I want to honor the pioneering spirit of the lucky country. A ute will do nicely for this journey.
THE PLACE: TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA
THE VEHICLE: 2012 CHEVROLET ORLANDO LTZ
We should not be upset that Canadians are able to get the Orlando instead of us. Since it effectively replaced the retro-styled HHR, the Orlando actually makes more sense in Canada than here. It’s small enough to transport families in several Canadian cities, but nimble enough to be driven anywhere in the country. Perhaps there’s a chance to drive Chevrolet’s Korean built MPV in a country I’ve never driven before.
The big 2.4litre ECOTEC is connected to a 6-speed automatic, which makes the proposed drive possible. Though it would be empty for most of the trip, it would make the long journey worth it. I’d start in Toronto – a familiar place with several friends in town to hang out with before setting off into parts unknown – well, Montreal. It’s a direct shot of 542 kilometers and over six hours. Of course, I would do a couple of stops along the way – Ottawa, for example.
The Orlando has a purpose that could be put to use in Toronto: Sober cab. If I’m hanging out with friends, I might as well be responsible. The TTC would work out just fine if we are in the city all the time, but this is a driving trip. Toronto is not exactly a great driving town, but I'm used to cities that aren’t. This is why it is considered a challenge worthy of the Orlando’s agility and utility.
On the highway, I figured I try out the Orlando as a distance runner. In Ottawa and Montreal, it may not see much duty on the streets, but perhaps enough to see whether it works as a MPV for Canadian urban dwellers as well as suburbanites.
Another idea would be to go the other direction – towards Winnipeg via the Trans-Canada Highway. Despite what Google Maps suggested initially, the object of doing so is to not cross the USA border. It will be a very long trip – about 27 hours and 2,072 kilometers long. The trip could be broken up rather easily with stops in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay – each leg requiring over nine hours of drive time. I’m not sure if I could do any more than that every day in the Orlando.
Then again, I see this as a great excuse to drive something we in the States may never get – just across the border.
THE PLACE: MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
THE VEHICLE: 2012 SKODA SUPERB COMBI 2.0 TDI ALLDRIVE ELEGANCE
Here's a crazy idea: Let's bring over a vehicle that is not sold in this country and drive it right in my backyard?
This is not a new idea, however. The gray market has been the bane of the Reagan Administration. The idea was to import new vehicles not available in this market and sell as new – sometimes equipped halfway to meet Federal regulations. Many Mercedes-Benz S-Class owners in the early 1980s were upset that the largest V8 they could get legally is the 3.8litre version. Independent importers brought over the heavily desired 5.0litre V8 through the gray market. Eventually, Mercedes-Benz USA caved in and brought in big V8s for their S-Class customers. Even the Citroen CX was brought over through the gray market during the course of the 1980s.
The point of this exercise is to not buy the car to bring over stateside, but rather to have it meet some Federal regulations and simply drive it on our roads for a limited period of time. To do, I bring back one of my favorite not-for-USA-consumption vehicles from last year – the Czech-built Skoda Superb.
What I would bring over is an AllDrive wagon with Skoda's all-wheel drive system connected to a 2.0litre TDI turbocharged diesel and a 6-speed automatic. It will come fully wrapped in the Elegance trim with plenty of options to make things more comfortable. It may not be a head turner for some, since the wagon or the brand seems a bit "normal" these days, but sharp observers would strike curious glances when it glides down the streets of the Twin Cities – even with Minnesota tags on it.
There is one catch: Our diesel fuel is not as good as Europe's. Hopefully, there's some compensation for the lesser quality of fuel in the TDI's system. I also hope that either a Volkswagen or Audi dealer would be able to assist on some common servicing and support for the Skoda. After all, it is part of the Volkswagen corporate family. This might mean reloading the satellite navigation for the USA using a disc from VW or Audi.
Of course, the luxurious big Skoda wagon will get a workout while it's out here. Even with no snow on the ground, the Superb should be fine on the Interstates as well as on the rural two-lanes. It might even see Fargo, Sioux Falls or Iowa City in its travels.
Just thinking of bringing over a Skoda – a brand that never experienced USA soil – to see how it performs and the reactions it gets when it encounters the curious is game enough.