Twin Cities 2006: Wasn't I Glad I Made It To The Auto Show This Year?

I was a bit hesitant about attending this year's Auto Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Now, why would an automobile enthusiast become hesitant to attend their local auto show?

Personally, I have not owned a car in 13 years. There's always a desire, but this desire is being explored a bit. If you consider the rising cost of automobile ownership and the instability of gas pump prices, my hesitation could be justified. Certainly, car sharing programs and the occasional rental car may fill that void as a money saving way to evade the trappings of car ownership.

However, I love cars and the Auto Show always gives a good sampling of what is out on the local market. That alone made the decision to attend this year's Auto Show a good one.

When I was en route to the Convention Center, I presented myself with a question: if I were in the market for a new car, what would I consider? The fact that I live in an urban setting, a small, entry-level car would make sense. Something that would be maneuverable in city traffic with a roomy driver's area and ample cargo space for groceries and the occasional IKEA run. The only drawback with these cars would be in regards to performance in winter weather. Considering the amount of snow the Twin Cities got this week, any car would get stuck in the snow…especially a small one.

The perfect urban vehicle, at least from my experience is BMW's own MINI Cooper. As desirable as the MINI would be, the $19,000 price tag would be out of my price range. Besides, the windshield-upper-edge-to-eye-level issue would become a problem in the long run. In lieu of the MINI, there are worthy alternatives that will save me thousands of dollars instantly.

For starters, Toyota's Scion brand has a real fun car, the xA hatchback. I drove one back in 2004 in Chicago and loved the fun factor in this car. For a five-door, I have plenty of room and great outward vision. There have been some changes over the 2004 model, some even better visually. It is still a comfortable place to drive through town, which I am glad that has not changed! The size is right for urban driving. Though, I'm practically sold on the Scion, it now has some company to choose from.

Toyota introduced the Yaris, its global subcompact, to the USA. I like the look and can count on Toyota quality inside. What I wanted to do was to sit inside, in which the car was locked. That didn’t give me a good impression of the vehicle, but I may still consider it. At least they're coming sometime soon.

Kia reinvented the Rio subcompact to better results. It is a much better car, but it just felt cheap. I also felt cramped in the four-door sedan behind the wheel. It left me with a not so good impression.

Meanwhile, Hyundai rolled out a new Accent. After my experience with its cousin, the Rio, I opted to try the new three-door hatch. I loved it! Compared to the Rio, it used better grades of materials and had a much more comfortable seat. I did drive the previous version of the Accent and loved it. Heck, the 34MPG fuel economy loop sold me. When it arrives later this summer, the hatch would be a great inexpensive alternative to the MINI Cooper.

But, not so fast! I was quite impressed with the Nissan Versa. Well, the “product specialist” was very enthusiastic about the car, which has a lot of promise. Considering it shares a common platform with Renault, Nissan has some French influence in the styling, which I like. It also boasts a more powerful motor and plenty of options in its market. The orange peel effect on the bright blue paint of the C pillar concerned me, but knowing Nissan's track record with build quality, that should not be the case when production models arrive at the dealerships in June.

What warmed my heart was to see and experience the fifth generation Volkswagen Golf. We have been waiting for this for a long time and it is worth the wait. It is very roomy and un-Jetta-like. Not that I'm not feeling the Jetta, but my heart goes with the Golf and the hatchback versatility it offers. I hope it comes with a TDI or VW's next generation Diesel engine. Price-wise, the promise a sub-$16,000 model is a good incentive to put this one on the bubble.

Now, I can gush about other cars, but there were some I was not completely impressed with. For starters, the new Chevrolet Aveo is garish. I like the roominess of the current Aveo, but fake wood on the dash of the new LT sedan?!? No thanks!

The Honda Fit doesn't exactly fit. Honda deemed that skinny folks should drive this frumpy eyesore hatchback because of the seat bolstering all models come with. They seem to be lifted from an Acura RSX! Just when did Honda build a $13,000 Acura? Let’s see…1990!

Oh, and I was bitterly disappointed with the Dodge Caliber. It had too much hard plastic and felt like a PT Cruiser with 21st Century design and a higher windshield apex. I'm sorry, if I wanted a PT Cruiser, I'd get a Chevrolet HHR. And, what’s with this door-opening flange in the rear of each front door? I'm going to bump into that friggin' protrusion every time I get out of there. And, what's with the gear shifter? What is this, a minivan?!?

Of course, my visit to the Auto Show is just about any looking at a particular market segment. Once I stopped comparing entry-level cars, I began to indulge a bit on the Convention Center floor.

My favorites, you asked? You'd be surprised, but I was glad to see that Hyundai has come to the forefront of automotive leadership. It’s not just about quality and building better cars, but hitting market segment targets with cars that fit perfectly in them. We can talk about the Sonata for days, but I need to drive one to be fully convinced that it is indeed a winner. However, the Azera completely floored me! I was thankful to find a new big sedan that was relaxing inside. If Toyota can make a better Buick, so can Hyundai! Better yet, the Azera is more like a Korean Oldsmobile. The Azera is a car that I can truly indulge in for less than $30,000.

Oh, and wait until you feast your eyes on the new Hyundai Santa Fe. Yes, it is much better looking than the current model and even more stunning when you see it in person! For a SUV, it knocked me out! Any SUV that can average better than 20MPG is a winner in my book!

Talk about indulging, I fell in love with the Chrysler 300C SRT-8. Mind you it is not the most efficient car on the planet, but it's got a HEMI. Well, a 400-plus horsepower HEMI and big, comfy seats.

With my feet hurting, my back sore and my legs slightly healing, knowing that I made my choice to check out this year’s Auto Show in Minneapolis was well worth the effort. It should also be well worth the rest I'm about to partake. Otherwise, I may never know about the fantastic choices in today's automobile market, especially for budget-conscious city dwellers…like me.

Photo by Randy Stern

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