Electric trucks, a weakly stamped Passport and Kia's immortal Soul
Automotive News just let its resolutely desk-bound news editor Krishnan M. Anantharaman go to an auto show and write about motor vehicles, entirely unsupervised. What next? An all-electric pickup?
HIT: Rivian R1T
I wanted to say no to this idea of an electric pickup — who needs that? — but it kept looking up at me with those big round eyes and that dopey smile. Don't tell my kids, but I gave in. And I give Rivian credit for taking nine years in stealth mode to study and master the peculiar needs of the lifestyle pickup and family SUV markets, rather than just showing up with a half-million-dollar electric two-seater it will never sell. Such contemplative time is what leads to superlative performance specs (400-plus-mile range) and playful touches such as the Gear Tunnel on the pickup and the pop-out flashlight tucked into the driver door on the companion SUV. If the pair does get built — Rivian has the money, the plant and the smarts to get it done and plans a late 2020 launch for the pickup — it could give Jeep and Range Rover buyers something they've lacked: a way to move up in the world and still show they care about the habitats they barrel through.
MISS: Honda Passport
The 2019 Passport, a revival of Honda's first SUV nameplate, is engineered and built for all-weather and off-road adventure. I know this because the press release said so, and there was mud in one of the photos I saw. On the show floor, though, the vehicle looks like it's engineered for a trip to the public library, like it's a bit too eager to fit in inconspicuously between the CR-V and Pilot. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's better to be understated and capable than the opposite. But the conservative, almost dated, styling here, inside and out, is a missed opportunity for Honda, which could have stamped its Passport with some visual allusion to its badass sportbikes and ATVs. The Passport will fill a space in the crossover lineup, and its 3.5-liter V-6 engine should win it some attention, but it could have a hard time breaking through against models such as Toyota's RAV4 Adventure trim, which draws liberally from the brand's off-road champions, or the coming Ford Bronco.
Our little teenage dream car is all grown up now, with a sparer, more premium interior and a truly innovative internal combustion engine. It's a smarter, more confident car, for sure, and fully consistent with Mazda's upscale turn. But as the Mazda3's cheeks filled out, it seems to have lost some of its Kodo mojo. Gone are the sinews that made the Mazda profile distinctive among sedans and even crossovers. Mazda calls this an evolved version of Kodo design, where "clean, beautiful designs combine with a delicate play of light and reflections." But unless the light is just right, and especially on the hatchback, the ironed-out creases make the Mazda3 look more 2D, less emotional.
HIT: Kia Soul
Keep doing what you're doing, Kia. We know it can be a drag being a small-car specialist in the current market, but the 2020 Soul continues to show a truck-obsessed market how much more fun a cheap car can be as a form of personal expression, even when it's shaped like a cardboard box on top of another cardboard box on castors. As young people inevitably rebel against their parents and the columns of cookie-cutter crossovers, the Soul has them well-armed with six trim levels, plus an electric variant, that feed the need for personalization and tech touches such as wireless phone charging and mood lighting. Sleeker headlamps, evocative of a Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet, a slightly modified roof line and improvements to cargo handling mark the 2020 as a redesigned model, but overall, Kia has stuck with what works.
SO-SO: Hyundai Palisade
Hyundai's design team promised to abandon the Russian-doll design philosophy and to create crossovers that are distinct from one another. Sure enough, the three-row Palisade looks nothing like its stable mates and is a worthy new flagship for the brand, which lost its luxury cars to Genesis. On the other hand, the Palisade looks a lot like competitors such as the Ford Explorer and Chevy Traverse, boxy and big. The Palisade is a coup for Hyundai's efforts to keep its small-car and small-crossover buyers in the fold as their families grow, in a way that the cramped Santa Fe XL couldn't. Its acres of space means they can leapfrog the minivan phase altogether. But it will be tough for this latecomer to catch up to the Explorer, Traverse and Toyota Highlander.
MISS: Volvo... nothing
Speaking of cardboard boxes, what was with Volvo's exhibit on the first day of the media preview, devoid of vehicles? It was nice to have something to sit on at least — an arrangement of Amazon packages designed to showcase an in-trunk delivery service powered by Volvo's telematics app. But I prefer to have my Swedish furniture removed from the box and assembled for me first, please.
HIT: Jeep Gladiator
It's a Jeep. It's a pickup. And it's here. Any questions? Yes, the doors, the roof and the windshield all come off. Hang on tight. Any other questions?
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