On the Road Review: The 2017 Ragtop Ramble

In honor of former Pittsburgh columnist Myron Cope, we clean off the desk with our first “shirt-pocket notes,” sharing news, comments and perspective from the early weeks of summer 2017.

NEMPA’s recent Ragtop Ramble, the annual sortie by New England’s auto scribes, media members, as well as the industry’s public relations staffers, produced a stellar collection of new products to blister around the six-state region’s backroads.

Premium rides included an Aston Martin DB11 — delivered by none other than Maine native and “Popular Mechanics” and “Car & Driver” auto editor Ezra Dyer — a brilliant blue Acura NSX hybrid supercar, the latest Porsche Carrera Targa/4 with its complex folding top, a stunningly handsome Lexus LC500, plus a fire-engine red BMW 4-series cabriolet. Also attending were the usual suspects from Mazda, Nissan, Jaguar, Ford (two Mustangs) plus a Beetle convertible and a rather outsized collection of crossovers/SUVs, including Land Rover’s take on the sporty ragtop in the new Range Rover convertible.

Absent was GM. Not a single vehicle from General Motors was in attendance. No Camaros, no Corvettes, no Cadillac CTS-Vs/ATS-Vs — not a single vehicle that would represent America’s largest-selling car company. There’s something very wrong with that scenario.

Drawing keys from a hat, my sports car turned out to be the Alfa Romeo Stelvio — the newest vehicle on sale in the United States, with a grand total of 13 sold so far since its early July arrival. A luxury/sporty crossover in the same mode (and size) as Jaguar’s very popular F-Pace, the Stelvio is supposed to help resurrect the brand in America. While it is a very nice five-passenger crossover, with a polished interior and surprising power from the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, the Stelvio will need all of FCA/Chrysler’s marketing muscle to make significant inroads in most major markets.

Key grab number two led to the BMW 4-series convertible for the second leg of the march into Maine. Equipped with the over-boosted output of the 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine, the 4-series can break the rear tires loose with little provocation at low speeds, a characteristic that seems unholy in this too-serene sporty car. BMW has done such a fine job filing the rough edges off of its performance cars that they are actually becoming all too easy to drive — almost sterile comes to mind. Consumer disdain for BMW drivers is partially warranted; these cars drive so well that all too many pilots take risks and execute maneuvers that they never should, could or would in another vehicle.

GM’s Chevy Bolt will soon be available in practically every state, as production ramps up on this groundbreaking all-electric everyman’s car. The Bolt promises almost 240 miles of electric vehicle operation before charging is necessary — the most of any car available that costs around $35,000.

That is until Tesla’s latest Model 3 debuts about the time you read this. The Model 3 also is targeting the $35,000 entry price; however, Tesla targets lots of production goals that are never met, so forgive the trepidation about this fledgling automaker’s ability to meet sales goals, the stated price point or any other quantitative statements relating to automotive production. But hey, the stock price — after a huge beating in July — is still higher than Elon Musk’s imagination, so a lot of someone’s have placed their faith in success.

At GM, we may not know about how good, or not, the Bolt is because they don’t share any cars for us to drive.

And just as we thought that diesel-gate would kill VW, it rolls out an all-new Tiguan that is now a midsized crossover that looks pretty darn good, plus a new full-size Atlas crossover that looks remarkably similar. Initial sales indicate that the two crossovers are making VW fans forget, at least for a minute, about their depreciated diesel wagons and sedans.

And for all of you tourists who are visiting Down East Maine and enjoying our fresh air, glorious coastal scenery and relatively traffic-free roads (compared to Boston, New York, Hartford and Philadelphia) all of that long-distance driving surely made you all lust for the autonomous car. You know, the robotic, self-driving car that loads the luggage, entertains the kids, walks the dog at rest areas, packs the snacks and finds the last hotel room when you arrive at 9:10 p.m. on a Sunday night and find that all of the local sidewalks roll up at 8 p.m. sharp. Yeah, that car.

Ain’t gonna happen for a while. But the industry is working on it very hard. Many automotive parts suppliers are so rapidly shifting their R&D departments to supplying autonomous driving hardware, software and legal recourse staff, that the parts that they make now are probably going to start failing from premature obsolescence, they are so distracted. Like too many drivers.

The sensitive metals required for batteries and computer chips will consume vast sums of the earth as the battle for these strategic metals will shift economies more swiftly than oil. Once the “greens” realize how destructive this capitalism will become, we will only travel by artificial intelligence, which is how half the population thinks of the other half now, so it will be a real treat seeing how we visit Acadia and Maine in the future.

Probably won’t be in Aston Martins or BMWs, unfortunately.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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