Jonathan Takiff: A die-hard foreign car fan Jonathan Takiff looks for a U.S. car he'd want to drive

Interior of the 2012 Ford Focus (left), which was road-tested overseas. The 2012 Focus Titanium hatchback (below) will appeal to foreign-car buffs.
Interior of the 2012 Ford Focus (left), which was road-tested overseas. The 2012 Focus Titanium hatchback (below) will appeal to foreign-car buffs.
Posted: February 02, 2011

THE CARS OF my driving youth were all-American - Mom's Mercury station wagon, a no-frills Ford that Grandmom Bert abandoned in our driveway, then a hulking black Oldsmobile convertible (nicknamed "The Batmobile") that I'd talked my usually conservative dad into buying and regularly borrowed to impress the girls.

When it came time to buy my own first car, though, I opted for a zippy little Italian sports car - a Fiat Spider 124 - first spotted and instantly adored at the Philadelphia Auto Show. Since then, every new car that's followed me (and my wife) home has likewise had a foreign accent and styling, plus good fuel economy and road-hugging manners as served up by BMW, Honda, Saab and Subaru.

Lately I've been thinking it'd be cool if my next vehicle wore an American badge. I'm worried about the domestic economy, want to do my share to put people back to work. And it seems a bailout-chastened Detroit is finally getting it.

Now working closely with European divisions, U.S. auto makers are setting the bar higher, building stylish, fun and innovative vehicles that foreign-car buyers like me might actually enjoy (as opposed to tolerate) and maybe even (gasp!) brag about.

Last weekend, I returned to the Philly auto show (continuing through Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center) with one thought in mind: to find an American car I'd like to call my own.

I slid in early on press preview day, before the official opening to soak up each model at leisure and even take a couple for a spin. Here's the best I found.

NOT YOUR GRANDDAD'S: GM killed off Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer and sold off Saab last year, making the company's field of U.S. entries at this year's show a lot easier to navigate.

GM is putting lots of resources into a revitalized Buick. This brand survived because it's HUGE in China and is being repositioned here as an apt competitor to Audi and Acura.

Never thought I'd like a Buick Regal (your typical "Pop-Pop" car), but the new-gen, 2011 rendering ($26,000 to $29,000) has nicely sculpted lines, with an especially appealing, Jaguar/Infinitilike hindquarter. The interior is posh, too.

On my test drive, Regal proved super quiet (long a Buick bragging point) and jolt-absorbent. But the tuning avoided that squishy disconnect that long made this line a joke with car enthusiasts.

Surprise - the new car's pedigree is European; it's largely designed by GM's Opel division. Regals now on sale in the U.S. have been built in Germany. Production is moving soon to Ontario, Canada - still part of North America last time I looked.

The most distinguishing change with the Canadian-made car? The LCD display screen gains touch-control.

Buick also hopes to bring home and upsell some of the Maxima/Accord/Camry crowd with the Verano, an entry-level luxury vehicle coming at year's end. This one's going to be built just outside Detroit on the same "world platform" found on the (already available) Chevrolet Cruze, Opel Astra and China-sold Buick Excelle.

The Buick Verano stretches a little longer than the Cruze for improved rear leg room and sports a far more luxurious look and feel, with options like French-stitched leather upholstery, an infotainment system with Bluetooth that can translate mobile phone text messages to speech, a push-button starter and an On-Star system that can remotely warm up the vehicle, triggered by an app on your mobile phone.

There's a strong family resemblance in the Verano's aggressive front and side styling. Its back end is bland, though not offensive. Many should find this car attractive and priced right to win market share.

THE HEARTBEAT OF AMERICA: No way you'd catch me (or almost anyone) driving the Chevrolet Camaro show car, painted as a patriotic tableau of American history, from Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware to GIs taking Iwo Jima.

Yet in a blink, I'd fly away in a 2011 Camaro convertible - even the bright orange flasher on the show floor. Arriving this spring at $29,150 and up, its sleek, low-slung body suggests a cat on the prowl. The two-tone interior is old-school charming, with individual analog gauges for oil pressure, alternator, water temp and such.

Under the hood, there are at least 312 horses a-pounding, though highway mileage is still promised in the 29 mpg range.

BOLT OF LIGHTNING: The biggest buzz (literal and figurative) on this season's car show circuit swirls around the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, already on sale in a few places and going national by year's end.

Branded an "extended-range electric vehicle," it runs strictly on battery power at speeds up to 100 mph, for 25 to 40 miles per charge. If you're not there yet, a smallish, premium-gas powered engine kicks in. But its power is converted to volts to feed the vehicle's primary and secondary electric motors, which is why Chevy won't call this a "hybrid."

Volt's 288-cell lithium ion battery array recharges in four hours when connected to a special, 240-volt power station (10 to 12 hours when plugged into a conventional, 120-volt outlet). GM is backing the battery, co-developed by Korean giant LG, for eight years/100,000 miles.

And they're throwing in five years of free On-Star support and roadside assistance to calm the nervous.

A Volt is such a silent runner at low speeds that a driver-activated noise maker is available to warn unwary pedestrians. In my short spin around town, the car felt tight and responsive, with all that extra battery weight (435 pounds packed into a 5 1/2-foot-long "T" configuration under the center console and rear seat) helping to keep turns very flat.

Takes nine seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. Not too shabby.

My only complaints about Volt are aesthetic. I like this five-door (hatchback) sedan's wind-cheating lines and instructive, high-tech dash displays. But there's too much glossy plastic inside on the console and door panels.

And - sorry, Chevy execs - a high-tech car that starts at $41,000 (before the $7,500 tax credit available to the first 200,000 buyers) deserves a sexier insignia than the same old bow tie that decorates your trucks and econo-boxes.

FORD IN FOCUS: Not surprisingly, the new domestic car that grabbed me the most is billed as an "import killer." Going on sale in under 60 days, the 2012 Ford Focus has likewise been Euro-designed and road-tested (for two years) before finally being let loose in the U.S. to displace a plain and outmoded predecessor.

Boasting a big-mouth grille, broad shoulders, bold wraparound taillights and a purposeful hatchback, the five-door version has an aggressive, Audi-like look that belies its $17,000 starting price.

Plus, all that cool MyFord/Sync touch- and voice-activated technology inside makes this car a gadget lover's dream.

The upscale Titanium-level Focus (think $23,000) is geared to foreign-car buffs like me, with leather appointments, matte-black buttons (only a little chrome around the Sony stereo) and sportier ride. Later this year, an all-electric Focus (with a front-end treatment that could pass for an Aston Martin) arrives.

Next year the rally enthusiasts get theirs with the Focus ST.

FOREIGN FARE: Couldn't totally stay away from the imports at the auto show. The stylish new 2011 Hyundai Sonata and dulled-down 2012 Volkswagen Passat are and will continue to be assembled, at least, in the Alabama and Tennessee. Both are well-featured and priced under $20,000.

The classiest cabin spotted at this year's auto show came in a 2011 Volkswagen CC Lux, a $32,000 "four-door coupe" tooled with high-grade, Teutonic-black materials and brushed-stainless accents.

Rivaling the Camaro for retro charm was the interior of the button-cute (and sized) $15,000, 2012 Fiat 500, marking the Italian brand's U.S. comeback (in partnership with Chrysler) and a promising first car for today's city dwellers. It is hoped that Fiat has other good things to share soon at Chrysler-Jeep showrooms, which are pretty much running on fumes.

Also looming high in my estimation were two hybrids fresh off the boat from Japan. The 2011 Honda CR-Z might not be all that fast, but the $19,000 two-seater looks like a pocket rocket. And the futuristic, 3-D glow of its dash display is guaranteed to keep you alert.

More practical is the Lexus CT 200h, a five-passenger luxury compact hybrid (just 170 inches long) that shouts "I'm thinking green" without blowing all of yours. Start one up next month for $29,120 (before tax credit).

Send e-mail to takiffj@philly.news.com.

Philadelphia Auto Show, Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch St. Noon-10 p.m. today-Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, $10 (weekdays), $12 (weekends), ages 7-12 $6 (free Sunday); seniors $6 (weekdays). www.phillyautoshow.com.

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