The Los Angeles motor show has rivalled Detroit for new metal and wild imagination in recent years, though 2006 has proved disappointing on the fresh metal count.
But not wild imagination, however. VW, of all manufacturers, has delivered on that count with its three-wheeler GX3 – the odd wheel is at the rear, you’ll be relieved to hear – a two-seat, roofless, screenless and doorless sportster inspired by Ducati bikes, Lotuses, the Ariel Atom and maybe some other things besides.
Wilder still than its existence – the GX3 looked utterly out of place on the VW stand, even with a Golf GTi lurking nearby – is that the company may well build it. It would be a car for the mild climate of California only, but it could be built in the few thousands, probably in the US, for around £10,000 apiece. The idea is to build some cars specifically for the States, where VW was once dominant with the Beetle, but has often struggled since the bug’s demise.
If you wanted more mad stuff you needed to look to the customisers. Chrysler displayed endless tricked versions of the Charger and 300C, best of which was an ultra-bling but strangely appealing 300C labelled Royale, complete with black and white two-tone paint a la Bugatti of the same name, massive chrome wheels and whitewall tyres. It sounds dire, but looked amazingly cool.
Over at Ford was the Saleen Thunder, a 450bhp twin-screw supercharger version of its best-selling F-150 pick-up truck, and even Mercedes showed a customised R-class with Rolling Stones branding (what is it with German car companies and past-it British supergroups?) that fortunately, was a one-off created as a prize. Soemtimes you wonder whether the Mercedes taste police are skiving.
Many makers are holding back for the Detroit show, but GM uncovered its king-size SUVs, the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and the Cadillac Escalade.
While we’re talking big, Porsche went big on performance for its largest model, the Cayenne, which can now be had with 514bhp and tarmac-mashing performance in £81,565 Turbo S form. Ferrari countered with the F430 Pista, a follow-up to the very successful 360 Challenge Stradale, and Saleen unveiled an S7 supercar with enough horses, claimed its creator, to deal with Bugatti’s fastest-car-in-the-world claims.
At the other end of the scale some manufacturers think that America might now be ready for the supermini. We’ve been here before, of course, various European models being sent across the pond over the years – remember the Renault 5 Le Car? – without much lasting success. Nevertheless, Toyota unveiled the Yaris Liftback – though it admitted that the Yaris saloon would be a bigger seller – Honda will start selling the Jazz, badged as Fit, in 2006 and Ford hinted of a small car for America in three years time.
Toyota also strengthened its lead in the lucrative hybrid race with the announcement that there will be a hybrid version of the Camry, America’s best-selling car, for 2006. GM has hybrid pick-up trucks on the way too, but is putting more emphasis on cars that can run on E85, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol.
Other highlights? The slightly strange, but strangely appealing Mitsubishi Eclipse Coupe (how about a few for the UK?), the Pontiac Solstice GXP, a 2.0 Turbo version of GM’s pretty sportster, and its sister the Saturn Sky (which started life as the Vauxhall Lightning) and Mazda’s tidy and surprisingly powerful CX-7 cross-over.
Mighty impressive, and desirable, is the retro Toyota FJ, a fine pastiche on the 1960-83 Land Cruiser complete with rubber mats, body colour dash and – an excellent piece of modernising, this – suicide rear doors. And all for the price of a lowly Mondeo. Toyota should bring it here - look out for our first drive here at Autocar.co.uk tomorrow.
But sometimes the best treats for we Europeans are the cars native Americans don’t look at at all – gaze in horror and wonderment at the tacky tastelessness of the Lincoln Town Car, the suicide rear doors of that botch of a coupe that is the Saturn Ion (there’s a hot version this year) and wonder with sadness how Buick’s latest, the Lucerne, still manages to miss the cabin quality bull’s-eye despite GM’s best efforts to compete with the Japanese and Korean car companies that are eating it for breakfast, lunch and tea.
It’s not all gloom on the American front though – GM’s big new SUVs don’t look bad at all, the Pontiac Solstice is a desirable piece of kit and Ford’s new Fusion, a saloon based on the Mazda6, is quite attractive and certainly well put together. It’s selling, too, apparently. And it looks as if there’ll be more to be optimistic about at next week’s Detroit show, where a whole barrage of fresh machinery will be wheeled out. Watch this screen.