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6 New Cars That Show Automakers What to Do Next

Dated-April 2015

Last week, the auto industry—executive bigwigs and members of the press alike—descended on Manhattan for the biggest car show on the continent. The 60 new models that filled the halls of the 2015 New York International Auto Show were equal parts amazing, evocative, and thought-provoking. The most interesting among them—the failures and the successes, the bold ideas and the lame ones—also embody big truths about making and selling cars in the 21st century. Truths automakers would do well to take to heart.

Here’s your study guide.

2016 McLaren 570S: If you’ve got a good thing, run with it. McLaren’s first true street vehicle, the 618-hp, BMW-powered F1, is one of the most amazing machines ever built. The firm’s second, the 592-hp MP4-12C, was launched in 2011. The third, the P1 hybrid hypercar, cost more than $1 million (price varied with exchange rate) and sold out. After that came the 650S and 675LT, both essentially developments of the MP4-12C with differing bodywork and drivetrains.

The New York show gave us the latest in the brand’s lineup: The $184,000, 562-hp 570S. It looks amazing, an alien sex organ with shutlines. And it’s part of McLaren’s plan to triple sales by 2020 (it now sells 1,750 vehicles a year).

Here’s the smart bit: The tiny firm is expanding its lineup using a relatively small component set. All of these cars are evolved from the same basic carbon-fiber tub, which McLaren calls a MonoCell. It represents one of the glories of modern carmaking: the ability, through intensive engineering, to make a set of components and technologies do different jobs across multiple models. The engine in the 570S is a derivation of the powerplant used in every McLaren street car, a twin-turbo, 3.8-liter V8.

Despite having similar roots, the 570S and P1 will feel vastly different to drive, because they’re intended for different customers. (If you paid over a million bucks for a supercar, would you want it to feel like your neighbor’s $184,000 runabout?)

None of this would’ve been possible if McLaren didn’t have the smarts to design things properly, and then the balls to grow properly, if aggressively. It chose to do it by keeping its products similar under the skin, betting that customers won’t care as long as each car is designed well. As gambles go, it’s smart.

2016 Lincoln Continental Concept: A revolution doesn’t always start with the first shot. The car you see here is not real, at least not in a production sense. You can’t buy it, and no dealer will let you test drive one. Lincoln has resurrected the Continental (the nameplate, anyway), but the second coming currently exists only in concept form.

Carmakers build concepts to raise interest in future product and gauge public reaction. Ford is in the third year of its effort to transform Lincoln—thrill of senior citizens and Old Country Buffet denizens everywhere—into an American Mercedes-Benz.

Good luck to them with that. This country hasn’t had a world-class luxury carmaker in over 50 years, and it badly needs one. Lincoln has long been an embarrassment in Ford’s portfolio, a series of poorly executed models and warmed-over family sedans. The brand needs a jumpstart.

And this, sadly, is not the way to go about it. The design is derivative, even to a layman’s eye. The nose looks like it was yanked from a Kia K900. The flanks scream Bentley Flying Spur (and Bentley noticed). The proportions are nice. The interior is great, admittedly. But as a package, it doesn’t knock your socks off. It reminds you of other things that do.

Concept cars should be surprising. Elegant. Incredible. And most of all, unique. Modern car design is not easy; regulations make the job more paint by numbers than art. A lot of people undoubtedly worked very hard on this thing. But I also have no doubt that someone at Ford has a more compelling, more original idea. Let’s see it.

2016 Cadillac CT6: Finish what you start. Like Lincoln, Cadillac wants to be America’s Mercedes. Unlike Lincoln, the GM division began its turnaround almost ten years ago. The V-series range offered fast cars partly developed at Germany’s demanding Nürburgring. The “Art and Science” design language of the last decade gave us Cadillacs that oozed sex. And the current cars—especially the ATS and CTS sedans—are spectacular. If they lack anything, it’s inspiring engines and detailing to match that of the Europeans.

The CT6 is intended to sit above the CTS, a BMW 7-series and Audi A8 competitor. Visually, the nose carries hints of Cadillac’s amazing Elmiraj concept. And then it falls flat. From the front bumper to the A-pillar, the car looks fantastic: clean, elegant, modern, a little risky (see the teardrop lights?).

Past the front doors, however … blah. Look at the C-pillar, just in front of the trunk: a host of fussy details and lines, a trunk that seems to dominate things. In pictures, it looks a little off. In person, the car seems to have been built in two different decades. It’s almost as if someone in GM management saw another, better-looking version of the car on the drawing board, and said, “I’m not comfortable with how modern the trunk looks. Pull it back a little.”

Designwise, luxury sedans walk a fine line. They have to be conservative and risky at the same time. But it’s better to be the latter than the former. If you’re going big, follow through.

2016 Scion iA: Stick to what you’re good at. The iA is an all-new model for Scion, Toyota’s youth-oriented sub-brand. It’s based on the Mazda 2. “Toyota does not have an entry subcompact sedan,” Scion Vice President Doug Murtha told me, “so there’s a hole in our lineup…And to be honest, we found there was a degree of polarization [on the styling, in focus groups]. That’s perfect for us. We don’t want a car that everybody likes.”

This is all well and good, but Scion has historically built cool-looking cars: the first-generation xB, the FR-S sports car, the xA coupe. The iA does not remind you of those. The iA, Scion’s first four-door sedan, reminds you of a barstool with a dorky cartoon fish on top. I hope it sells. I really do. I hope I’m wrong. But historically, “cool” has sold a lot more cars than “barstool cartoon fish dorky.”

2016 Lexus RX 450h: Don’t underestimate the demand for ordinary. This is the fourth-generation Lexus RX sport-utility. Sexy, right? Attractive, edgy, thought-provoking? Don’t you just want to lick it?

Nope. And this is entirely the point.

Lexus began selling the RX in the 1990s. It’s a mid-size luxury crossover that competes with the Acura RDX, the BMW X3, and a host of other machines. Like every Lexus product, it has a long line of customers waiting to buy it; the brand boasts some of the best customer retention in the business. 

It has never been an edgy proposition, and it has always ruled its class in terms of sales. Not to mention the used market: In terms of resale value, a used RX is a better place to put your money than gold bullion. People fight over them on Craigslist, where 400,000-mile, first-generation examples with ripped seats and infant yogurt congealing in the carpet still go for more than a new Honda Civic.

Oddly, in terms of styling, Lexus sees this as risky. The Vice President of Lexus International, Mark Templin, told WIRED the car represents “an aggressive departure” from the brand’s past, and that “customers have loved” the new styling language it represents. Dealers, he said, are excited about this car, even though it’s essentially a warmed-over Toyota sedan jacked in the air and given leather and all-wheel-drive.

The lesson? There’s no accounting for taste or brand loyalty. And some of the best cars in the business are heartbreakingly plain.

2016 Porsche Boxster Spyder: Don’t forget where you came from. Porsche got its start in the 1950s selling sports cars. Half a century later, after much motorsport and showroom success, the marque branched out into SUVs. A few years after that, it began producing four-door sedans. It currently offers six basic models: two SUVs, one sedan, and three sports cars.

In terms of brand management, this has been something of a balancing act. On the upside, we’ve gotten a lot of interesting cars. And interesting choices, like the new 911 GT3. The GT3 is a track special, a high-revving, naturally aspirated car based on the 911. Unlike every GT3 before it, the current car does not come with a manual transmission, because Porsche claims its PDK automatic produces faster lap times. Porsche representatives insist manual transmissions don’t sell, and that a focused, low-run car like the GT3 doesn’t need one. Enthusiasts and some customers begged to differ—for a certain set, manuals are more entertaining—but Stuttgart said nein, you’ll take the automatic and like it.

Fine, great, makes sense. But there’s a hitch: It turns out manuals do sell to Porsche’s base, the small but vocal minority that’s been supporting the company for years. Proof lies in the just-released Cayman GT4, a track-focused version of Porsche’s smallest sports car, powered by the 385-hp flat-six from a 911 Carrera S. It’s a small, simple throwback to Porsche’s early days. And you can’t get it with an automatic. The car is now sold out, and company insiders claim it moved off the order books faster than anything they’ve ever seen, including the GT3.

The 2016 Boxster Spyder, shown at New York and hitting showrooms later this year, is in many ways a GT4 without a roof. It’s a stripped-down Boxster with chassis and drivetrain tweaks, and it’s only available with a manual transmission. It’s built for the people who have knocked the brand for straying from its roots. The idea isn’t new, but it is solid: When you get big, don’t ignore the folks back home. They keep you honest.