Image: Volkswagen Bluesport Roadster concept car
Mark Blinch  /  Reuters file
The VW Concept Bluesport roadster prove that speed and power are alive and well.
By contributor
updated 3/6/2009 11:19:27 AM ET 2009-03-06T16:19:27

“It’s the end of the world as we know it,” sang R.E.M. in its 1987 hit song, and that is very much the feeling lately among automotive enthusiasts. Over the years “the end is near” has been the mantra of dour cynics who, with every turn in the automotive market, have pronounced the demise of fun cars and of even the notion of automotive enthusiasm.

Though they’ve been wrong before, this time, these cynics say, it’s going to be different. This time, the government will grab the car industry by the throat and throttle any signs of fun, permitting only the most serious business of moving consumers — not drivers — from place to place efficiently, safely and using the least amount of fuel possible.

But as shown by the debut of the production version of the compact but racy Ford Focus RS at this week’s Geneva auto show, these cynics are likely to be proved wrong again.

This 300-horsepower turbo sport compact is rated 30 MPG in combined city and highway driving, so it shows the potential for drivers to enjoy cars that combine both efficiency and fun. The Focus RS isn’t yet scheduled for sale in the U.S., but considering Ford’s new strategy of selling the same models worldwide there’s a good possibility it will be sold over here.

Meanwhile, other automobile manufacturers are working on frugal — and probably even faster — sporty cars for the future, as technology continues to advance. Vehicles such as the high-performance, two-seater Volkswagen Concept Bluesport roadster prove that speed and power are alive and well.

Certainly, there have been ominous signs. The federal government and the courts will have to hash out an eventual update to the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, but the numbers being discussed as the average for future vehicle fleets would be challenging to meet with today’s economy cars.

Future fleet fuel economy requirements could be as high as 43 MPG. If economy cars are hard-pressed to achieve the future government requirements, how will sports cars do it?

Automakers are already pulling in their horns. Honda announced that it will discontinue production of its S2000 roadster and the company also killed development of its NSX supercar. And Chrysler is shopping for a buyer for its V-10 Viper. The company ironically says that because of its current financial challenges it needs to cut loose the very car it created to help escape its last bout of financial problems in the early 1990s.

General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who advocated for the Viper’s production when he was at Chrysler, has seen enough.

Announcing his resignation from GM recently, Lutz told The Wall Street Journal that “fun and excitement have become fairly rare commodities and others are temperamentally better-suited to dealing with this increasingly regulation-dominated product future.”

If the cigar-chomping, jet fighter-flying “Maximum Bob” has thrown in the towel, then maybe the end times truly are upon us for sporty, fun cars.

Enthusiasts are not likely to be deterred, though emerging performance cars may not follow the traditional pattern. Front-wheel-drive economy sedans served as the foundation of hot-rods beginning in the 1990s, although conventional wisdom at that time was that a V-8 engine and rear-wheel-drive were necessary ingredients for fun cars.

Carmakers already have some ideas. Today there are sporty small cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt SS — a turbocharged sport compact that registers 30 MPG on the EPA highway driving test, despite a pumped-up 260-horsepower engine that delivers a pavement-scorching 0-60 MPH acceleration time of 5.7 seconds.

The car also boasts hardware goodies to warm any car nut’s heart, such as a new no-lift-shift feature that permits the driver to accelerate through the gears without lifting off the gas pedal to change gears. This gadget is perfect for visits to the racetrack. Employing it in daily driving would not only be problematic with local law enforcement, it also would mean you can wave goodbye to decent gas mileage.

Of particular interest to the tech-savvy driver of the future is a reconfigurable dashboard display that shows performance scores (such as acceleration times), braking distances and cornering g-forces.

“It will be possible to have fun and get good gas mileage” in the future, assured Stephanie Brinley, senior manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, a consultancy for the automobile industry. “What we are seeing is concern about the current economy,” she explained, adding that the economy will eventually recover “and people will want to have fun again.”

Coming soon is a sport coupe from Hyundai Motor America that illustrates this point.

The 210-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo motor in the upcoming Genesis coupe yields 30 MPG highway on the EPA’s test, wrapped in a sleek, sexy package that should have drivers thinking about more than just fuel economy.

“The Genesis Coupe is evidence that you can have efficiency and fun,” insisted Hyundai product manager Derek Joyce. “Maybe the fun comes from the handling arena rather than brute acceleration, but it is there.”

Another example is the Volkswagen Concept Bluesport roadster. It takes an obvious approach to the marriage of fuel economy with high performance by whittling away all of the unnecessary bits. The bare-bones two-seat roadster is a purist’s sports car, so the light weight is easier to achieve when you only have to seat a pair of occupants.

VW also employed an equally straightforward approach to its powertrain, using one of the diesel engines for which the company has cultivated an enthusiastic following.

Today’s Jetta SportWagen, TDI for example, is rated 41 MPG on the EPA highway cycle, and 80 percent of buyers are choosing the diesel engine instead of a gas engine. The company also demonstrates the performance potential of its modern diesels, with the Jetta’s 8.5-second 0-60 time, through promotion of the TDI Cup racing series contested by drivers in identical Jetta TDI racecars.

With a still-more-efficient future diesel engine under the hood, the tiny VW Concept Bluesport roadster should have no trouble meeting or exceeding future federal fuel economy standards while providing unequivocally fun driving experience. That is, if the company decides to build the car. The open-top, mid-engine roadster will have spirited acceleration while getting Prius-like fuel economy.

Fun cars can even go beyond fuel efficiency if they are electric powered (OK, and if you have a windmill in your yard to power them).

As with the limited-production Tesla roadster, Chrysler has created the Circuit EV concept car based on a Lotus sports car using its own electric drive technology.

My test drive of the Circuit confirmed its impressive performance, which the company pegs at 5 seconds for 0-60 acceleration and a stunning 13 seconds in the quarter-mile. Financial conditions permitting, Chrysler could bring the Circuit EV to market pretty quickly and easily by farming out its construction to Lotus. The resulting vehicle would likely undercut the Tesla’s $100,000-plus price tag by a wide margin.

Tomorrow’s fun cars may be different from today’s, but as long as there are cars you can be sure there will be car enthusiasts driving demand for exciting models, no matter how they’re powered.

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