Sometimes we pretend that we buy a particular car for practical reasons. We say that we think of a car as an appliance or a line item in a household budget. But deep down, we all know that sometimes a car chooses us for reasons we don't understand. You see one pulling away from a stoplight, or staring back at you from a computer screen, and your mind is made up. Someday, you tell yourself.
Often, you can wait for that day.
Unless, of course, the car is gone by then.
Cash-starved automakers are trimming their lineups. They're canceling models, and in some cases, preparing to send entire brands to the automotive graveyard. And as automakers look to trim excess from their operations, they're not going to cut practical cars. They're going to cut the ones that are harder to justify: the convertibles, the supercars, the cute icons that don't fit into neat categories. It is the cars that speak to your romantic side that are most endangered. If one of these has your heartstrings, it's time to make a move.
Honda engineers make some of the world's most practical, dependable family cars -- cars that don't excel at any one thing but do nearly everything fairly well, and never, ever die.
It must drive them insane. If you've perfected the craft of timing valves and perfectly mating an engine to a transmission, then just once in your career you must want to build an asphalt-rippling track machine that isn't practical at all.
For the automaker's 50th anniversary, they did just that. The result was the S2000: two seats, a six-speed manual gearbox and the soul of a cheetah. It's a track-day car that barely costs more than an Accord. It's pure. It's just a roadster, distilled to its essence. But according to sources inside Honda, for the S2000, the road ends in 2009.
Like many great cars, Chrysler's PT Cruiser fits no category. It's not quite a small car, with its hatchback and generous room for four. It's not quite a wagon, since its chassis and flat load floor legally classifies it as a light truck. But it's not a light truck either.
What it is, however, is cool. It has a personality unlike anything else. They don't sell whitewall tires for Honda Civics, or wood-sided Ford Fusions -- but Chrysler's Cruiser makes them look stylish. And we all know that the similar Chevy HHR was never anything but a pale imitation.
But the Cruiser has gone the way of the 1940's hot rods it called to mind. The last PT Cruiser, according to Chrysler, will roll off the assembly line this summer.
Has an American company built a head-turner quite like the Saturn Sky? It has more ergonomic quirks than an Ikea showroom, its soft top is a pain to fold, and you can't fit a pack of matches in its trunk ... but no one even cares. Just one look, and your heart skips a beat.
Buy the Redline edition to speed it up again -- with GM's first direct-injection engine, its turbocharged, sixteen-valve four-cylinder takes the car from a standstill to 60 mph in under six seconds.
But buy it soon. It's not only the Sky that's on the chopping block, but the entire Saturn line. In its application for federal bailout funds, GM promised to sell or close the underperforming brand, and realistically, there doesn't seem to be a company interested in buying it. The Sky will go down with its Astra and VUE brothers, no matter how gorgeous it might be.
Through 2008, no brand of automobile suffered a greater drop off in sales than GM's SUV-only brand. GM promised to sell or cancel the brand when the company asked Congress for federal aid last year, but by that time, GM executives had already spent months looking fruitlessly for a buyer. Consequently, Hummer will probably be eliminated outright in 2009.
The brand's least expensive machine, however, remains a fine work of engineering. On the road, the H3 is barely a competent SUV. But off the road, it has almost no equal. It's the only vehicle ever built with both an independent front suspension and full-locking front differential. With an available 4:1 transfer case and a serious set of monster tires, it climbs rocks many dedicated off-road vehicles shy away from. And unlike its towering H2 sibling, the H3 is small enough to fit on many trails.
Combine legendary Lexus build quality, a sumptuous passenger cabin (in Pebble Beach Edition trim, it approaches the comfort of million-dollar coachbuilt cars), and the freedom to put the top down, and you have the Lexus SC -- perhaps the most elegant convertible mass-produced today. There aren't many true luxury convertibles left, and this one is the most comfortable.
It's also the most endangered. When Lexus ends the SC's run after 2009, the automaker will be left with no convertible models. Plans for a range-topping LF are on hold, so the SC is the last Lexus drop-top, at least until the economy turns around and it makes sense to offer a luxurious top-down cruiser again.
The legendary Viper is basically a street-legal race car, with nearly no amenities or creature comforts to speak of, but all the speed one could ever imagine. On the world's most demanding test track -- the Nürburgring, a 12.9-mile circuit in the mountains outside Nürburg, Germany -- the lap record is held by a 2009 Viper ACR, which bests even cars that cost five times as much.
But the Viper is in danger. Newer designs like the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and Nissan GT-R nearly equal its performance and offer far more livability.
The product planners at Dodge are car enthusiasts and don't seem to want to live in a world without Vipers, so they have held back on officially announcing the vehicle's cancellation. But Dodge has halted production of the Viper, and publicly tried to sell the design rights to other automakers and even parts suppliers that don't build whole cars. Essentially, they're trying very hard to get rid of this car without taking the blame for killing it outright. The writing is on the wall for the legendary Viper.