The logo. The exotic car-filled studio. The engine block coffee table. The Stig. The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. It all seemed so familiar. The inaugural episode of Top Gear USA aired Sunday night at 10pm EST/9C on the History Channel with a lot of what made the original British show an international hit, but without those three dynamic blokes that have made the UK version so great. Or the amazing producers who put that show together each week. Instead, we get new producers, a new set, and new promise in hosts Tanner Foust, Adam Ferrara and Rutledge Wood.
The first episode of Top Gear USA started off with a bang by transitioning from an original Shelby Cobra to the best modern interpretation of the big engine on wheels: the Dodge Viper. The American-made missile was driven by Tanner Foust who was charged with outrunning a Cobra attack helicopter. The Viper was fitted with a missile detection simulator that showed when the supercar was being missile-locked and "hit" by the chopper. To win this competition, Foust and his navigator/co-host Rutledge Wood needed to blast across town and back before being hit by the chopper three times. We won't tell you how it ends, but we will say this first stunt showed that while the camera work and editing isn't yet up to Top Gear UK levels of excellence, the content is still engaging and fun to watch.
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The second big segment involved a trio of Lamborghini models: the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni, the Gallardo LP570-4 Superleggera and the Murciélago LP670-SV. The object was to see which of the three hosts could achieve the highest speed in a standing mile. This segment was arguably the episode's best, and it showed that Wood, Foust and Ferrara actually do have some chemistry that's worth watching. And the moving pictures looked great too, though it didn't hurt to have three beautiful raging bulls parading in front of a untouched desert backdrop.
In between those bookends were two more Top Gear staples: the Power Lap and The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. The latter has been renamed Big Star, Small Car for American audiences, and the first guest was astronaut and moon walker Buzz Aldrin. Adam Ferrara handled the interviewing duties and did a fine job, though we're surprised Top Gear didn't go all-out for its first episode and get a big Hollywood star for its little car. As for the Power Lap, since the first segment featured the Viper, our new American Stig took a Viper ACR around the Top Gear USA test track and set what appeared to be a tough time to beat, though with no other cars having generated lap times, it's impossible to know until future episodes populate the board.
Great cars and compelling stunts are a great place to start, but anyone who watches Top Gear knows that the show is all about the hosts. Ferrara, Wood and Foust appear to have decent banter out of the gate, and all three are likable guys. Compared to Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, the new trio isn't anywhere near as polished, nor as entertaining, but that kind of chemistry only comes after many years in front of the camera together. Still, the U.S. hosts fared well in Show No. 1, though their in-studio camera work needs the most polishing, as there were times when all three looked a bit nervous and unsure of themselves. They'll get better over time, and even if they don't, it won't necessarily kill the show.
After one episode of Top Gear USA, we're fairly impressed. The key to watching (and enjoying) the show is to not constantly compare the hour-long extravaganza to the UK version. We know that's tough, if only because the new show has been modeled so closely after the original. The fact is that every iteration of Top Gear will always pale compared to the original. It's like watching a movie based on your favorite book; there's almost no way the motion picture will be better than the paperback and your imagination. But in terms of a car show available to watch in the U.S., Top Gear USA definitely has the the goods to keep us watching... at least for nine more weeks.