Automakers face a huge challenge in creating cars that have to meet a dizzying array of emission, safety and fuel economy regulations and at the same time meet or exceed the expectations of potential customers. Usually the makers who succeed are the ones who are able to surprise and delight drivers with unique designs, technology and features.
The Ford Fusion's sleek shape proves midsize cars need not be boring.
It's a hard job since some of these great ideas can simply amaze or, if poorly done, merely annoy. As cars become more uniform in performance and function, manufacturers will look even harder for that special something to stand out from the crowd.
So here are a few things in the current crop of new cars that have surprised, delighted, and yes, annoyed.
Surprise: At last year's Detroit show, Ford showed off its new Fusion. Its sleek shape proves mid-size cars need not be boring. Despite the criticism of the Aston Martin-like grille, the car is clean, contemporary and has a terrific interior to match – I especially like the sew pattern on the seats that recalls the mid-'60s Mustang.
Touchscreens and flat control surfaces are the bane of my existence.
Delight: Honda's new Accord which has a Sport model in the lineup that mates a six-speed manual with a peppy four-cylinder engine. The car is well balanced, fun to drive and offers fuel economy and a sticker price that won't break the bank.
Annoy: Haptic controls. Touch screens and flat control surfaces are the bane of my existence, from MyFord Touch to the new Cadillac CUE. I can never seem to use the right pressure to make them work, and the layers you have to work through to change a radio station or even find the right menu are downright distracting. And as sort of a neat freak, I hate seeing fingerprints all over the screen. Where's a good knob when you need one?
Surprise: The new SRT Viper is a big and bad-ass looking as ever. But I did a double-take when they told me it was an inch shorter than the latest Porsche 911. That says something about proportion, doesn't it?
LEDs – what was once cool looking has now become banal.
Delight: Speaking of the Viper, how cool is the outline of the Nürburgring embossed in the inside door pull recess and the map of Laguna Seca in the center console?
Annoy: Headrests that hit the back of your head. Several cars are guilty of this awkward positioning where you try to settle into the back of the seat only to have the back of your noggin smack up against the headrest. Even when they are adjusted all the way back, like on the Ford Fusion, the cushion is pointed way too far forward, making it hard to get comfortable.
Surprise: Speaking of Ford, I really love the new Escape with its wave-your-foot feature to automatically open the rear hatch. Brilliant.
Finally, there's a BMW 3 Series competitor from the home team.
Delight: The sound of blipped downshifts from paddle-shift transmissions. Both the latest generation of dual-clutch and torque-converter gearboxes deliver tremendously smooth shifts while deftly blipping the throttle. In cars like the new Aston Martin Vanquish and the Ferrari F12, it's truly magical. I'd put single-clutch automatic gearboxes in this category, but their low speed operation borders on annoying.
Annoy: LEDs. What was once cool looking has now become banal. Everyone is using them and with little restraint. It's the lighting equivalent of applying chrome to a car's exterior with a trowel.
Surprise: That the Toyota Avalon could be a car to give a hoot about. Akio Toyoda's drive to put emotion into all of Toyota's products has begun with the new Avalon. I was surprised at how well this car handled. And paddle shifts in an Avalon? Who would've thought it?
I still can't enjoy driving a car equipped with a CVT.
Delight: The Cadillac ATS is simply fun to drive and the division's commercials featuring Derek Hill reflect the spirit that can be found behind the wheel. Finally, there's a BMW 3 Series competitor from the home team.
Annoy: CVTs. As much as I admire the technology on paper, and despite continuous improvements by various manufacturers, I still can't enjoy driving a car equipped with a CVT. There still is an elastic quality to the acceleration and the engine drone that I just can't abide. Need better fuel economy? Throw in another cog or two on a six-speed.
That's my list... now discuss – what's your biggest surprise, delight or annoying feature?