By Joan Ellis
Remember this name: TERRAFUGIA. With a trademarked subtitle of “Driven to Fly,” the six-year-old company sits front and center at the New York Automobile Show, 2012 in the Jacob Javits Center. Haven’t we all fantasized about being able to go directly from point A to point B without following traditional roads? It’s here. And for $298,000, it can be yours.
In addition to 35 mpg on land, you will enjoy air bags, hydraulic disk brakes, a tinted moon roof, and a storage compartment for your golf clubs. It is theoretically possible to taxi down the green for takeoff and land a short time later on your own driveway. The FAA may have something to say about the details, but I was assured by the salesman that the details are being worked out.
You may remember when the first ATV burst on the scene. A small military style vehicle, it would, with the push of a button, retract its wheels as you drove straight from land into water. In its much larger incarnation, that technology is still used locally in The Lark, the Coast Guard’s all-purpose rescue vehicle stationed on Sandy Hook. The thrill of plunging from pavement to water – car to boat without stopping – is finally being challenged by the extraordinary sensation of car to plane with the push button unfolding of wings. Terrafugia has orders for over 100 of these autoplanes, so you might want to target your bonus and get in line.
With most of us bound to the ground for a while longer, the question I carried into the Javits Center was this: Have the car manufacturers managed to spruce up their small, cheap cars enough to lift them from the category of “tin box” utility to desirable? Yes, absolutely. With gas prices inching toward $5 per gallon, people want fuel economy without sacrificing the fun of driving. The problem has clearly been solved by Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru and Nissan. Where are the Americans? Don’t worry, Ford is knocking on this door too.
If you are on either side of the children/baggage/equipment carrying years, this is a fine class of cars to consider. The noisy econobox has become a luxury capsule that conveys the “Let’s go!” surge drivers love. Be assured that manufacturers in this category have brought safety standards to the highest level available with multiple airbags, anti-lock brakes, and stability control. You’ll be surrounded by a panoply of bells and whistles – audio controls on the steering wheel, inspired placement of cupholders and storage slots. The econobox has been wrapped in luxury.
This leaves the exterior style as the thing that may lure you. Style is the elusive, gut thing that influences buyer decisions. Hatchback or sedan?
For hatchbacks, feast your eyes on the Honda Fit, Mazda 2 or 3, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta/ Focus. For sedans, see Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent/Elantra, Ford Focus/Fiesta. For AWD, see the Subaru Impreza. These cars, all priced between $15,000 and $25,000, will get between 28 and 35 mpg. If you’re ready for a hybrid the new small Prius C is a small version of the pioneer hatch and will please you with over 50 mpg.
Are there any disappointments in this generous array of vehicles? Certainly. This army of talented designers sees fit to cloak the interiors of their cars in dull variations of gray and beige. My memory of driving a 1978 Ford Fiesta with a red interior still warms me. Its cheer was contagious, and if Ford would just bring back the dash and seats in that perfect color, I’d buy American again any day.
Any of these cars will bring you good mileage and safety and at an affordable price. The style and luxury at this level are new and welcome. And on your way out, stop again at Terrafugia. Especially if you’re young, dream about lift off from point A for a fast trip to point B. You will be forgiven if you mind is wondering about small blue and white planes crisscrossing the sky without traffic lanes or signs.
Missed this year’s auto show? The next New York Auto Show is scheduled for March 29 –
Apr. 7, 2013.