The grass is always greener, and that means that certain really, really cool cars will remain just out of reach, on the other side of the Big Ditch, and over the pond. In their wisdom, automakers have made judgments about what Americans will and won’t buy, and they’ve got us pegged as going for monster trucks, big lazy sedans and plain-jane economy. They figure we can’t handle the subtle, the tiny, or even some highly tuned performance-oriented sports cars.
With that painful truth in mind, here are some tantalizing vehicles that you can buy in Tokyo, Berlin or New Delhi, but not here.
Mercedes A-Class: A Bridesmaid, Never a Bride.
Daimler has been talking about importing this beautifully designed small car (a hatchback with style) since the 1990s. It’s ubiquitous in Europe and elsewhere in the world—I visited a factory in Brazil where they made the A-Class (and used coconut fiber for the sun visors and door panels). A new version of the A-Class goes on sale next year in Europe, and again officials are talking about bringing it here, but they’re not making any promises. The A-Class (with diesel and gas variants) was introduced in 1997 as an entry-level Mercedes, and a second-gen model came out in 2004 (with a facelift in 2008). It’s a nippy little thing, able to reach 62 mph in eight seconds (in the two-liter gas version). And there’s also an incredibly great limited edition (500 cars) electric version for the European market, introduced in 2010, with a high-performance drivetrain shoehorned in by Tesla Motors. That one isn’t likely to come here, either, though it should. I drove one in California, and was swept away—the A-Class EV, with four seats and vivid performance, is in every way superior to the Smart Electric Drive we get over here. Oh well.
Pagani Huayra: Over the Top, and Over There.
Should we weep for a $1 million, 700-horsepower Italian supercar that our Department of Transportation refuses landing rights in the American market for 2012? Nah. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took one look at this twin-turbo 12-cylinder rocket and said it should have child-friendly advanced airbags, though no child in his right mind would ever travel in a car like this. This same obstacle has delayed other car makers trying to get certified for U.S. sale, and NHTSA sometimes grants exemptions—but not in Pagani’s case. They’ll figure a way to get it certified, though, because the Huayra was engineered with the U.S. in mind. If the car is approved, plans are to sell five in 2012 and maybe 10 annually after that.
Fiat Panda: Ugly Beauty.
Described as looking like “a cross between a Yugo and a VW Thing,” the Panda won’t win any styling contests. But these cars are ubiquitous in Europe, and they have plenty of utilitarian flair—and tons of storage space considering their 12-foot length. The car was totally redesigned, in a nice way, for 2012. Obviously, Fiat—newly emergent in the North American market with the 500—doesn’t think we’re ready for turbo charged two-cylinder engines (making a heady 83 horsepower). Europeans, used to this kind of thing, can also choose a 74-horsepower turbo diesel. This car gets 69 mpg, though that’s in the Euro test cycle. The far-cuter 500 achieves just 38 mpg in its American version.
Honda Brio: The Fit’s Little Brother.
Yes, there are Hondas smaller than the car they call the Fit here (and the Jazz in Europe). The Japanese call their very small cars and minivans “kei” (lightweight) cars, and they’re abundant in Tokyo traffic. Ever seen the Honda Acty, Subaru Sambar or the Mitsubishi Radar? No? Japanese automakers don’t think we can handle 10-foot cars and trucks with 500- or 600-cc engines. A case in point when it comes to minuscule Hondas is the slightly-larger-than-kei three-door hatchback Brio, which uses the Fit’s 1.2-liter engine and produces a mighty 89 horsepower. How does 47 mpg sound, very close to the Toyota Prius’ 50 mpg? The Brio is an international car, but may never be sold in the U.S. because a) it’s too small; b) it’s a hatchback. Here, they kick the Brio tires in India:
Audi RS6 Quattro: The Cutting Edge.
For a couple of years (2002-2004), you could actually buy this 450-horsepower V8-powered A6 as a sedan or wagon in the U.S., but we’re denied the current version, which goes nose to nose with cars like the BMW M5 and Benz E55/E63 AMG. In 2008, Britain’s Telegraph described the Audi RS6 as “not only the most powerful production Audi ever, but also the most powerful estate [wagon] car in the world.” They described the 572-horsepower car (now with a twin-turbo charged V-10) as a “Superbarge,” and tracked it at zero to 62 mph in 4.6 seconds. It sold for $120,000 at the time. The 13.8 mpg fuel consumption around town is part of the price of cars like this.
BYD F3DM: The Affordable Plug-In.
I drove the F3DM at the Los Angeles Auto Show last year, and the brief session (on a tiny indoor test track) was vivid, pointing up some challenges for Warren Buffett’s favorite Chinese car company (he owns 10 percent). BYD, a major lithium-ion battery supplier, successfully branched out into making cars—its F3 was the bestselling car in China in 2009, and the plug-in hybrid is a variation of that. BYD said it would start selling its all-electric E6 in the U.S. this year, but more recently the company said it might take 18 months. The F3DM (with up to 50 miles of battery range, then 300 more with the gas engine running) is also supposed to go on sale here, in 2012, for $28,800, which would make it by far the cheapest plug-in hybrid on the market. But there are issues. The F3DM works, but it’s a bit crude for the American market, and has styling that appears to be borrowed from a 1985 Corolla. Jazzy, it ain’t. BYD could be a Chinese beachhead in the American market, but it’s suffered some setbacks in the domestic market. The F3DM hasn’t even sold well in China (only 417 in 2010), and the company needs to spice up this offering before it can be an international hit.
Renault Twingo: Too French?
In early 2012, Renault will debut its new Twingo in Europe, but we’ll never see it because the French gave up on us decades ago. Renault left in 1987. It’s too bad, because I think the Twingo is quirkily appealing, with the same basic desirability factor as a baguette. The 55.4 mpg is nice, too (though the EPA would rate it differently). But even if Renault were still here it would probably bring in something bigger than the 11-foot-long, built-in-Slovenia Twingo, which comes with a 1.2-liter, 100-horsepower engine. Popular Mechanics described it as “among the dinkiest cars on Earth.” The electric fabric sunroof—shades of the Fiat 500—comes in handy when the baguette doesn’t fit in the cabin.
Even without these cars, American consumers still have a lot of choices. And my guess is that, especially as fuel economy achieves even more importance than it has now, we’ll see the Brios and Twingos here. The Pagani? Yes, probably that, too. It’s for the guy who already owns a Bugatti Veyron but has another bay in his garage. By the way, some cars, like this rather awkward BMW M3 pickup, are available nowhere, and it’s just as well.