Spring Cars

As the weather grows more seductive, so do the new-model automobiles

When the new Mercedes SL500 morphs from a hard-topped coupe into an open roadster, it is a moment of mechanical transcendence. Like an Olympic diver, the car's curving rear window seems to strike a pose in midair, and then it tucks itself gracefully into the roof unit and both disappear into the car's trunk.

This transformation is more than ingenious—it is a revelation of the car's design. You see that the line of the car's roof is not merely an aesthetic gesture; it's what allows this beautiful roof to disappear so efficiently. Here form follows function, and induces delight.

This muscular two-seater is the perfect car for spring. It's seductive and exciting, self-indulgent and impractical, fresh and evocative—a high-powered augmentation of animal spirits.

The SL500, at $85,000, is a very expensive and wonderful toy. Before cars were everyday necessities for nearly everyone, they were toys for the rich. But don't all the rest of us want to have a touch of the toy in our autos? Cars introduced in the spring and the summer aren't necessarily better than those introduced at other times of year, but they do tend to be more fun. As the weather warms up in much of the United States, drivers are more likely to respond to the romance of the open road—even if most of their driving is on blocked freeways and clogged arterials.

"You want to sit in the car with the sun on your face," says Fred Suckow, the marketing manager for Nissan's forthcoming 350Z, which revives a fondly remembered but recently dormant line of sports cars. "It's not just how the car looks but how the clouds and landscape are reflected on the surface of the car and how you feel you look in the driver's seat." Good-weather months are the best time, he says, for introducing good-time cars.

Typically, models that have become outmoded, bloated, or boring are reinvented and revivified in the spring and summer. (Drivers might hope that the same magic can work on them, too.) Examples include the Volkswagen Beetle in 1998, the Ford Thunderbird last year, and the Mercedes SL and Nissan Z this year. Sometimes, too, whole new concepts are introduced, as happened two springs ago with the Chrysler PT Cruiser—a minivan disguised as a 1930s getaway car. That season also brought us the Pontiac Aztek, a vehicle whose industrial, ugly-and-proud-of-it look failed to excite the youthful clientele for which it was intended. Not every spring car is a winner. But even the Aztek, with its built-in tent and configurable interior, was more than just another boring car.

Perhaps the prototype for all spring introductions was the first Ford V-8, which came off the line in March of 1932. It brought unprecedented power and speed to the American mainstream. And it truly was a great getaway car: the bank robber Clyde Barrow said so in a fan letter to Henry Ford.

But the car that really defines the spring genre is another Ford: the first Mustang, the one that is remembered as the 1964 1/2. In order to get the car maximum attention, Ford tied its introduction to the opening of the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the gimmick worked: the Mustang made the covers of both Time and Newsweek. Its arrival coincided with the graduation from high school of one of the earliest classes of Baby Boomers, and thus with the beginning of the phenomenon that we refer to as "the sixties." It cheered up a population that had been traumatized by President John F. Kennedy's assassination the previous November. More than a car, it was a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.

And yet the Mustang was little more than a gussied-up version of the Falcon, Ford's rather austere compact. During the early 1960s Detroit auto makers produced compact cars to compete with European imports, but most of the small cars were rather dull, for the most part because the companies still preferred to sell larger, more profitable models. The Mustang was a semi-compact that spoke of pleasure, not self-denial. Its styling was simple but sporty. And it proved to be a very profitable car, because the average buyer added about $1,000 worth of options to its $2,368 base price. It broke sales records because it was something new, and because people wanted it.

At the time of the Mustang's debut virtually all American cars were introduced in the autumn—the annual model change. In the 1920s Alfred Sloan, the mastermind of General Motors, pioneered this practice of updating the company's established brands; each of these had its own class association and design characteristics. Some people saw being a Buick or a Dodge driver as a lasting kind of identity, almost like being a Presbyterian or a Baptist. The designs were varied subtly from year to year, with major changes every three years.

The unveiling of the new models became a coast-to-coast event. Dealers would whitewash their windows so that the appearance of the new cars could be kept secret until the appointed day. Magazines offered sneak peeks, often with important details masked, and the entire culture—including children—participated in a ritual of anticipation.

The purpose of the annual model change was not so much to get people excited about the new cars as to make them feel that their current cars looked old. It also accelerated the price depreciation of existing cars, which, curiously, helped to establish nearly universal car use, even among those with low incomes, by generating a supply of inexpensive used vehicles. Sloan was a genius at creating systems. Lee Iacocca, who was the Ford executive responsible for making the Mustang happen, bucked the system by focusing attention on a specific car—one that almost 420,000 customers wanted to buy in the first year.

Remnants of the annual model change persist, but nobody tries nowadays to keep new cars a secret. Prototypes are previewed in magazines and displayed at automobile shows. "Our buyers have known about this car for years," says Doug Worrell, the Mercedes manager who is overseeing the launch of the SL500. Mercedes's last substantial redesign of the SL series was introduced more than a decade ago, Worrell told me recently, and some people have bought essentially the same car twice. Mercedes dealers already have deposits for nearly all the 10,000 cars they expect to ship to the United States this year. But Worrell added quickly that prospective buyers shouldn't be discouraged from looking, because some of the people who put down deposits might not have quite as much money as they once thought they would.

The major automobile shows—in Los Angeles and Detroit in January and in New York in March or April—have become crucial not merely for marketing new cars but also for testing ideas and gathering reactions from car enthusiasts and the press about which concepts should be pursued and how they should be refined for production. The PT Cruiser, for example, was exhibited first as part of a group of fantastic possibilities, then as a prototype, and finally as a production model.

The Nissan 350Z, one of this year's most anticipated cars, has also undergone a well-publicized evolution. It began almost as a guerrilla effort within the Japanese firm's California design offices. People there who believed that the company needed to resurrect the Z car—which in the early 1970s was the first Japanese car to capture American enthusiasm—took it upon themselves to create a concept car. It won enough support within the company to be exhibited at auto shows in 1999. Later the car was deemed stylistically too backward-looking, and last year a completely different design—whose sculpted body seems to flow like molten metal over big wheels—was shown. The production car, very similar to last year's prototype, has been displayed at this year's shows and will be at dealerships this summer, selling for about $26,000.

"The marketing concept of the Z is lust—then love," Fred Suckow says of the long public introduction process. "We want to give people a chance to say 'I want that.'"

This spring's small crop of cars going from the auto shows to the showrooms has nothing that seeks to make the impact of the Mustang, or even of the PT Cruiser. All the models appeal to market niches—or, in the case of the Mercedes, slivers.

One, the new Honda Civic Hybrid sedan, which arrived in showrooms last month, follows the tradition of the Ford V-8 by putting an advanced engine in a mainstream car. Unlike Honda's earlier hybrid gasoline-electric model, the Insight, in which shielded rear wheels and obvious streamlining dramatized an experimental nature, the Civic Hybrid is virtually indistinguishable in design from other cars of its size. Its styling signals that 50-mpg cars may be on their way to being commonplace. The Hybrid will cost about $20,000, and the company expects to sell 2,000 of them a month.

The new Mini Cooper, introduced in America in March, is, like the new Beetle before it, an upscale update of a beloved, affordable car. The original Mini, introduced in Britain in 1959, was the first mass-marketed front-wheel-drive car. It was shockingly small but lithe and lively, an icon of England in the swinging-London era (Paul McCartney had one). It was sold in very small quantities in the United States, during the 1960s, so its retro look conjures up memories in few Americans. The new Mini is manufactured in England by BMW Group, which expects to sell only about 20,000 of the cars in the United States, starting at about $17,000 apiece.

The new Mini is almost two feet longer than the old, and with its leather seats, standard air-conditioning, and six airbags, it is a far cry from its minimalist predecessor. The car is so cute that it's almost smug. With a black or white top that seems to float above the window glass, it looks both novel and jaunty. And though some find the interior fussy in its detailing, the inside of the car's door and other features have a powerful, distinctive engineered look.

Then, this summer, comes that graceful, geometrically pure, up-to-date but perhaps timeless Nissan 350Z.

The weather's getting warmer. Life is short. I want that.