Nothing compares to U


The car I can get excited about at the New York International Auto Show is not the 1,000-horsepower, 16-cylinder Cadillac Sixteen (which GM honcho Bob Lutz laughably described as "a progressive statement"), but the much more modest Ford U, a Model T for Ford’s 100th birthday.

The Model U will probably never be built, but some of its ideas will go into production. Ford has experimented with burning hydrogen in an internal-combustion engine, and just such an engine is in the U, coupled to an electrically operated transmission and motor to make it a hybrid. Burning hydrogen or operating on the electric motor alone, it can achieve the equivalent of 40 miles per gallon and a 300-mile range, with near-zero emissions.

The U’s body panels are soy-based, the tires are made of corn and the engine oil is derived from sunflower seeds. The whole car is either recyclable or biodegradable. Henry Ford himself would have loved the Model U, since soy body panels were a pet project of his.

Another important development is the 2004 version of the Toyota Prius, with a new streamlined liftback body and a new higher-performance drivetrain. The result is a 15-percent gain in fuel economy (with mileage in the mid-50s) and faster acceleration to 60 miles per hour (in the mid-10-second range). It also offers 30 percent lower emissions than the earlier Prius (2000-2003), with certification as a super-ultra-low-emission vehicle (SULEV). It boasts similar high-tech drive-by-wire technology to the General Motors HyWire.

There have been some teething problems with Ford’s new 40-mpg hybrid version of the Escape SUV, but that too should be available in 2004.

Despite these hopeful signs, the theme of the New York Show appeared to be "Muscle Cars are Back!" As if Car and Driver or Road and Track would ever let them go away. If the Cadillac Sixteen is too much for you, there’s always the 590-horsepower Ford 427. Taking over Iraq may temporarily give us enough oil to keep that one filled up, but petroleum geologist Colin Campbell notes that the world is now using more than three times the amount of oil it finds in a year.

"The era of cheap, abundant supplies … is rapidly coming to an end," he says.

Rocket power

Acura is a fast-moving company, and its new TSX, introduced in April, is already ahead of the competition. Slotted in between the RSX sports coupe and the TL sedan, the company hopes to sell 15,000 a year.

I loved the $27,000 TSX, which comes in only one loaded model. It’s everything a family car can be: a comfortable, versatile people carrier that nonetheless performs and handles extremely well. It offers a high level of safety, with front and side air bags, as well as side curtain bags. Vehicle stability and traction control are also standard.

My test car came with the six-speed manual, and a five-speed automatic is also available. Just about everything you could possibly want, including a 360-watt stereo, leather and dual-zone automatic climate control, is standard. The DVD-based navigation system is a rare option, and I could do without it.

As it happens, I tested the TSX back to back with the new Mazda6, and found them extremely similar. The Mazda6 is pitched to a more budget-conscious consumer, with a smaller four-cylinder engine (the six is part of the "S" trim) and not quite so many standard features. Still, it’s quite an attractive package beginning at $18,530.