For the longest time I’ve been a little confused about how I feel about the Nissan Xterra. Perhaps that’s because it seems to be a little confused on its own.
The first generation of Nissan’s small truck based SUV was introduced in 2000 in the midst of Nissan’s darkest period. Suffering through a full on collapse of the Asian economy. Nissan had fallen victim to the same self-delusion of infallibility that many big companies fall into after decades of success. They started believing their own hype and found themselves overwhelmed by debt.
It became so bad, at one point, Nissan’s product line had not been updated in years, sales were floundering, and quite possibly the strangest automotive savior came to rescue the massive company. French giant Renault came in and partnered with Nissan creating a Franco-Nippon global company referred to as the Renault/Nissan Global Alliance.
At first the mere idea that Renault, which had been an example of a company with a run-away union problem, beset on all sides by strikes and governmental semi-ownership, being anyone’s savior was ludicrous. But after the French government intervened in a series of particularly nasty strikes and corporate revolts in the early 1980’s Renault quietly became a very well-run global company that completely ignored the American market.
Renault was able to bring stability and financial backing to the deal and Nissan really did have some of the most advanced manufacturing abilities, supply chain, and design expertise in the business. A man who is now somewhat of a legend in the business world, Carlos Goshen, was put in charge and Nissan became the company it could only have dreamed about only a few years before.
One of the first new products out of the alliance was the Xterra. Based on the same frame chassis as the “Hard Body” Frontier small pickup trucks, the Xterra hit the market in North America winning the Motor Trend Truck of the year and other accolades. The only problem was Nissan didn’t have a penny to spend on extra marketing and never really reached out to create the image of the Xterra.
That image and the reality of the Xterra (now second generation) is where my confusion lies. The Xterra has been successful, if not a run-away success, in carving out sales in the multi-functional, athletic and adventurous consumer market. You see dozens of Xterras full of dogs, festooned with mountain bikes, canoes and windsurfers strapped to the roof racks criss-crossing their way from softball games to trips to the REI camping store. The adventure sports-minded consumer comprises a huge chunk of their business but the anomaly that they are almost all female makes for a “Huh? How the hell?”.
Nissan managed to land an affluent, well educated, young and mobile market organically. It just grew seemingly by itself as the corporate money was more focused on pumping life into the Crossover market, backing the Rogue and Morano wagon-utes in pursuit of the “soccer mom,” and the counter culture market wrapped itself around the Xterra.
Nissan did toss some of their marketing dollars into music festivals and X-Game festivals, but the legitimate off-road capabilities, ease of use on-road and functionality of the Xterra grew its own market.
The 2011 Xtera PRO-4X provided to Any Driven Sunday is a great example of how building something with the right combination of form and function works really well. It is like driving with an excellent automotive backpack slung over your shoulder. It has dozens of really smart, well conceived and well executed little touches that may not be obvious at first blush. There are pockets, little doors and slots throughout the truck to stick and store the multitude of bits of stuff you don’t even realize you have.
This package is the high water mark on options for Nissan including: leather seating, XM, Bluetooth, GPS, Rockford Fosgate sound system with Ipod/MP3 integration, and pretty much every power option short of air conditioned seats. It is also one of the pricier packages you can load up on at $32,000.00, only the NISMO package comes in higher.
Any full frame truck like the Xterra is going to have a slightly more harsh on-road ride than a “lifted car” crossover, but after spending a week popping and bopping around in the Xterra that rougher ride is just part of the appeal. The truck frame and real off-road abilities on the PRO-4X are just downright fun. As a small UTE the Xterra has the ability to go pretty deep off the beaten path, turn around, and get you home again in one piece.
Side note, The Pro-4X package came with roof-mounted off-road only lights. They are too powerful to be street legal on road and are activated by depressing a switch on the dash when the high-beams are engaged. These are so powerful that when I tested them out sitting in front of my house, I am not sure, but I think a squirrel spontaneously combusted in the tree in front of the truck. It’s like seeing daylight, and yes, they are blindingly bright. This is not something to try and flash at oncoming cars on I-35 as they might blind them and cause a wreck. This is why they are redundantly switched the way they are.
Running with a 261hp truck-inspired variation of Nissan’s corporate-wide 370Z inspired 4liter V6, the Xterra is not exactly a fuel sipper but EPA estimates of 15/20 are really spot on to the reality experienced on, and off, the roads of North Texas.
All these capabilities and real world functionality might just explain why I have been so confused by my feelings for the Xterra. It stems from the fact that the little truck can do so many things well that it has the ability to be a bit of a chameleon. Whether it’s a truck, car, backpack or pelican box on wheels. My confusion, I now realize, was more that the truck can be what ever you want it to be.
For most of my life I’ve been familiar with the phrase “His potential is unlimited, if he would only apply himself.” Such was said about me while I was napping in Geography class, staring out the window in Math class and daydreaming in Biology lab. I heard it so much that it became like the sound of the teachers in Charlie Brown “WahWah Wah Wah Wah.”
Now, I’ve found myself using the same phrase over and over when referring to General Motors marveling at how the biggest corporation in the world could continue to build the kind of cars they did and yet, still keep going. I think the same answer applies to both myself, and GM, really. I was never challenged by school, it came easy to me and I never tried. GM, in a position of overwhelming market dominance in the early 1970’s, never felt challenged either. They built what they built and people would buy their products simply because it was a GM vehicle.
For me, it wasn’t really until I got out on my own and had to pay for my own schooling that I decided to focus some real effort. For GM, however, it took a near death experience.
There’s nothing quite like nearly dying that can make you appreciate living.
Long before the bankruptcy, GM was trying to right the ship, but it turned out to be too little, too late. There was too much rot; the company had become overburdened and they simply couldn’t pull it off any longer.
I first realized what they were capable of when the first Cadillac CTS-V showed up at my place, I couldn’t believe it was a GM product. It was too solid, too well designed and too fun. It moved my preconceived notions and expectations for what the General was capable of to an entirely different place.
Then during the tumultuous years around the debate of whether the global economy could survive GM’s death, there were still glimmers of hope. The truck range was great, cars were better than they had ever been and GM began to embrace their global abilities, bringing Pontiac a couple of products developed in Australia. It was such a refreshing change, and I began to relax, but literally the week I was driving the exceptional Pontiac G8 GT, Pontiac got axed. At that point, I saw the potential evaporate before my eyes.
Today there is a great deal of attention being paid to the exceptional, game-changing, and innovative Electric Chevy Volt and how it’s going to effect how we think about driving. That’s all well and good, but I have to tell you: I’m more excited about the 2011 Chevy Cruze sitting outside my window. It’s the car Chevy has been capable of for years and now they have finally built it.
The reason I’m excited: Chevy has finally built a “meat and potatoes” car that is just plain great.
The small sedan market is the sweet spot of the automotive business. This is the market segment where you sell in bulk and sales are measured in hundreds of thousands of units per month. Honda’s Civic, Toyota’s Carolla, Ford’s Focus and Chrysler’s 200/Dodge Avenger, among many others, share this big chunk of the sales pie chart. The competition is rather heated, but in every way the Cruze is up to the challenge.
On first blush the Cruze is a good looking chunk of metal, which is where the bizzaro world of the new GM starts altering my life’s expectations. The design is fresh, clean and efficient with curves and creases sculpting around wheel arches and windows and gives the Cruze what one should expect from a more expensive European car. The somewhat sported-up LTZ version has some aero bits in front, fascia and rear deck lid treatments which, again counter to my experience, look like they belong on the car rather than hot glue-gunned out of day-old marshmallows.
Even the simple act of opening and closing the drivers door makes someone experienced in all-things-automotive mutter to himself, “It’s a Chevy? Really?” But in reality, it is when you sit in the handsome, well laid-out and functional interior that you might begin to develop a slight facial tick as you try to process the idea that GM has been capable of building something this good all along, and yet they gave us the Lumina. Such a realization almost makes you angry.
My trip through bizzaro world continued when I fired up the little sedan’s engine. It’s quiet, boasts 24-36 MPG ratings, and has 138 horsepower coming out of a little 4-cylinder turbo. These are really good numbers, even in this fuel-sipping segment, but it is the fact that GM has built such a stout power plant that’s really worth noting. In the past their “Little 4’s” managed to get nicknames like the “Iron Duke” and the “Quad-4”. The Duke was at one time considered innovative (in 1973) when it came. The Quad-4 was GM’s first real foray into multi-valve, non-pushrod engines and it ended up being a poster child for underpowered, noisy boat anchors like the GrandAm and Olds Achieva.
The Cruze is propelled by a six speed automatic in a front-wheel drive configuration that at one time would have been a tremendously bad idea with old school turbo’s creating lane hopping torque steer issues, but GM has managed to shed so much of its old, bad tendencies that when driving the Cruze, it’s just hard to believe that it’s really a GM product.
The transmission is seamless, but does have just the slightest turbo lag between pedal application and motivation, but the ride and dynamics of the car are as good as any car I have ever driven in this market, and far better than most.
A few weeks ago I was a little harsh on Dodge’s Avenger and in driving the Cruze, I have come to the conclusion I should’ve been harsher. I said at that time that I believed the standard of care in the Economy car market needed to be higher and GM just delivered on that expectation. This is a packed-full-of-options car that only rings out at $24,500.00 with a base price of $17,000.00, which is exactly the price point of the Avenger. There is simply no comparison. GM has almost embarrassingly trumped the Dodge and even equals the Civic sedan. I think you even get more car for the dollar with the Cruze than even the Civic or Carolla which is a statement I never ever thought I type.
Over the years, GM has done more to harm their once-dominant place in the market than any competitor could. They seemed to forget the reason they became such a colossal corporation was they built pretty good cars for much of their history. It was someplace along the way that they seemed to change from a “car company” to a “financial services company” that just happened to build cars as one of their core business units.
After their near death experience GM seems to have clarified their mission like I’ve never seen them do before. They put a real car guy, Bob Lutz, in charge of developing world-class cars and he has done just that. The Chevy Cruze really is the product that Chevy has been able to do all along and I am so happy they are now using the tremendous talents and abilities they have at their disposal.
Now, if I could just do the same.
I can’t fault Toyota for not building a good car. In fact: I can’t fault Toyota for much of anything since doing so would be somewhat hypocritical. I mean, for years folks like me; journalists, and the car buying public have consistently cried for better quality cars from both foreign and domestic manufacturers and Toyota has delivered a car that is as close to perfect as you can make.
The Camry Hybrid ups the anti into perfection with the addition of their innovative hybrid technology, which also bumps the fuel consumption numbers way up. The in-town ratings on the sedan are pretty damn fine at 31 mpg and 36 highway. Hybrids do a great job in stop-and-go traffic and the Camry is no different. It runs the entire electronic draw off of the electrical system as the gas motor seamlessly shuts down.
Toyota’s gas engine in the Camry is so well balanced and designed you have a difficult time hearing it run when you are standing next to the car, but in the full-electric, the Camry is stealthy silent. So much so that I couldn’t help but give into the temptation to sneak up on a valet attendant who then jumped clear out of his red vest when the nose of the mica-blue Toyota suddenly appeared next to him.
The only problem I have with the Camry is that other than the occasional fun from the run silent, run deep electronics, is how the car is just so utterly devoid of the slightest bit of passion. As Toyota honed in closer and closer to surgically sharp quality, they managed to not just rid away the flaws, but also managed to erode any kind of endearing quirk.
Toyota first introduced the Camry back in the mid 1980’s, around the same time I was starting out as an automotive journalist. It was a bold step for a company that didn’t exactly enjoy the same reputation for quality they have now earned. The Camry’s own history and the phenomenal success enjoyed by Toyota in North America really go hand-in-hand. It’s their flag ship in sales and in conquests.
That first, real stand-alone Camry introduced to the North American market around 1986 was a very good car, actually. And at the time, it was cheep, well-built and was very much like an economy 3 series BMW. It was a fun to drive and reliable, small sedan that grew in size, popularity and quality.
The Camry eventually became the best selling car in North America. It’s built here, designed here and has really become the definition of an American Sedan. It’s the “Everyman” actor in the suburban play; the one you don’t notice but is always there, regardless. It shows up, does its job without fanfare or drama and slips silently into the night, barely disturbing the world around it.
I have had issues in the past with Hybrid technology and the tendency to package it into oddly contrived, little cars that are just plain awkward – like Toyota’s Prius. By rolling the Hybrid into the more contemporary size, styling and footprint of the best selling car in the market, I find it far more acceptable. The $33,000.00 (as tested) Camry is very comparable to other non-electric options.
If you had the need to blend into middle America, or into that suburban world where even the neighbor down the street has never noticed you even check your mail box, the Camry is the car you would want. It’s good looking, but not beautiful. It’s roomy, efficient, and simple to operate and as anonymous as kahki pants and a blue polo shirt.
During the last 30 years of the Camry’s run to the top of the sales heap there has been so little drama about the car that last year’s over-hyped pedal entrapment non-event came as such a shock. It seemed the Camry might have a flaw, but in my mind, my first reaction was that the issue was far more likely the “Loose Nut Behind the Wheel.”
The Camry is so lacking in drama, most drivers are more likely to be surprised they actually have to drive for a moment. While driving around north Texas, I found myself forgetting I was driving a couple of times. Inputs are muted and the silent operation of both gas and electric lulls you into a semi-stupor.
Honestly I’m struggling with this article. I have nothing bad to say about this car. Other than its vanilla anonymity, it’s an exceptionally well built car. The reason I’m struggling is that even with the sedan sitting right out side my front door I am having a difficult time being inspired to write about it. I step away from the car and I forget it almost instantly.
It’s funny how things go. I really like Toyota’s truck offerings because they have found the right blend of function and fashion. I loved the FJ Cruiser because it is wonderfully flawed in just the right ways for me. The Camry is the automotive equivalent of wearing a belt and suspenders simultaneously. It’s the choice you make when you only look at a car from a perspective of logic, checking any emotion or any passion at the curb.
There is a lot to like about the Camry, but you never hear “like” songs on the radio. Love is where the passion lies and love songs are the tunes that get under your skin. The Beatles didn’t write “Silly Like Songs” or “Like Like Me Do,” but for me, the right song for this is Meatloaf’s “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.” I want it, I need it, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love it…
I never thought it would happen to me.
You see, I’ve had a lot of companions lately. Strong, athletic Germans have raced through my life. Elegant Brits have danced with my affections. Fiery Italian exotics come for a short passionate visit, only to be replaced by Nordic beauties. Strong, Midwestern wholesome wonders have stayed for a while and dozens of pretty little things from Asia have stopped by.
Sometimes I grow fond of them – rarely they disappoint – but each leaves me with an impression and when they are gone I long to see the next one. Sometimes I miss the really exceptional ones, remembering them fondly long after they are gone. Honestly some never leave much of an impression at all and I have to struggle to think of anything unique. I see so many, sometimes I don’t really get to know them as well as I should.
I am a little jaded, a little spoiled and generally it takes a lot to impress or get under my skin.
That is why I was surprised when this little one snuck up and stole a little bit of my heart.
Everyone has their own triggers. The things that make them go “Oooh!” For me, I have developed a desire for lack of drama; a low-maintenance, easygoing companion who accepts the burdens of my profession. I often have to carry lots of studio and camera gear with me. I love just happening on a country road in the middle of nowhere and turning in regardless of the road’s condition to see where it goes.
On my personal list of things I absolutely require in a partner is acceptance of my four legged friends. I have two large Labrador Retrievers who love to come with me on these trips. They shed, drool and get remarkably dirty when they try, so you really have to be able to handle them too. In my darkest times they are there for me and I would rather spend my limited free time with them than with most people I deal with. So not being able to accommodate them is really a deal breaker.
When Toyota dropped off the 2011 FJ Cruiser I didn’t expect it to hit me so quickly. It looks like a little Tonka Truck and the version left here really looked like someone at Hasbro should get behind it with a GI Joe package.
When they first introduced the FJ my first impression was mixed, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t bigger. Now that I have been living with it for a week I realize I was wrong. Its size is just right for me.
Those who require more of a functional back seat may find the mini-UTE just a little too compact for them, but for me it’s ideal. The size reminds me a lot of the old Ford Bronco II, before it started getting bigger and bigger under the Explorer name. In some ways it is very much like the original couple of generations of Toyota’s 4Runner, equipped with rubberized floor mats and vinyl weave seats. This is about as low maintenance an interior you can find in the market and cleans up with a wet rag. This is definitely a dog approved truck.
The exterior of the FJ is rather unique as well. The wheels are pushed to the far corners leaving next to no overhangs which makes running up and over objects a breeze. It has a high step in for such a little truck but that also means the undercarriage has no dangling bits to obstruct, snag or drag.
One thing you realize when you are driving the FJ is you become aware how many other FJ’s there are out there. Some are totally stock. But I kept running across customized, dedicated off road FJ’s with beefed up suspensions, winches, off-road light packages and stout roof rack configurations. I gotta tell ya’: I like that a lot. It shows acceptance in a very critical market by those who take their off road abilities seriously.
This is a serious little off-road truck capable of grinding down soggy trails or climbing up rocky wash outs. This is something that is very important to me and being a true truck has its compromises, on road it is a little choppy but you can go places you would have to walk to if you were driving a Rav4.
On the highway, the rounded off cube is a little susceptible to gusty wind, you can feel it pushing the truck around and isn’t exactly a speed demon but I love the total functionality packaging, low maintenance interior and legitimate off road abilities.
It is not a huge truck and that is ok with me. In my world, the back seats would be superfluous anyhow, pretty much always folded flat for cargo and dogs. All of the interior surfaces have an industrial grade feel and look which work well with the overall package.
The FJ is one of those vehicles inspired by something from the past. There was a time that Toyota made these Land Cruisers that were blunt tools rather than the leather wrapped tall station wagons parked in the pick up lane at the Montessori school. It was intended just to be a show car or styling display for the auto show circuit as a “Modern” turn on the 1960’s FJ40. The old truck is still on the road all over the developing world renown for its easy maintenance and rugged reliability.
When the public saw the FJ Toyota suddenly realized they had better figure out how to build it
The demand was there from a public looking for a real S and a capital U in an SUV, rather than a mincing pretender crossover. My preference would be to hit the standard 4.0l V6 and manual transmission. I might even gussy it up a touch with an enhanced wheel package, but more likely I would go with the roof rack.
Pricing runs in starting at 25,900.00 and tops out at pretty reasonable mid-thirties. I was kind of chuckling when I realized the low-end of the price point was available in a two-wheel drive variation. I don’t really see buying this one in 2wd. Simply put: It’s just not appropriate.
I’ve been a fan of the 4Runner for a long, long time, but a couple of years ago the footprint of their go-anywhere-truck started to expand. In order to appeal more to those soccer mom’s and pretend SUV purchasers the 4runner gained weight, size and most notably price. The FJ has filled a down market slot that has captured a pretty sizable chunk of customers who might be shopping it and Jeep’s iconic Wrangler.
The Wrangler is a fantastic vehicle, but decades of build issues have tainted it a bit. But this FJ has, for me, a siren song that draws me to it.
I am smitten. If the guys from Toyota are looking for me on Monday to get their truck back, well, um… I will be back, sometime. I just didn’t want to give it up just yet.
There are few car companies – if any – that understand its target market as well as Toyota does. They just don’t miss their mark very often. But when they do, it’s fascinating to watch how they deal with the occasional failure.
When Toyota first entered the full-sized truck market, they indeed missed the mark. The T100 was a very good truck, but it wasn’t a critical or a sales success. It was too small, too tinny, underpowered and underwhelming. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief in Detroit when they saw the T100 was off its target, but not by much.
Those folks in Motown shouldn’t have taken too much ease though. Toyota is a company that has found great success in the Deming methodology of incremental improvement. When they came back with the first Toyota Tundra it was like watching a skilled artillery officer walking his rounds closer to the target.
The first Tundra lobbed in as a 2000 model and landed just shy of the target, again. While not a runaway success, people began to notice how the larger, tougher and more powerful truck was gaining market share and for the first time, the Big Three had some real competition in the full-sized truck market.
Toyota’s legendary quality also began to capture converts, yet the Tundra was still just shy of being an actual full-sized contender. It was a welterweight trying to slug it out with the heavyweights. The Big Three still had the advantage of market share and the most loyal customer base in the world.
At the same time, fellow Asiatic contender Nissan entered the market with the Titan and everyone in Detroit started to look over their shoulders. They knew the next shot fired by Toyota would not miss.
The folks in Detroit responded to the sounds of footsteps by embarking on the biggest reinvestment into their truck lineups in history. Ford, GM and Chrysler stepped up their game like never before and began raising the bar for quality, power and reliability in hopes of maintaining their pieces of the very big, very profitable sales pie.
For its third shot, Toyota put the market on notice that they would not miss. The manufacturer invested millions of dollars to build a brand-spanking new truck factory deep in the heart of the pick-up market: San Antonio, Texas. There they began checking off the boxes on what a full-sized truck needs: They checked the elevation, adjusted for wind and yelled FIRE!
Simply put: Bull’s-eye.
The newest Tundra was introduced with much fanfare, rave reviews and sleepless nights in Detroit where suddenly Toyota and Nissan had legitimate full-sized trucks ready to go toe-to-toe with the big boys.
The Tundra delivered to Any Driven Sunday was one good looking truck: Big, four-door Crew Max 4×4 short bed, black on black with blacked-out grill, and a lifted off-road Rock Warrior package. When I saw it coming around the corner my first reaction was, “Hello, Handsome!”
Lift kit, knobby tires, and modular wheels, just like you might customize a truck after you buy it. Not a bad idea at all. Nissan had sent me a “No Fear” Titan a couple of years ago and I really liked the package they had put together. The Titan’s stance was elevated but the truck still had to be a real truck, and this is.
The interior was dark charcoal cloth and was dripping with optional gear, including a nifty rear cabin window that rolls down, but the thing that I really liked was the placement of Toyota’s back up camera display. I know it’s kind of sad how car manufacturers assume drivers don’t know how to drive and put in safety devices to protect them from themselves, but this one is pretty cool. The rear bumper view is projected in the rearview mirror and is just a smart way to deal with it, really.
You can get into a basic, two-wheel drive, regular cab 6 cylinder for around $24,000.00, and as you ad on bits, the price rolls right up to the $44,000.00+ Rock Warrior CrewMax level. The engine is fantastic and it’s closer to the estimated EPA consumption numbers of 18/24 mpg than most full-sized trucks in the market are.
Part of Toyota’s marketing push into the most American of markets has included getting involved in NASCAR truck racing. The Tundra Racing program, ironically, does not use the same multi-valve V8 as the production truck. The reason for that is how the engine is too modern for NASCAR. In order to compete, the racing division had to retro-engineer a pushrod carbureted engine, something Toyota has never made.
This Tundra is a case study in knowing your market. As Toyota dialed-it-in, the result has just not been a great production truck from them, but their entry into the full-sized truck market has had the residual effect of pushing the other options to be better in response.
This year Nissan is bringing out its first replacement for the Titan, something that has been long delayed, which makes this segment of the truck market something to watch intently.
At this telling, Toyota has not yet moved into the Heavy Duty market, but don’t assume they can’t or won’t. They have a number of Diesel engines at their disposal from the European and Australian Land Cruiser’s and commercial truck lines from subsidiary Hino. As they incrementally move their aim closer and closer to their market sweet-spot, don’t be surprised if they drop one of these in a new Tundra soon
The Tundra is indeed a legitimate contender in the truck market, and it’s an option that I would have to take very seriously if I was looking at a 1/2 ton truck. The only thing is, don’t expect to find a used one for a good price as they maintain their resale value like nothing else in the business.
A few months ago, I started looking at options for a personal vehicle. The Tundra is one I have on my list of vehicles, but at this point I can’t find one that has depreciated to the point I can afford to purchase. I found one that was three years old and the asking price was over 75% of its original price. With almost 100,000 miles on the clock they still were asking that much. I guess that helps prove the point that the Tundra is a desirable option – even used.
Having driven all of the options in this marketplace, Ford, GM, Dodge, Nissan and the Toyota Tundra, any customer would be well served to try it out to see how close to their purchase target Toyota has managed to hit.
As a company Toyota has shown how patient they are and how they deal with missing the target. They didn’t panic, just simply looked at all the data, adjusted their aim and zeroed in closer and closer. The Tundra is a direct hit on full-sized truck market.
A number of years ago my friend, comedian Henry Cho, pointed out there is a tradition in the South, and especially in Texas, if you don’t have something nice to say about someone you just say: “Bless your heart.” It’s a classic, polite-but-biting, passive-aggressive put down.
Your neighbor chops his toe off with his lawnmower: “Bless his heart.” You’ve seen a baby that looks like it may have escaped from either the zoo or a Ringling Brothers Circus, “Bless his heart.” The woman at the office who can’t figure out how to open a link in an email, “Bless her heart.” Dodge rolls out the so-called “new” Avenger? Bless their hearts.
Dodge is in transition. Again. The current Avenger is a mid-life update of the mid-sized four-door sedan that Dodge sells tons of. Unfortunately, such sales figures are thanks mostly to budget-minded rental car companies and not real-life consumers. It was introduced in 2008 as the replacement of the Cloud cars (Stratus and Sebring), just as Dodge was beginning to descend down a very dark road into bankruptcy.
Honestly, Dodge does do a number of things right. They make fantastic full-sized trucks, great full-sized cars, such as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. They also make some fun muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger and, well, let’s face it, they own the minivan.
What Chrysler has never done well is build a good small car. It’s the weak hand in a stacked deck. Look back in the same market space and you’ll see a tremendous trend of sad, tepid little cars like the Plymouth Breeze, or the Dodge Reliant K Car. Even before those, however, the Dart and Plymouth Volaré we’re taking up space in lots. Not even Ricardo Montalban could charm his way out of that dud.
Even their smaller cars have a history of being problematic. The first car that I bought myself, with my own money was a Plymouth Horizon, so I have a great deal of hands-on experience dealing with this story. The current smallest Dodge is the Caliber, which replaced the Neon. I’ve referred to this car as one of the worst cars in the market today, as it’s awkward, underpowered and just plain ugly.
I was driving the Avenger around when I had to do a little soul searching on this. I had to wonder if the issue with the car was me, actually. I’ve spent 25+ years reviewing cars and honestly, most of what I end up reviewing are sports, luxury and some pretty high-end rolling stock. So, there I was, sitting in the driver’s seat of the Avenger thinking: “I have more comfortable lawn furniture!” when I then wondered to myself, “Am I a car snob?”
Is the fact that the car is cheap casting such a bad taste in my mouth? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve driven a lot of other “cheap” cars that are thrifty in a way that seems to have a far more cohesive package.
I also have a fundamental belief that your standard-of-care on an economy model must be higher because the money being invested into the purchase is considerably more of the consumers total worth. If you are buying a $19,000 car, you’re doing so because you really need it. Odds are, you’re buying a car to transport a young family and possibly to get to multiple jobs to keep a roof over your head. Your monthly car note will be the second biggest expense behind your home and every penny has to count.
Further up the food chain of options, where people go out and buy Jaguars, or Land Rovers, the percentage of income-to-vehicle is not nearly as dire. That end of the market has its value, but odds are the customer has never had to take a jar into the “CoinMaster” to make the car payment.
So it’s not really a snobbery thing, after all, I too understand the reality of creating a meal out of offerings from the “Dollar Store,” and pinching a penny ’til Lincoln yells “uncle!” I realized the other day that my wardrobe has come almost exclusively out of Marshall’s and Ross, and the reason I learned auto-mechanics was because of that Plymouth Horizon. For me, it was either: Learn how to fix it myself or start earning more money to pay someone else to do it.
So in a way, I kind of owe part of my career to Chrysler for building such a horrific car back in the 1980’s. And if the Avenger was available then, it would have been one of the best cars in the market, where even into the 1990’s, the bar was higher and this would have been considered a run-away success. As the standard has increased along with the level of competition, I can’t help but say if I were looking for something in this price bracket the Avenger simply would not be the one for me.
Kia, Hyundai and even Ford have far better driving cars in this space, which are head and shoulders above the Avenger.
I spent some time with my friend Tony, who recently purchased an Avenger. In discussing why he made this choice, I understood that it was more of an appliance purchase than it was one of a car enthusiast. His principal automotive need is to get to work, and he looked at the Kia and Hyundai, but the Avenger simply had a bigger back seat for his growing, soccer-playing daughters. The Avenger does have a much bigger back seat than the competition, and as he put it, “I got the biggest car I could get at the price.” He loves his Avenger because it does what he bought it for, but also points out that if the family is going on a trip, they’ll be loading into his wife’s Pacifica.
It’s extraordinarily expensive to bring a new car into the market. From concept to curbside, it takes years and untold millions of dollars. The Avenger’s midlife update is a step in the right direction, at least. It’s better than the Avenger it replaces and in reality, it’s the end of the whimpering line of cars from Detroit.
Chrysler has never really figured out how to build a good small car their new owners, Fiat, specializes in. Not only do they have the experience, designers and desire to excel in this market, they also have that indefinable Italian passion that exudes confidence and flair.
I look forward to what comes out of the new Chrysler as they invest in the replacement for this rental-ready Avenger, as well as its sister car, the Chrysler 200. Sorry, Chrysler: Even with Eminem providing the Detroit-centric theme music for the rebirth of the company, I can’t help but think of another Southernism I once heard an old rancher say: “You can’t polish a turd. Bless your heart.”
If you don’t remember the silly sci-fi movie Demolition Man, from 1993, allow me to refresh your memory: Sylvester Stallone played a cop who was frozen, then unfrozen in a future where the only restaurants are Taco Bells, everyone is polite and non-violent, the cars drive themselves and Sandra Bullock wears one of the greatest leather and spandex police uniforms ever.
During the “future” police chase, Stallone has to overpower his car’s self-drive system and crashes into a fountain where his car’s safety foam protects him from injury. That image, along with one of Bullock’s thigh-high riding boots and bolero-cut motorcycle jacket, kept going through my head while driving Volvo’s S60 AWD mid-sized sport sedan.
The “future” cars from the movie were voice activated and coddled the occupants in supreme safety and comfort. Given those highlights, there are numerous ties between Volvo’s well-earned reputation for safety and innovation and the sweet, futuristic rides of the movie that maybe hasn’t been so easily forgotten, after all. If you were planning on running into a solid object, this is the car to do it in.
Not only does the Volvo have dual front airbags, side-curtain airbags, and seat bolster airbags but also under-dash airbags to protect your legs in case of a crash. Volvo helped pioneer crash crumple zones to absorb impacts and roll over protection; driver stability controls anti-lock brakes and something called BLIPS: Blind Spot Lane Intervention Warning System. This warning mechanism alerts you when there is a car in your blind spot by flashing warnings in the side mirrors.
The S60 is about the size and market space of the BMW 3 Series or Audi A4, and if you still think of Volvo as boxy, stout, bland-mobiles you really have to see what they are like now. Sleek, stylish and attractive from any angle, the S60 is the middleweight fighter of the pack.
Years ago, I worked as a service advisor in a very large Volvo dealership. There wasn’t a month that went by that I didn’t have a client tell me stories of how their Volvo had saved their life during the course of a horrific accident. In each story, the client walked away unscathed and came back into the dealership to purchase another car.
Volvo owners are among the most loyal customers in the business, outside of the domestic pick-up truck market. It’s absolutely possible to find people who are on their fifth or sixth Volvo in a row, but there has been a little bit of tumult at Sweden’s big car business.
Back in the early 1990’s, Volvo ended up in Ford’s premium portfolio, along with Jaguar, Aston Martin and Land Rover. Then, Volvo staggered a little with some serious electronic glitches in the first generation S80. I had a customer who swore his was demon-possessed, even. Moreover, the brand was forcibly repositioned, away from its core market, where their main competition was fellow Nordic brand, Saab, into a sort of head-to-head with Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
Lesson learned for Volvo: If you are going to try to swim upstream, expect to take on a little water.
Volvo became a high-value asset in a sinking ship by the time Ford started shedding car companies left and right. The first out of the blue oval were the Brits, as Aston was sold, followed by Jag and Land Rover to Tata. Volvo’s unique position and geographic isolation from the rest made for one of the odder marriages when they were betrothed to a Chinese company (Geely) for $1.8 Billion. It’s worth noting that Ford had paid north of $6 Billion for the company.
The Chinese have announced a massive investment into the company, clearing the way for Volvo to emerge from Ford’s large shadow. During the Ford years, Volvo suffered from the same fate that has also stifled Mazda in the North American market at the same time as Ford expected Volvo to capture new clients, they were hell-bent to make sure those new clients would not come at the expense of Ford’s own products.
This generation of Volvo’s are transitional, designed under Ford’s ownership, yet built and delivered under Geely. It will be interesting to see how this relationship works, but there’s no doubt the S60 is on par with any European brand.
From some of the most comfortable seating in the automotive business, you will almost immediately get the picture the S60 is built for the long drive. The interior is Audi-like in its lack of drama and supreme functionality.
The word Solid comes to mind as you transition off the interstate onto rougher surfaces with more twists. The all-wheel drive keeps all the bits working in unison and is one of those bring-it-on options for nasty weather conditions.
Everything works well together and this is one sharp looking car. Now, Volvo may not have the market cache of a Mercedes or BMW, but that certainly is the perception of the brand these days.
During the S60’s time with Any Driven Sunday, I did find a lot of people doing double takes to try and decipher what they were seeing. This slick-looking car is no box on wheels, and is even a bit of a segment buster. Coming over the checkered line with a starting price of just a few ticks over $30,000, and an as-tested Turbo 325 hp V6 AWD north of $42,000 the S60 is a relative bargain in the Euro sports sedan market.
Now the “safety foam” and auto-drive systems from Demolition Man might be just a hair beyond where this Volvo is, the S60 is a sexy Swede.
Ah, damn. I managed to not think of Sandra Bullock long enough to talk about this car, so you will have to excuse me while I go update my Netflix account.
The current automotive landscape has way too many vehicles trying too hard to be everything for everyone. And in doing so they compromise on some things, ignore other things, and become identity-challenged bland-mobiles. The Shelby GT500 is none of that, and plenty more.
Words that should never be used to describe this Mustang-based 2011 Shelby GT500:
The Arrest Me-red, two-door arrived at the house on Monday, announcing itself a couple of blocks away with a hearty, lion-esque roar. Complete with white Le Mans stripes, flared fender wells, hyper-aggressive aerodynamics, carbon black wheels and a heavenly short throw shift knob at the pleasure point of a manual Six Speed, the Shel had the road presence of a professional wrestler fully engrossed in his “What are you looking at, Punk?” rant.
It almost had an aura around it.
What is a Shelby? Or more appropriately, who is the man that inspired this poke in the face of mediocrity? Carroll Shelby: A failed East Texas chicken rancher, speed merchant, successful racer, one time fighter pilot instructor, longest surviving double-organ transplant recipient, genuine American icon and the best natural salesman the world may have ever seen. That’s all he is.
After becoming a fighter pilot instructor during World War II, Shelby went home, got married, and started raising chickens on a ranch while racing on weekends. The weekend activities revolved around the now ghostly vapors of old race tracks that used to dot the countryside around north Texas and throughout the South. Many of those legendary old tracks have been swallowed up by suburban sprawl or lawyered out of existence, but in the early 1950’s, the racing world revolved around north Texas.
This was a time of legends, time of men like Hap Sharp and Jim Hall, who’s oil fortunes gave them opportunities to race anything, anywhere. There was also Lloyd Ruby, who is considered one of the greatest American racers ever, and AJ Foyt, a man that could drive, break and fix anything with an engine. It was a time of no seatbelts, leather helmets, and no one talked about NASCAR outside of the South East, and Road Racing was king.
In that past world, the foundation of what would later become a formula for success was laid when Carroll Shelby started racing someone’s car for them. It was a MG that had been outfitted with a small block V8 Ford. It was small, light, nimble and had more motor than most could handle. Carroll drove with such abandon and determination he very rarely lost and eventually earned a chance to drive another light, Anglo-American mutt; a Cadillac-powered Allard. It was this car that made him. His success in races around North America in the CadAllard propelled him to drive “Bird Cage” Maserati’s Ferrari’s, and eventually to win the most prestigious race in the world, The 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving for Aston Martin.
At the same time, as he became one of the most famous drivers in the world and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and pretty much every magazine in America, there was a ticking time-bomb ready to go off. Shelby’s heart was dying. Today, we would probably be able to just take a pill and go on, but in those days, a faulty ticker ended racing careers.
A masterful opportunist, he parlayed his celebrity into Gillette shaving commercials and also joined up with Jim Hall to import European race cars to America via Shelby-Hall Race Cars, located in Dallas. It didn’t last very long as Hall was racing Formula 1 and Endurance racing in Europe, and Shelby wasn’t exactly a man easily given to an office job.
Shelby got hold of a light aluminum British race car called an AC Bristol and found out the company had lost its engine supplier. He managed to convince them to send him rolling chassis of the little race car by telling them Ford was going to supply him engines. Of course, Shelby then had to convince Ford to actually supply the engines to him.
At the time, Lee Iacocca was a rising star at Ford, and as legend has it, the master salesman Iacocca was bulldozed by another like him, and was reported to say, “Someone give this guy an engine before he hurts someone.” The Shelby Cobra was born.
The Cobra formula was a light and nimble British car, big friggin’ engine. It worked (Note: I will explore this later in another article). The Cobra beat all comers and became a legend of its own, spawning the Pete Brock-penned Daytona Coupe Race car, which put Shelby back in the winners circle at Le Mans as a manufacturer, embarrassing the Ford factory team attempting to win the race with their new super car, the GT-40. After the Daytona soundly beat the GT-40 in tests, Ford made a deal with Shelby to take over the GT-40 team. But as a part of the deal to bring him in, the Cobra had to die.
Out of the ashes of the death of the Cobra and the now legendary friendship between Shelby and Iacocca grew the Shelby Mustang GT350, GT500 Program. When the Mustang was introduced in 1964, Iacocca knew he needed a performance package on what was initially an underpowered grocery-getter, but politics at Ford and an industry wide self-imposed ban on direct involvement in auto racing gave Shelby the ability to become the Ford racing proxy.
Original Cobra production was only around 1,000 cars. Six Daytona Coupes, and 20,000 Shelby Mustangs made it to the track and to the road, but a combination of his sponsor Iacocca being fired by Ford, the spike in oil prices, falling sales and that pesky now-faltering heart forced the end of the Shelby Mustang in the early 1970’s.
The Legend of the Shelby Mustang is a fascinating one, indeed. I can not think of any other car that has become a legend unto itself, blending its own history and that of the man who inspired it, along with some fanciful inaccuracies (some coming from Shelby, himself) into a story all its own. It has become a movie character (Gone in 60 Seconds), an object of desire as well as abuse. At any event where Shelby is present, there are usually dozens of children who have been named after him and people who approach him, as well as the car, with a blending of respect and fear.
There has been more ink devoted to this car and man amalgam than any other I can think of, and I have written for many magazines, and I’ve even consulted on a couple of books on both principals.
A few years ago, that faulty ticker was replaced and Shelby is now one of the longest surviving heart transplant recipients. Later in time, he needed a kidney transplant, as well. He has also founded the Carroll Shelby Children’s Charity, which raises money for kids in need of transplants.
These days, his health is said to be not-so-great, but remember that he is well over 85 now and has been married at least 6 times. This man has jammed more life into one than most could possibly imagine.
When Ford and Shelby decided to get the old band back together with the current Shelby GT500 they had a lot to live up to, some of it even fact-based. The decision was made early on that there would be no muddling of this legend, and Ford came out of the box with a loud, brash, thirsty, powerful, no-compromise car of unequaled, swaggering bravado.
It arrives like Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now with a blast of Wagner, and the smell of Napalm in the air. It has a supreme confidence in its stance, letting no one assume it is anything but a serious chunk of car.
The exterior is garish with almost obnoxious sculpted, aerodynamic wings, splitters and curves over big Goodyear racing tires mounted on black powder-coated wheels which give-off a no-nonsense curb appeal. The tail has a high mounted wing, but it’s what is under the other end that counts. The engine. And what an engine it is. A 5.4 liter, four valve V8 lurks under the hood and where most would consider that enough, the Shelby has a SuperCharger to boost an astounding output into the realm of HOLY CRAP! 550 Hp and 510 foot pounds of torque.
All that power results in a snarling beast of aural wonders that make you want to roll the windows down and drive through the Addison Airport Tunnel, over and over again, just to enjoy the roaring sound. The six-speed manual is effortless and really is amazing at dropping all those buckets of power to the ground.
The interior is rather amazing in its own right. Combining “retro” styling that is needed to complete the muscle car redo, combined seamlessly with modern expectations like satellite radio, Sync-integrated GPS, along with every other desirable option in the catalog. One that I personally like is the high-mounted PowerPoint, at the center top of the dashboard, where you can easily plug in a radar detector (yeah, you’re going to want one of those).
This is a far cry from the utilitarian interior one got in the 1960’s Shelbys, but one thing remains – this is not a car for the timid.
On the center console, next to the shifter, there is an understated little button. When pressed, the button turns off the traction control. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T TOUCH THAT BUTTON!
The traction control on the Shelby GT500 overpowers its own tires quite easily, with the happy, little, unassuming button deployed, an average driver is in a whole bunch of trouble where enthusiasm is defeated rather quickly by the reality of kinetics. It is way too powerful for anyone without at least as much high-performance driving training experience as I have.
The old school rear-end on this beastly car gets upset rather easily by bumps inconveniently placed at the apex of corners, and the super-tight suspension makes attempting to drink coffee while driving make you look like an ill-advised, near-sighted epileptic trying to exercise with a shake weight.
During the course of week, the $55,000 Shelby GT500 was gulping high-octane like a kid with a garden hose. While running all over north Texas, I came to a couple of conclusions: It’s a brash handful of a car, not for those who fancy themselves in any way environmentally minded, but in a time when so many cars muddle their way to mediocre, the Shelby is one of the most satisfying, over-the-top ways to consume fossil fuels in a multi-sensual, true muscle car experience there is to be had.
And yes, it is just the sort of thing that should have a name like Shelby.
The ads are fantastic: In slow motion, a Jeep crawls over rocks to the deliberate cadence of a drum beat while the deep, resonating voice-over talks about rebirth, America, pride and the toughness of spirit – both of the people who build it as well as the vehicle itself. When one watches the ads they stir a patriotic, do-anything feeling and classic American definitions of rugged individuality.
This isn’t some advertising executive falsely claiming that the vehicle has abilities it simply doesn’t have; this is simply a very good use of branding for a very, very good off-road truck.
As a matter of fact, the Grand Cherokee Laredo is one of the few SUV’s in the market that is truly a SUV. Most of the vehicles in the market are “sortas,” as in the way it’s sorta a truck and sorta a car, but mostly a station wagon with ground clearance. The Cherokee is not one of those, as it really does everything well. From yeoman people hauling, to the go-anywhere abilities that “sortas” dream of, the Laredo manages to pull it all of well.
Its on-road manners are pretty much flawless, and the interior is beyond excellent. The GPS/Entertainment system looks a bit dated, but sounds great, none the less. Optional leather and high-end interior trim has lost the chunky old-school-Chrysler-parts-bin feel and look. All in all, the truck is a very modern machine worthy of not just a glance, but serious consideration for purchase.
Jeep has always been the special brand in the Chrysler stable, having gained its reputation from its origin with the US Military, and later as the go-to choice of outside-the-box thinkers and doers. Recently, Chrysler has been lurching like an addict from crushing debt, to a return to stability, then stepping into the abyss, crashing, rebuilding again and becoming the first of the big three to slip into bankruptcy.
The doomed marriage to Mercedes Benz, then to private equity company Cerberus left Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge cratered with issues worthy of a trailer park after a tornado went through the community. Now firmly in the hands of Italian car giant Fiat, Chrysler is again fighting its way back from the brink.
Really, Chrysler has had enough drama and intrigue over the last 30 years to qualify as an Eugene O’Neil or Tennessee Williams classic. The characters have been fascinating. From Lee Iaccoca, to Bob Lutz, to the man brought in by Cerberus to lead the place, Robert Nardelli, distinct characters have been in great supply.
Nardelli, a CEO from outside of the auto industry, was intended to be a master-stroke that would shake up the norms and get the floundering company back on track. One problem, however: The ship was already under water, and the new captain was only available for the job because Home Depot had fired him for almost submerging the giant home improvement retailer.
At Home Depot, Naradelli oversaw the explosive growth of big box retailing, opening Home Depots all over the place, yet seemed to forget a couple of things along the way. At the time, he wrote best selling books, was featured on 60 Minutes and Forbes as some kind of business wunderkind. At the same time of such fanfare though, the company had reached a crisis where their growth arc was simply unsustainable, and their employees began quite literally hiding from customers. Naradelli became the poster child for shareholder revolt over arrogant overpaid CEO’s as a result of this equation.
In fact CNBC once referred to him as the “Worst CEO in the history of American business.” It was said that he gained this distinction for managing to suck the entrepreneurial spirit out of Home Depot and its generally welcoming employees.
The Depot had forgotten the main reason for its success: Price and service. Eventually, things got so bad that Naradelli was dumped, as the entire business model had to be shifted back to focusing on customer service, and not rapid, fruitless expansion.
The reason this story is worthy of note is this: Someone at Home Depot forgot the fundamentals of their business model and ultimately, the shareholders, employees and customers paid the price. During Naradelli’s tenure at the Chrysler wheel, not only did the debt load, gathered long before he showed up, swamp the company, but one of the stupidest things to ever happen in the industry occurred at Jeep.
During an austerity program at Jeep, someone decided that the best way to get warranty costs under control would be to cancel the warranties of owners that used their Jeeps as actual, multi-functional Jeeps (crazy, right?). Jeeps which had minor rock scrapes on skid plates, or even after-market wheels installed were finding their coverage for mechanical defects eliminated, where they had been available prior to these changes.
Now think about that; the people most affected by this were the embodiment of Jeep’s commercial, rugged image. They were – if you will – the evangelists spreading the word of Jeep by using the “trucks as trucks.” I’ve even heard of a warranty being canceled for “Severe Use,” due to mud and rocks being found under the truck when it had brought into the Jeep dealership. Well, DUH! It’s a JEEP.
Now, every time I see those great advertisements, touting the steel skid pad as it scrapes across a rock, or touting the off-road toughness of the brand, I have the same thought: “Well there goes your warranty oh, Jeep owner”
Now that Fiat has taken over Chrysler and Naradelli is safely away from the business world again, I’m sure the Italians understand that the last thing they need to do is alienate the people who have already purchased their products.
In many ways I am more comfortable with the place Chrysler and Jeep finds itself in now, that the ship is being steered by the people who have brought us such great, spirited vehicles from Europe. They do “get it” when it comes to the passion a Jeep owner has for his or her Jeep.
The 4×4 variant is really the only way to go because, really, buying a two-wheel drive Jeep is kind of like dancing in scuba flippers – missing the point. Pricing ranges from the low $30’s to mid $40’s for the top-of-the-line, loaded Overland Edition. This is on par with the competition, and our tester was juiced with the 360hp 5.7 Hemi V8, which is, like any Chrysler Hemi, exuberant when it comes to fuel usage.
It’s funny how things tend to go, though. Under the skin of the Jeep flagship vehicle is a variation of Mercedes M class chassis, left over from before they exited the picture. It’s a very stable, sturdy foundation and will bridge the gap far into the future.
The Grand Cherokee Laredo provided to Any Driven Sunday is really one of my personal favorites over the last few months. Well mannered on-road and quite capable off, at the same time I drove the Jeep, I also had the chance to drive a new Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer. These are the three drivers in this market, defining what the mid-sized SUV should be, and how they should work. If I was looking to purchase one for myself, each has the equation solved slightly differently
If my primary driving was going to be on-road only, the Explorer might be the best choice, actually. With more off-roading, it might be the 4Runner, but that’s really splitting hairs at this point. If I wanted one that does both the best, well, the Jeep could definitely be the right choice. It truly is a personal choice and if you are in the market, please make sure you take the time to look at each of these choices.
It has an interesting name, and it’s an interesting place. Tucked just off I-75 and just north of Park on the southbound side, next to a motorcycle shop and a Steak-n-Shake in what was the Alamo Grill location, a soccer-themed English pub-style restaurant has opened its doors. Allen Wickers Public House is here.
The name is inspired by one of the great adventurers of the 20th century who’s name has become part of cockney rhyming slang. Allen Wickers (wickers-knickers-pants) literally takes on the “Traveling Pants” and brings high quality pub-grub, but with a few twists.
Wickers, the man, was one of those writer/adventurer/Renaissance men in the spirit of an Ernest Hemingway or Winston Churchill. You know, someone who wasn’t content to sit and watch others idly, but would simply go-and-do. In fact, Wickers was a “Bentley Boy”; a part of a group of English gents who raced in the first 24 Hours of Le Mans at a time that it was considered fanciful for a car to run, let alone race, for a full day without breaking.
He was cut from the British cloth that defined a generation of men who would sail around the world on a yacht one year, then climb Mount Everest the next. To head out on a safari in Africa, or to explore the length of the Nile for no particular reason but adventure wasnt anything unusual for these types of men. He might have even been one of the inspirations behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond character, as they may or may not have worked together for the Home Office during WWII (it’s hard to get spies resumes right sometimes, you know?).
Wickers’ son, Allen Wickers II, was a broadcaster that joined the British Army at the age of 16 and earned a position as a commissioned officer in the Film Corps where he followed and documented the savage battles in Italy during that tumultuous period of time. Wickers II later became a correspondent for BBC, traveling the world with his program “Wickers World,” which would often be the subject of parody by Benny Hill and Monty Python.
Opening a pub with a moniker like Allen Wickers could only be fitting for English themes, and of course, Soccer is the dominant sports theme when discussing anything UK-related. The FC Dallas fan cub has taken root in the pub, as have dozens of local soccer enthusiasts to watch road games and enjoy some scratch-made everyman grub.
“When someone recognizes the name they really get what we are about here,” Manager and Partner Evan Rupp says. “I really wanted to do a place that was not just another sports bar, but had some unique things. Really, we were lucky, because the folks who did the (now defunct) Alamo spent a lot of money on the facilities, so when we got this space, we were able to concentrate our efforts on making it unique.”
General Manager Robert Lenore brought his degree in Restaurant Management from Texas Tech and his years of management experience from Brinker and Red Robin to the team. “For years I have been wanting to do something like this,” says Lenore of the new and promising project.
When I say “Everyman Gastro-Pub”, I mean that the food is scratch-made-fresh, yet the presentation tends to be slightly lacking with baskets and plates acting as the main serving dishes. “I’m OK with that,” explains Lenore. “There are other places that spend the effort on final, artsy presentation and spend money on fancy plates; their food may look great, but I know ours tastes great and that’s more important to me.”
The British Pub-standard Fish-n-Chips is made with hand-cut Cod, battered with a light crispy tempura and doesn’t feel greasy like some places tend to serve.
“Because of how good this location was, when we were lucky to get it, we came out of the box pretty quickly. Overall, it was around 60 days from lease-to-open and that’s pretty short, but we seem to have earned some regulars already. It really is a neighborhood place where you can feel at ease and you don’t have to yell over music or deal with a lot of pretense.”
Lenore continues, “We also have open ears. The thing that really separates us from chain places or corporate diners is that we are always listening and interacting with our customers. If they want a specific beer or something, the decision-makers to do that are sitting right here. It gives our customers direct access to the guys who are making it happen.”
Those years in Food Service prepared Lenore for the ups and downs of opening a new location, but for Rupp it was a different story. “I had worked a lot of retail and grew up in a construction family,” recalls Rupp. “Not having a great deal of restaurant experience, the biggest thing I had to learn was that opening didn’t mean you would get customers right away.”
“I will admit to having some second thoughts, I mean this is really my inheritance here,” admits Rupp. Rupp’s father had successfully built multiple construction companies specializing in concrete, paving and infrastructure, but his own aspirations always included getting into this kind of business.
A couple of years ago, opening a soccer-themed sports bar anywhere in North Texas would have been considered a tremendous risk, but the success of FC Dallas, along with changes in the demographics of Plano, have made this type of venture’s success a real possibility. “We’re aimed at a soccer crowd, as far as sports go, but really, if the Cowboys or Rangers are on, we’ll put the TV’s on what the crowd in the place wants,” says Lenore. Lenore’s own Red Raiders might just get preferential treatment as well.
Currently there are over 16 beers on tap, and a wide selection of bottled and canned options are also available. “As we go, we find out what works. If someone wants something special on our list, we are more than happy to give it a try,” Rupp says. “It’s all about making what our customers want, actually happen.”
“We have had a lot of success with any of the Fuller’s; the IPA and others like that, we sell a lot of. For a while we had great success with the Kronenbourg, but they’re on strike now and we can’t get it. We do different things, so it’s not just the imports that we move a lot of. We have a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) tap for no other reason than it’s cheap,” Lenore says. “We’ll tinker with things and make changes, but really our biggest challenge is to get people in the door the first time. After that, they come back because we try to treat them right.”
Included in the facility is a separate event room for up to 50 called the Boot Room, and plans are in place to put a patio in the back to host live-music and to offer outdoor seating.
One item I tried on the menu of particular note is the Meatloaf Sandwich. That choice was so substantial, that when I picked it up, the “heft” alone made me stop and look at what I was doing. A thick, hand-made meatloaf slab was topped with mashed potatoes,-onions and mushrooms in a satisfying way. It’s the kind of stick-to-your-ribs kind of food – simply prepared and presented – that will satisfy your hunger and stay with you for a while (in a good way!).
As for the long term, the guys are thinking about opening multiple locations, but are sticking to the knitting of making their Allen Wickers Public House the kind of neighborhood spot that’s worth leaving your neighborhood to find.
Allen Wickers Public House
2301 N. Central Expressway Suite 195