Q. Is there really nothing new under the sun with cars? – E.H., Hollywood, Calif.

A. Yes, and no. For instance, the 1936 Studebaker introduced a “hill holder” that prevented the car from rolling back when pointed up a hill with the clutch depressed. Such a feature is offered by current automakers. Also, while steering-wheel radio controls are now fairly common, the 1942 Studebaker offered a  radio remote control that let the driver change stations from a steering column lever. That model  even had a rear-seat radio remote control that consisted of a foot-activated button on the floor. No modern cars have that feature – yet.

Q. Is there a good future in America for the new, cute little Fiat 500? I hear it’s sort of a retro version of the much-loved Fiat Cinquecento, sold in Europe from 1957 to 1975. Retro versions of the former British Mini Cooper—now made by BMW—have done well in America. – K.G., New York City

A. Fiats haven’t been sold here for decades and had a bad reliability reputation. But times change, and Fiat-controlled Chrysler now oversees Fiat U.S. sales. More than 4 million Cinquecentos (500 in Italian) have been built. The 500 will start here at $15,995 and go to $19,995, with the most popular model expected to be the mid-range $17,995 Sport. The 500’s estimated highway rating is 38 mpg. The U.S. version has a softer ride than the European model and, while a manual transmission is offered, it can be had with an automatic to make it more salable in America. (Automatics are a luxury in Europe.) While no fireball, the fairly roomy 500 is said to be fun to drive. 

Q. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but which electric car is doing better—the new Chevrolet Volt or new Nissan Leaf? – J.K.,Los Angeles

A. It’s early in the electric car game, but so far the Volt is far outselling the Leaf. 

Q. President Obama once had a goal of putting 1 million plug-in electric cars on roads by 2015. Is that  realistic? — E.M., Santa Fe, N.M.

A. It’s highly doubtful that the auto industry could make that many electric cars by then. And also highly unlikely that a million consumers would be willing to buy that many electric cars because of their high costs and the limited range of most.  

Q. New vehicle sales were up nearly 20 percent in January. With higher fuel prices in recent months, did light truck sales take a beating? — J.S., Miami

A. Nnew vehicles sales in January actually were led by light trucks, which include pickups, minivans and sport-utility and crossover vehicles. Even Toyota is benefiting from surging truck demand. Trucks have higher prices and profit margins than most other vehicles sold. But manufacturers are ready with small fuel-efficient cars if gas prices really shoot up.

Q. I hear that classic/collectible cars have become so valuable they no longer can be found stored and neglected in barns—so-called “barn find” autos. In short, there has been so much publicity of the good money some old cars bring, it’s unlikely owners would keep them neglected in storage. Is that correct? – J.H., Evanston, Ill.

A. That’s largely, but not entirely, correct. For instance, an original (not modified or otherwise screwed-up) 1964 Shelby Cobra sports car was bought in the early 1970s by a California man who kept it in a shed near his house for 30 years until 2004, when bought by another Californian. It was used for a year in the 1960s as a demonstrator by legendary racer/car builder Carroll Shelby--creator of now-very-costly Shelby Mustangs and Cobra sports cars of the 1960s. The “barn find” 1964 Cobra is valued at $500,000 to $600,000.

Q. Porsche was criticized by owners of its sports cars when it brought out the Cayenne  SUV—and again, more recently, when it introduced its Panamera sedan. The Porsche sports car crowd felt the automaker should strictly build sports cars, as was the case for most of its history. How are the Cayenne and Panamera doing? — D.H., Chicago

A. The Cayenne was a big success, and again was the top-selling Porsche model in January this year. The relatively new Panamera sedan was the second best-selling model that month, followed, respectively, by the iconic 911 and Boxster/Cayman sports cars. More-practical cars always outsell sports cars, and the Cayenne and Panamera carry the magical Porsche name. 

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