Q. Is the American station wagon dead? I see that some foreign wagons are offered, but there’s no rush by U.S. automakers to build wagons. — D.M. (via Internet)
A. Volkswagen, Subaru, Volvo and Audi are selling station wagons in America, but so is Cadillac, with its CTS “sport wagon” model. Actually, crossover vehicles have largely replaced the traditional station wagon in America, offering roominess and carlike driving characteristics. As an aside, the minivan, which initially replaced most station wagons here but no longer enjoys its past high popularity, is very desirable in China because of its practicality.

Q. Why are so many cars being offered with such high performance? They don’t make much sense with today’s crowded driving conditions. — B.R. (via Internet)

A. Such cars are being sold because they are a lucrative and attention-grabbing segment of the market. Moreover, automakers consider it a matter of prestige to offer fast vehicles in their lineup. Keep in mind, though, that many fast cars no longer have big, gas-guzzling engines. Rather, modern engines have features such as elaborate computer controls, direct fuel injection for lower emissions and better fuel economy and turbochargers, which can make a relatively small engine perform like an old large V-8. Also, automatic transmissions have more speeds, and they contribute to high performance and fuel economy. Fast acceleration can be a good safety feature during some merging and passing situations, even with today’s generally crowded driving conditions. 

Q. What’s so great about the 1950s 356 Porsche Speedster, which looks unconventional for its time and sells for ridiculously high prices at classic car auctions? I saw Paul Newman drive one a lot in a movie. — E. H. (via Internet)

A. You’re obviously not a Porsche fan. The iconic 1954-59 Porsche Speedster won many races partly because it didn’t weigh much and had rugged engines. It was the model of choice for many sports car racers, and was sportier than other 356 “bathtub” (some say “aerodynamic”) models with its cut-down windshield and no-nonsense interior. Its convertible top made it look like a child wearing his father’s hat, but the car really wasn’t meant to be driven with the top up. Actor James Dean owned and raced a Speedster, and Newman drove a Speedster in one of his best-known movies, which gave this model added charisma. The Speedster was sold with various mechanical changes throughout its life. The fastest Speedsters had a dual-overhead-camshaft engine that was too complicated for most Porsche mechanics to work on.  Prices? The Sports Car Market price guide says Speedster values start at $185,000 and go to $650,000. However, you can get a decent replica Speedster with, say, a Volkswagen or Subaru opposed-piston engine for a mere faction of those prices, and most people couldn’t tell it from a real one. Of course, they wouldn’t think a real one was anything special, either.

Q. Everyone I know says the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette was the first American sports car. Is that correct? — F.K. (via Internet) 

A. Initially a spectacular General Motors auto show car, the 1953 Corvette was the first American sports car that most people knew existed because GM gave it fairly heavy promotion.  Actually, it’s argued that the 1951 Nash-Healey, with its American Nash engine and European-sourced aluminum roadster body, was the first American sports car—though it wasn’t totally American. Only 105 were built for 1951, but the car finished fourth overall at the famous Le Mans sports car race in France, against top European competitors. The 1951 Nash-Healey (if you can find one) is valued at $92,500 to $105,000. Much-revised roadster and hardtop versions with a Nash engine and body styled by Italy’s Pininfarina were made from 1952-54 and are valued from $70,000 to $140,000. Some 402 were built, and the car also did well at Le Mans. But it was expensive and cost far more to build than its selling price. Some argue that the tiny 1949-52 race-winning Crosley Hotshot was the first American sports car, but it looked odd and was too small to be taken seriously by most

Q. The last I looked, sales of General Motors vehicles have increased, despite GM’s well-publicized defective ignition-switch recalls. Does this make sense to you? — N. J. (via Internet)

A. Sure. Many figure that GM models with the problem are just old cars past their prime—not the new models. It’s a good idea, though, that folks buying older GM vehicles with the ignition-switch problem verify that it has been corrected by a GM dealer. In fact, some dealers doing the ignition-switch “fix” find it’s an opportunity to sell a new auto to the person bringing in the older GM car for the fix.

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