By Marc Lachapelle
If you listen to Jane Marx, tour guide extraordinaire – and you always listen to Jane – no one should own or drive a car in New York. The thing is Jane is a native New-Yorker and passionate about her city: “You either love it here and there’s no place else you want to live, or you hate it and the rest of the world looks great”.
In Jane’s world, to move about in NY, you simply walk, take the subway or catch one of the thousands of yellow cabs. Hybrids are at their best in city driving, where they make the best use of their electric power. So you might end up riding in one of about a hundred Toyota Prius or the more numerous Ford Escape Hybrids, but chances are you’ll be flagging one of the thousands of St-Thomas, Ontario-built and relatively indestructible Ford Crown Victorias.
But if you really want to ritz it, you will be using the classy transport of the moment in Manhattan, a black Mercedes-Benz S Class limo. Not even the extended-wheelbase model. And soon, you’ll be able to slide into one of the gas-electric powered S 400 BlueHybrid, complete with lithium-ion batteries, How chic.
And if your pockets are deeper than a Norwegian fjord, don’t dawdle and hitch a ride in a Rolls-Royce Phantom or even a Maybach to arrive in style.
That said – native wisdom notwithstanding – you love New York but are nonetheless passionate about cars and you want to drive your own. So, what to do?
Well if you want to drive in Skyscraper Kingdom, no matter what, you need something truly vertical, something outrageously horizontal, a car specifically designed for clean and frugal city driving or then a tiny, zippy, dent-proof machine.
This last one’s easy: one day you might be able to ride one of the two-wheel runabouts developed by GM and Segway, but until then, you can get a Smart Fortwo. Surprisingly roomy and comfortable for its 2.7 metres (106 in) in overall length, the Smart has interchangeable and virtually indestructible plastic body panels and a 1.0-litre, 70-hp three cylinder engine.
If this sweetie has not yet caught on in New York the way it has in Paris, Rome or Berlin, it’s probably because it is not crowded and difficult enough to park there yet for someone who wants to hop around and shop around unfettered.
The Smart will soon have a rival in the Scion iQ, from Toyota’s hip division. A concept version was unveiled at the New York show, complete with ‘3+1’ seating, nine airbags (!) and power from a 1.3-litre, 93-hp four-cylinder wit variable valve timing.
To go vertical, you will need one of the latest box-shaped, tall-roof compacts that are coming to us after being the rage with young buyers in Japan for years. The most notorious is the well-named Nissan cube (lower case intentional), with asymmetric styling and a concentric-ripple headliner or the Kia Soul, a talented newcomer with features such as door-mounted speakers with music-sensitive orangey ‘mood’ lighting.
If ultimate efficiency and urban virtues are your credos, you will join the hybrid-driving clan. It’s a banner year for ‘gasoline-electrics’, with the launch of a more powerful, third iteration of the Toyota Prius, the seminal hybrid. The young granddaddy of all hybrids has solid competition in the new Honda Insight.
Moving about in these quiet, rational and roomy hatchback sedans makes great sense in New York, but there is so much more to this city.
To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it’s all a matter of timing. New York might be the city that never sleeps, but its streets are not always mobbed and crowded like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It’s even quiet and pleasant at times, with traffic flowing easily along wide avenues.
But you can also go Verdi, Wagner and Zappa all at once by driving a Ferrari 430 Scuderia – red of course – through Central Park, on 42nd Street and right by Rockefeller Center at 5 am as the 510-hp V8’s soul-ripping wail is reverberated by rows of skyscrapers. You’ll feel like Claude Lelouch shooting ‘Rendez-vous II’.
Second scenario: pick a Lamborghini Murciélago, matte black. Feel like Batman in Gotham City by driving it full-throttle on Park Avenue at night.
Fiction you say? Don’t think so. I heard something quite similar from my hotel room on the 7th floor while I was in town for the auto show.
Now that’s living and driving in New York.