Cars that time made cool

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Some vehicles, like people, take a while to grow into their looks

The Lexus SC 430. Photo / Supplied
The Lexus SC 430. Photo / Supplied

There's a game I play with a car-minded mate and I'm sure he won't mind if I share it with you.

You have to be sitting at a busy intersection, in a place that's likely to host a large contingent of interesting vehicles. For us it's usually the Ponsonby Belgian Beer Cafe, because they have high stools and large windows.

Rush hour is good, or any time of a weekend. We sit at a window with giant glasses of beer and make fun of people's cars. That's the basic game.

But the advanced version is spotting a car that was desperately uncool when it was new, but has benefitted from the passage of time to become completely awesome and desirable as a (presumably cheap) used car.

I like to call our game "Cars That Time Made Cool".

Feel free to join in. So now, I submit a list of vehicles that have grabbed my attention recently.

Of course, on a different day you'd get a completely different lineup from me. That's part of the fun. And so, in no particular order ...

SUBARU TRIBECA (2006-07)
About once every five years, Subaru loses the plot and tries a bold new styling direction. The first-generation Tribeca's bizarre tri-grille was apparently inspired by the world of aviation. That was one problem.

Another was that its 3.0-litre boxer-six and five-speed automatic gearbox were devoid of life in such a heavy car. Yet another was that Tribeca arrived here nearly two years after its American launch, meaning it was all but obsolete by then.

The new version fixed all that, but became generic in the process. Contrarily, every time I see a first-generation Tribeca I give it a big thumbs-up. You can't mistake it for anything else and there's an underdog appeal about the thing.

Found one for: $31,000 (2006, 32,000km)

LEXUS SC 430 (2001-10)
Well, we're always accusing the Japanese of copying the Germans, but here's what happens when Lexus decides to make a luxury coupe/convertible and be completely original: you get an Anime cartoon character.

The SC 430 was smooth and quiet, but it also looked awkward from any angle and devoid of dynamic character. However, as it ages and Lexus returns to emulating the Germans with cars like the latest GS sedan, the SC 430 is less offensive and more characterful. An homage to a brief time when Toyota thought the world would love a uniquely Japanese luxury convertible. It didn't. Although I do like it now. It had a cassette player, you know.

Found one for: $48,000 (2004, 20,000km)

SMART FORFOUR (2004-06)
You'll know about the high-tech, avant garde Smart ForTwo, totally original urban transport that's still in production. The ForFour was an attempt to take Smart into the mainstream with a family hatchback, but there was a problem: it might have had the ForTwo's exoskeletal style and kooky dashboard, but underneath it was a Mitsubishi Colt (the two were produced side-by-side at the NedCar factory in the Netherlands) and everybody knew it. That, combined with Smart's financial woes and rapid restructure in 2006, meant ForFour production lasted only two years.

I've come to rather like the ForFour's plastic body panels, the airy cabin and the way it earnestly pretends to be something it's not.

Also, it's a rarity. There was even a hot-hatch Brabus version sold in New Zealand, although it had a Mitsubishi engine too ...

Found one for: $10,000 (2004, 80,000km)

SSANGYONG KORANDO (1996-2006)
SsangYong fact number one: the Korando monicker is a mash-up that's supposed to suggest "Korea can do". SsangYong fact number two: what Korea did to create the first-generation Korando in 1983 was simply build an old Jeep under license.

When it came to generation two, SsangYong desperately wanted to go its own way, but was a bit short of ideas on how to achieve that.

So it ended up with something that looked like a Jeep Wrangler that had gone a bit wrong. A lot wrong.

It was/is good for towing, but also slow, noisy and just generally dreadful to drive.

I remember attending the local media launch for the five-cylinder diesel model (it used an old Mercedes-Benz powerplant) with a colleague.

The then-importer asked what my driving partner thought of this brand new vehicle: "I think it's the worst car I've ever driven," was the reply.

Now that that the SsangYong Korando has come of age in 2012 by becoming something completely different - a stylish, modern soft-roader with upmarket pretensions, I can think of nothing finer than chugging up Ponsonby Rd in one of these gloriously ugly, unapologetically slow, idiosyncratically wonderful things. It even came as a convertible!

Found one for: $13,990 (2005, 78,000km)

FORD ESCORT MARK VI (1995-2000)
This was a sad end to the Escort name after 30 years: homely looking, bland and nothing special to drive.

It was hardly missed in Europe, because it was eventually replaced by the game-changing Focus, although in New Zealand we had a to wait a while for that. We got the Laser, instead.

A decade down the track, those homely looks seem pleasantly retro and though any Escort is now a rare sight, I do smile when I see that iconic name.

It would be nice to have an example of the last model ever made, awesome if it happened to be a Ghia. It would also be a good opportunity to buy the best bumper sticker I have ever seen: "I'm out with an Escort tonight."

- NZ Herald

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