15 November 2007

Mercury Introduces Upscale Trim Level, Names It So It Sounds Vaguely Like A Russian Mail Order Bride

Or at the very least, a guide association based in Vermont.

I mean seriously, VOGA? That's what they came up with? Why is it that the most stupid ideas are the ones that consistently get chosen or are successful (relatively speaking) in life? Case in point- the other day I'm watching an informercial advertising some sort of weight loss belt that apparently vibrates in order to disintegrate fat cells. Yes, you read that right. And the scary thing is, I'm sure the thing has buyers for it.

What does this have to do with VOGA? I have no idea.

Source: Detroit News

24 Is The New 28

From the New York Times:

But S.U.V.’s and pickups are fast losing popularity in the face of $3-a-gallon gasoline, while the car market, dominated by foreign manufacturers, is growing.

Mr. Lutz sees hope in the fact that the company seems to have stabilized at just under 24 percent, versus the 28 percent that executives vowed to attain when he first arrived, even donning lapel pins with the number.

“Twenty-four is the new 28,” Mr. Lutz declared, given the company’s decision to pull back on rental car sales and huge incentives, as well as the intense industry competition.

How many minutes after Bob says something ludicrous do you think it takes for his brain to realize that his mouth said it?

My guess is 6. And a half.

14 November 2007

Lipstick On Pigs

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

The 2008 Buick lineup is slowly hitting the streets. You might recognize it. You'll be driving along minding your own business when all of a sudden a giant maw will appear in your rear view mirror. You'll pause for a second and suspect that your rear view mirror may have a convex surface, thus accentuating the features of the former relatively svelte Buick facepiece. But you'd be wrong.

Yes folks. Buick has found the perfect way to reinforce the sales and buzz of the Enclave- giant black hole grilles.

What's sad is that GM CAN actually do a refresh nicely:

9 November 2007

Ford Decides to Hold Onto Volvo

It's pretty well known that as part of Ford's continuing review of its brand portfolio (coupled with a relatively urgent need for cash to fund its turnaround efforts), it had considered selling Volvo.

Yesterday, as part of the release of Ford's better-than-expected third quarter financial results, CEO Alan Mulally announced that for the time being, Ford is not going to sell Volvo. Instead, Ford intends to improve Volvo's cost structure and brand positioning. The objective for Volvo in the near term is for it to operate more independently, yet achieve greater efficiency by cooperating with the global Ford organization in purchasing and product development.

Both Volvo and Ford are in difficult positions. Aside from its aforementioned struggles, Ford has depended on Volvo-developed platforms for several of its large cars and crossovers, and an extraction of Volvo from Ford might be difficult while there is so much component sharing. Volvo is struggling with its perception in the marketplace as safe family cars with a touch of luxury, but also of a brand that is a step or so behind the big-name luxury brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. Also, the fall in value of the US dollar, coupled with the appreciation of the Swedish Kronor, has made Volvos (all of which are produced in Sweden currently) difficult to price competitively in the US. Volvo's options are to reduce the cost structure (possibly at the expense of any premium image), raise prices (possibly at the expense of sales volume), or hold the line on prices (possibly at the expense of profitability). Speaking of profitability, although Ford does not break out Volvo's results individually, but the company did say that Volvo posted an undisclosed loss in the third quarter of 2007. According to Automotive News, sources close to the company have said that it was in excess of $100 million.

Ford said that just because it decided not to sell Volvo in the short term, it doesn't mean that Volvo might not eventually be sold. Down the road, the focus on improving efficiencies in product development and purchasing might make Volvo's financials look better for a potential buyer, and encouraging Volvo to otherwise operate more independently might make it a more attractive purchase for another buyer.

6 November 2007

2008 Chevy Cobalt 1LT Review

Last week, I was the unfortunate victim of a hit-and-run accident on my way home from work. The perpetrator crossed the double yellow lines in a relatively narrow residential street, skidded along the side of my Honda Accord, and caused $2,643 in damage, not to mention the temporary loss of my vehicle for several weeks, and the permanent loss of its status as never having paint work done on it.

The day after the accident, I drove the car to an excellent body shop about 75 miles from my home (unfortunately, they've had to ply their excellent handiwork on my wife's vehicle about four years ago). This time, however, my loaner car was a brand new 2008 Chevy Cobalt LT sedan instead of a four year old Cavalier, as my wife received in 2004. I'd sat in a few Cobalts over the years, but never actually driven one, so I was looking forward to checking it out. I wasn't looking forward to "trading down" for a few weeks, but such is life.

The Cobalt is not an ugly car. I find it more attractive than, say, a Toyota Corolla, but less attractive than a Honda Civic or Mazda3. Although the Cobalt took the Cavalier's spot in the Chevrolet lineup, it is a completely different vehicle, sharing almost no parts. Looking at it, though, you wouldn't know it. The Cobalt sedan has a very uninspiring style to my eyes. In contrast with the Cobalt coupe - especially in the now-discontinued SS Supercharged trim - the sedan is not the looker of the family. Visually, everything seemed to be properly aligned except for the trunklid - the first time I closed it, it actually bounced back up. The second attempt did latch it, but the gap on the right side is much larger than the gap on the left side. This misalignment may have made it difficult for the latch to do its job.

Opening the door felt like everything was appropriately attached. The seats in the LT model that I have are cloth covered and reasonably comfortable; the cloth felt a little cheap (although I'm used to leather), but the seats have adjustable lumbar support, reclining, and one other knob whose function I haven't identified yet. Once seated, the interior is reasonably appealing, until you begin to touch things. The gauges are surrounded by faux chrome trim, the inner door releases are plastic chrome, and the upper dash in my navy blue sedan is a charcoal gray, while the lower part of the dash is a lighter shade of gray - actually, this is the same color combination inside my Accord. However, the entire dashboard - top, middle, and bottom - is hard plastic with a very artificial-feeling, rough texture. It's also hollow knocking on it yields an echo. The radio, shared with many other GM vehicles, has a CD player with MP3 capability, an auxiliary jack for an iPod or MP3 player, and XM Satellite Radio. (Enterprise hadn't activated the car's XM, but the kind folks at XM were able to temporarily transfer my subscription to the Cobalt for the duration of my time with the car for free). The radio is relatively easy to figure out, and seems to be only a few speakers, a subwoofer, and sufficient wattage away from being a decent one. The rubberized, large volume/power knob was nice to use, although it has a thin plastic, hollow sound, unlike a similar knob in my (admittedly more expensive) Accord.

Interior space is actually very good, at least in the driver's seat, even though I'm 6'4" and 190 pounds. My head is about three inches from the ceiling, which is about the best I can hope for from anything smaller than a Dodge Sprinter, and my knees do not touch the lower dashboard. I find the Cobalt, at least this particular one, to be an interesting vehicle because of the contrasts/conflicts apparent within it. Some parts of the car scream "cheap!" to me, while other parts of the car impart a premium feel. I've already mentioned some of the "cheap" parts; others include the 100% plastic parking brake pull, door panels, a lack of cruise control (though it's available on the Cobalt as a $248 option), a windshield without the blue tinted area at the top, really flimsy sun visors (though they're no worse than our $35,000 Nissan Pathfinder's), no temperature gauge, and no anti-lock brakes (available as a $360 option). The more premium features include the standard XM radio, power windows, mirrors, and locks, remote keyless entry, a woven headliner, a DIC (digital instrument cluster), and automatic headlamps.

As I slid the four speed automatic into reverse to back out of my garage, the car was rolling, but was not engaged in a gear. I looked down to find that what I thought was the detent for reverse was really just extra friction between park and reverse. It's not a very smoothly-acting gearshift, even for an automatic. Once underway, the powertrain (my rental has the 148 horsepower 2.2 liter Ecotec four cylinder and four speed automatic) sounds and feels fine during leisurely driving, but if conditions call for a quick merge onto a crowded expressway, the transmission quickly drops a few gears, the Ecotec screams, and eventually you get to highway speed. Without the benefit of a fifth wheel, the seat of my pants (which is, admittedly, likely to be inaccurate) says that it feels like about 9.5 or 10 seconds from 0 to 60.

Braking feels fine; the car is equipped with front disc and rear drum brakes. Drum brakes are often found on less-expensive cars, but they can be more susceptible to fade with heavy use, but they were certainly adequate for how I'd use the car. The Cobalt was the first vehicle I'd ever driven with electric power steering; the criticisms I'd read of this system are warranted. It lacks feedback and feels unnatural, particularly at low speeds. Still, I do appreciate that its reason for existence is to conserve fuel. The Cobalt handled road imperfections nicely; I didn't push its handling (I'm still a little shell shocked after the hit-and-run, after all), but I don't particularly feel unsafe driving it.

The most surprising thing to me about the Cobalt is that, until GM's cost reductions in the past year or two, they actually lost money on every Cobalt they sold, in spite of the obvious decontenting. Yet, when I think about the 1990 Pontiac Grand Ams that I used to browse at the dealership with window stickers very close to the Cobalt's ($15,955 including destination for a 1LT like this one with no options except for the automatic transmission), with very similar equipment levels, but lacking any airbags, much less dual front and head curtain side airbags - and lacking amenities such as XM radio, automatic headlights, and a digital instrument cluster, the Cobalt seems to be a solid value.

Still, if I were shopping for a compact car, I'd be sure to drive the newer competition before signing on the dotted line for a Cobalt. I really think that GM has proven in the past two years that it can do much better, and I look forward to driving the next Cobalt.

30 October 2007

Snap Judgement Tuesday

Now that it has been redone, the Ford Taurus is the best looking full sized car on the market.

Bonus content- want to waste some time? Click here and join.

26 October 2007

Honda Accord Diesel and New Hybrid Coming for 2009 Model Year

At the Tokyo Auto Show, Honda confirmed that the 2009 US Accord will have an optional 2.2 liter diesel engine. Boost levels, and therefore output, have not yet been finalized, but it's expected to make at least 150 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque, while likely eclipsing the fuel economy of both the old V6 Accord Hybrid and the current Toyota Camry Hybrid.

This will be an impressive engine for several reasons. Other than the respectable power and torque for a four cylinder and expected strong fuel efficiency (likely well over 40 miles per gallon in the real world), the engine will mark the debut of Honda's Clean Diesel technology in the US. The engine will be 50 state-legal (unlike many 2007 model year diesels), and unique to Honda, the engine will not require a urea injection as Mercedes and larger VW diesels to remove harmful NOx from the exhaust (Mercedes calls their diesels BlueTec, and the urea injection liquid, which must be periodically refilled at the dealer, is called AdBlue). Instead, Honda's solution is a NOx converter that - without adding any chemicals - produces its own ammonia through a chemical reaction that reacts with the NOx to produce harmless nitrogen and water.

Honda is also planning to begin sales of its new dedicated hybrid model, likely to compete directly with the popular Toyota Prius. The new Honda hybrid (which still does not have a name) will be a five passenger vehicle. This vehicle may be followed later by a smaller, sportier hybrid model similar to the Honda CR-Z concept (shown to the left) previously shown by Honda.

The best news about these new engines and vehicles is that Honda has directly addressed one of the biggest criticisms of hybrid and diesel vehicles: that is, diesels and hybrids typically save fuel, but the added complexity and components makes the vehicles too expensive to have any kind of economic benefit. Instead, Honda expects that the breakeven point (where fuel savings have equaled the additional price premium for a diesel or hybrid) will be two years for these new models. An earlier rumor on the Accord Diesel's pricing was that it would slot somewhere in the middle of the lineup, so it certainly seems plausible. If Honda keeps the pricing in that sweet spot, 2009 Accord Diesel sales should take off.

24 October 2007

Autoblog Wants To Marry General Motors

John Neff at Autoblog reported on comments made by Honda chief executive Takeo Fukui about the concept Chevy Volt in a post today. Seems that Honda doesn't think there is much of a future in technology like the Volt, and is letting it be known. A few months ago, Toyota more or less said the same thing. Whether they're right or not isn't the point of MY post however. This is:

What bothers us about Toyota and Honda going after General Motors and its plans for the Chevy Volt is simply the fact that they're bothering to address the Volt at all. Stop worrying about what the other guy's doing and get to work on your own plan for saving the Earth from the evil of the internal combustion engine. We get it, you both aren't down with doing a plug-in series hybrid like the Volt. Then what are you going to do and where is it? Rather than claiming consumers aren't going to respond well to a hybrid that has to be plugged in everyday (yeah, who wants to get their fuel from the outlet in their garage rather than driving down the street for it?), quit yer yappin' and show us a better solution!
Umm, John? See those 15,000 or so copies of the Prius being sold every month? Or the Highlander hybrid? Or the Camry hybrid? Or the GS400h? Or the LS600h? Or the RX350h? What about the Civic and Accord hybrids? What about the Honda hydrogen concept cars that are actually being driven on roads? The stupidity of asking what Honda and Toyota are going to do regarding fuel consumption looms large over this article, considering the fact that both companies are world leaders in fuel economy and technology related to increasing it. Meanwhile, GM is only now rolling out the Two Mode hybrid system, and for years has bastardized the hybrid badge by using BAS crap. One good idea that has not come close to fruition does not make GM a leader in any sense of the word.

23 October 2007


For the first time this fall, the weather was cool enough today that the exhaust fumes of most cars on the road were visible. Waiting in traffic, I noticed something very odd with the Mazda 6 in front of me- only one of the exhaust tips was blowing out water vapour. What's up with that? Curious, I then started keeping an eye out for it- a Mazdaspeed 6 did not have this happening... a Saturn Aura did not have this happening... a Ford Fusion V6 did have this happening. I even made it a point to check out the twin pipes on the Altima I drive, a 4 banger, and saw that both pipes had visible vapour.

So what's up with that? Are some vehicles with dual pipes actually just doing it more for show than anything else? If there's no visible vapour, does that mean that the one pipe doesn't have exhaust fumes going through it?

Inquiring minds want to know.

22 October 2007


Picture and the following quote courtesy of Tundra Solutions-

Some of you on here may see me as a Toyota Zealist but even with my loyalty towards Toyota I'll throw a BS flag at them as fast as anyone else, so here it is. Well its pretty obvious that the tailgates on these new tundras have some issues. There have been multiple threads of folks loading 4 wheelers, golf carts and damaging their tailgates in the process. I was following a thread on a tailgate failure on TT and it was about a guy who tried to load his atv in the back of his Tundra and the tailgate bent and buckled in the process. So I went out to look at mine since I have loaded mine quite a few times without a problem and noticed that my tailgate is gonna do the same thing his did. The shell is 2 thin azz pieces with a chinsy seam that appears to be bonded with something I cant even say that its welded cuz it doesn't look like a weld. Anyway heres a few pics and the link to this guys post where his failed to support the weight of his wheeler the first time he attempted to load it This is gonna be a mess up here in AK, cuz thats how most people transport their wheelers. This same wheeler has been loaded in the bed of 2 of my Tacomas and a T-100 with no problem over the last 10 years and now Toyotas biggest truck ever has a tailgate that wont support what a 1996 Tacoma, 1999 Tacoma , and a 97 T-100 could. This is gonna be a fun one, thankfully I dont have to load the quad again until May so I have some time to figure this out. I dont know if the spring loaded easy drop feature for suburban moms is the reason for this lightweight chinsy tailgate but its not gonna fly for those of us who actually use their truck as a truck.

Heres the pics of another tundra owners tailgate that is what mine will eventually look like. This was the first time he ever loaded his quad.
It gets better from there as a whole bunch of other Tundra owners proceed to run out of their dens to go and check on their trucks, and discover that the very same thing is happening to them.

Quite obviously, Toyota did not design the tailgate properly on the Tundra. Not only that- they hyped how light and easy to close it was when they launched the Tundra- seems like it's that way because it's made of tinfoil. On the heels of the camshaft failures and the transmission problems they've experienced, I am only left to ponder one question- what's for lunch tomorrow?

Snap Judgement Monday

The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu is the blandest and most boring new vehicle I have ever set my eyes on.

The Surreal Life

Flicking through the channels tonight, and happen upon a show on Speed called 'Car Crazy'.

The host? None other than Barry Meguiar, whose name I'm sure you've seen on various car polish products. This is Barry Meguiar:

Old Barry here is the quintessential old guy. A little befuddled, and generally upbeat about cars. Not a bad host. Think kindly old grandfather and you wouldn't be too far from the truth. Car Crazy had Barry at the Dub Car Show during the particular episode I was watching.

This is Dub Magazine:

Dub Magazine likes 24 inch slammed Escalades, big sound systems, and ass. Lots of ass if the above cover is any indication. So it would only stand to reason that Car Crazy would send Barry Meguiar out to the event so he could reminisce fondly with all attending about the Model T he used to drive as a teenager.

But it gets better.

This is who Barry Meguiar gets to interview:

Atlanta's own Lil' Scrappy. Or as he put it, 'Money In The Bank'. Lil' Scrappy used his airtime to tell us about his upcoming album and to shout out half of his boys back home watching on TV. During all this, Barry nodded enthusiastically, almost lost his dentures several times, and kept emitting a low grunt like chuckle at infrequent intervals

Basically, I'm pretty sure I'd watch anything with Barry Meguiar in it at this point. I hope they send him to SEMA next.

11 October 2007

The Race To Idiotic Conclusions

Source: Sympatico/MSN Autos

Extrapolating that tuning success to fuel economy seems like a logical progression. But don't go all-in with this bet. Looking back 15 years reveals that the fuel mileage evolution has stagnated, even regressed to Neanderthal standards in some cases.

Congratulations to the author of this article on some of the most trite bullshit I've read in quite a while.

To sum up:

  • Base level economy cars with no frills and a complete absence of safety features from 1992 had great fuel economy.
  • Base level economy cars of today that have frills and safety features not even found in luxury cars back in 1992 have great fuel economy, but not as good as back in 1992.
  • A Lamborghini or a Bentley uses a lot of gas... a Yaris, Civic and Mini Cooper do not... OMG LOL !!!!111ONE!!!!
What has caused me to make a post about this? Essentially the title and the gist of the article. Yes, they mention that government regulations on safety equipment have been the primary reason for weight gain in cars for the last 15 years, but they bury it in one of the last paragraphs of the article after lambasting vehicles like the Civic for getting too heavy- it's sensationalism and bullshit smear tactics at their worst.

Note to the author- you can't have your cake and eat it too- want all the safety features and solidity of a modern day Civic? Then it's going to weigh more. If that's not your thing, enjoy your 3 cylinder death on wheels Geo Metro, and stop your nonsensical drivel.

9 October 2007

How Does The Consumer Decide If Something Is Quality?

An excerpt of a recent discussion I had...

...the notion of 'nice' or 'quality' has come from the upper tier of vehicles, and not necessarily a marketing department- BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac, Lincoln and more recently Lexus. They're the ones who set the bar for perception of quality, and they're the ones who the 'lesser' models emulate when they gussy up their appearance for the mass market. Why else are vehicles being slathered in fake (and sometimes real) wood? Why else are vehicles being adorned with fake and real chrome touches on every touch point? Why else are car magazines and buyers harping about soft touch dashes? It's because all these little things used to be the exclusive domain of the luxury segment. So in a world where 260+ horsepower FWD family sedans have become the norm, how else do you make your car stand out? You ape some of the exclusive touches of the luxury market. You appropriate features that were once the domain of 100k+ cars. That's the easiest way isn't it? It costs a lot of money to engineer a car to perform and act like a midrange Mercedes- but it costs relatively nothing to add a few computer chips and electronic gadgets bought in bulk, or some plastic wood....
And this:

...it's sometimes very easy for the average consumer to feel a difference in materials- and having been trained by the luxury/sport models of the past as to what is expensive and what is cheap, if the materials don't feel like their perception of quality/expensive, they'll label it as such.

The Malibu appears to be a perfect example of quality dichotomy in my opinion- the DESIGN is wonderful, minus a few touches here and there. It's swoopy, it's stylish, it looks ergonomically friendly. However, in pictures (and the pre-pro I sat it), the materials don't look or feel 'right'. Is it cheaper than an Accord? I have no idea. Does it feel cheaper than an Accord to me? Definitely. Conversely, I think Audi has some very ugly interior designs- but when you sit in them, everything just feels right, and they feel expensive (whether they are or not I don't know).

Where it will end when it comes to feature/quality creep? I don't know. I think the auto industry is in a very strange period right now. In the 50's and 60's, style and power held sway over the market as far as 'luxury' and 'prestige' were concerned. Economy cars didn't look like luxury cars, and they certainly didn't have the power of luxury cars, and therefore there was a tangible line in the sand between markets- it's how Cadillac and Lincoln made their names right? Somewhere along the line, cheaper cars started becoming more stylish and powerful, and the line in the sand between markets became quality and comfort in addition to style and power- whether it was a tank of a Mercedes, or a well engineered BMW. But now, with improvements in manufacturing, computer aided design, and electronics and computers becoming commodities, the real world difference in quality and feature set between let's say a Lexus and a Chevrolet isn't that big. It's there, but for the average buyer, it's not noticeable.

So the question is, how will companies justify premiums for vehicles in the future? By and large all vehicles are safe, all vehicles are pretty good quality, all vehicles have more than enough power for day to day tasks, and it's getting to the point where the electronics exclusivity of the luxury market has been lost...

OnStar Announces Stolen Vehicle Cutoff Device

In a move that can be construed as either very comforting or very disturbing, depending on one's perspective, GM and OnStar announced today that they will offer a new technology called Stolen Vehicle Slowdown in 1.7 million 2009 model year vehicles.

The system, which is included in the one-year OnStar subscription that customers receive when buying an eligible 2009 model year vehicle, is activated when a customer reports a stolen vehicle to law enforcement. The subscriber then can call OnStar and request Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance. As long as the subscriber has not opted out of Stolen Vehicle Location Assistance, OnStar will locate the vehicle using GPS technology and provide its information to law enforcement.

Once police officers have seen the stolen vehicle, they can ask OnStar to slow the vehicle remotely. OnStar can then send a remote signal to the vehicle to reduce engine power, gradually slowing the vehicle, and preventing a dangerous high speed police chase.

On one hand, since most stolen vehicles are not recovered intact - if at all - it's nice to know that your car will make itself much easier for police to find. It's also reassuring that a pretty foolproof way to prevent police chases - at least of GM vehicles - has been developed. Generally, those hurt most by police chases are innocent bystanders, the police officers doing the chase, or the owner of the stolen vehicle - because they rarely end without significant damage to the stolen vehicle.

However, I have a few problems with this, some of them fundamental to the way GM markets its OnStar service. More and more GM models are featuring OnStar as standard equipment - either across the entire model range, or standard on upper trim levels. For instance, it's impossible to buy a new 2008 Corvette without OnStar. Some people have a big problem giving a third party the theoretical ability to track their vehicle's location and speed and don't want the service. These individuals have three choices: buy a different vehicle, probably from one of GM's competitors; go through the effort of disabling OnStar and removing the hardware (this is not easy to do, and will probably become even more difficult for 2009 model year vehicles, otherwise thieves will just disable OnStar); or buying the vehicle anyway and just living with the idea of OnStar having the ability to know where you are and how fast you're going.

GM isn't making OnStar standard in more and more vehicles out of the goodness of its corporate heart; rather, it's almost entirely financial (with a small intangible advertising benefit). You see, for every vehicle that GM sells with OnStar, even if it's "standard," they increase the vehicle's price by a few hundred dollars. Not only does this raise average transaction prices for GM, but also makes it easier to convert some of those first year "free" OnStar subscribers to annual paying customers.

GM's obsession with OnStar and its recurring revenue streams often cause the company to make shortsighted decisions to "protect" OnStar. One example of this is the lack of factory available Bluetooth interoperability in the all-new 2008 Cadillac CTS. GM figured that allowing owners to use the car's electronics to connect to their cell phone could jeopardize the OnStar hands-free calling feature, so it wasn't planned for the US launch of the vehicle, while European CTS models - where OnStar is not available - did get Bluetooth. A customer and critical uproar over this decision led GM to backtrack and offer Bluetooth as a dealer-installed accessory instead.

Another example of GM's OnStar myopia is the lack of availability in several of its midsize sedans. None of the vehicles on the Epsilon platform - the Pontiac G6 (released for the 2005 model year), Saturn Aura (released for the 2007 model year), or Chevrolet Malibu (released for the 2008 model year) have satellite navigation available as even an option. Instead, GM is happy to point customers to its OnStar Turn-by-Turn navigation service, which - for additional charges on top of the basic OnStar subscription - will show monochrome arrows on the radio display and verbally give the driver instructions. For those who have grown used to a color LCD map display in your vehicle, it's not the same thing.

I hope for GM's sake that the new OnStar feature has plenty of safeguards built in to ensure that only vehicles legitimately reported stolen by their owners are disabled/stopped, and that it's not misued or abused by anyone. The bottom line is, in my opinion, OnStar is a nice feature for those who want it, and this new feature is a nice addition to its capabilities. However, I don't believe that OnStar should be standard in any vehicle, even in those at higher trim levels like Corvettes or Cadillacs.

5 October 2007

Maybach Hasn't Played Out As Expected

The recently renamed Daimler AG's ultra-expensive, ultra-luxurious division, Maybach, was launched with great fanfare in 2002 as a competitor to Rolls-Royce and Bentley. In the late 1990s, DaimlerChrysler decided to resurrect the prewar Maybach name for its new corporate flagships, the 57 and 62 (which refers to the length of the automobiles in decimeters).

Well, fast forward a few years, and the brand's cars have NOT been selling well in the US. The company sold 146 cars in 2006, 152 cars in 2005, 244 cars in 2004, 166 cars in 2003. So far in 2007, it has sold 80 cars through August 31, so that means that in the car's entire existence in the US, it has sold only 788 cars. It makes me feel even more "fortunate" to occasionally spot the one near where I work (I work near a wealthy area, but don't live in one), since I've been seeing it since 2003 or 2004. Contrasting these actual sales results were DaimlerChrysler's sales projections of 600 units per year. The dealer body was established based on the projection of 600 units annually, but Ernst Lieb, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA said that 29 of the original 70 US dealers have given up their franchises. Daimler has negotiated compensation packages with the dealers, which - in at least one case - are about 25 cents on the dollar. That means that each dealer will get back about $125,000 of the approximate $500,000 upfront cost to set up a franchise.

So, what went wrong with the Maybach? They're certainly comfortable, with every imaginable luxury, including some unimaginable ones like an intercom system to allow vehicle occupants to speak with people outside of the car and rear seats in the 62 that can recline completely flat. The cars are powerful, with engines producing at least 550 horsepower. Well, my guess is that although people in the know can tell what a Maybach is, the cars have the misfortune of looking like unattractive Chinese knockoffs of Mercedes S-class sedans. When the Maybach made its debut, it looked more unique relative to the S-class, but with the introduction of the current W221 S-class sedan, it adopted some of the Maybach 57's more attractive styling features and is overall a much nicer looking automobile, and can be purchased for less than half the price of a Maybach.

Meanwhile, the guy who bought a Rolls-Royce Phantom (and there were 336 sold in 2006 and 382 sold in 2005 in the US - more than double the Maybach's sales), for better or worse, never sees himself, or a facsimile of himself, anywhere else in the automotive world.

Frankly, I'm surprised that Mercedes-Benz has bothered to keep pushing the Maybach line. Extremely low sales volumes probably don't make the car a profitable venture, and the fact that they continue to soldier on with the Maybach brand probably is some combination of German arrogance (the Volkswagen Phaeton is an excellent case study of that trait) and a lack of understanding of sunk costs ("we can't abandon Maybach after all of the money we've spent on it.")

Regardless of the reason, if I had more money than I knew what to do with, I would not be spending it on a Maybach. I'd probably go for a $186,000 S65 AMG (with basically the same engine that the Maybach has, wrapped in a more attractive body shell and what is still a really nice interior, and perhaps a Ferrari F430 - or even a $75,000 Corvette Z06 - as a sporty second car with the savings.

If I were Dieter Zetsche, I'd drop Maybach as a standalone brand, reach financial settlements with my remaining dealers, and introduce an ultra-luxurious derivative of the S-class and CL-class Mercedes-Benz cars called "Maybach" that captured the essence of the brand (high performance, ultimate luxury, and owner customization) without the need to support an extra brand.

2 October 2007

Ethanol Boom Slowing Down

Ethanol has often been in the news for the past year or two as a much-hyped alternative to gasoline for fueling our motor vehicle fleet. Ethanol's supporters point out that E85 fuel (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) reduces US dependence on imported petroleum, burns more cleanly, and can actually increase vehicle performance. Opponents of ethanol point out that production - which comes mostly from corn in the US - takes food from the global food supply, requires almost as much energy to produce as the finished product provides, and reduces fuel economy. Also, only a small percentage of the service stations in the US have E85 pumps, making it difficult to find in most regions even for folks interested in using the fuel in their flex fuel-capable vehicle. For more information on the E85 experience in daily life, refer to The E85 Road Test, published here in June 2007.

Along with a big marketing push from GM and the US government in support of E85, in many parts of the country, ethanol was blended with gasoline to create E10 (10% ethanol/90% gasoline) as a clean air alternative to the old gasoline/MTBE blend that was found to contaminate ground water and outlawed in the past year. Excitement and hype about corn-based ethanol compelled US farmers to plant more acres of corn for the 2007 growing season than at any time since World War II. And, why wouldn't they? Corn prices are through the roof, and it can be a very profitable crop at current prices.

Until yesterday, when the Wall Street Journal wrote about falling ethanol prices, I had no idea that ethanol prices had dropped so much. They are down over 30% over the past few weeks alone. While availability of the fuel continues to be a problem, the low price certainly makes it an even more compelling alternative to gasoline. Heck, as long as ethanol was, say, less than $2 per gallon, and regular gas is over $2.50, it's almost cheaper to use than gasoline (considering the approximate 25% fuel economy penalty that ethanol has compared to gasoline). According to the article, the price of ethanol has dropped to about $1.50 per gallon, from over $2.50 per gallon a year ago.

I'd certainly use it, and the energy security (i.e. no imported oil) aspects of E85 make it even more appealing. For the equation to calculate the breakeven price of using E85, refer to the link above for the E85 Road Test article.

My guess is this is just a supply and demand imbalance. When ethanol was added to most gasoline instead of MTBE, plus all the hype and hoopla over E85 from GM and others, everyone wanted a piece of the action. Now that things are coming back down to earth, all the farmers who planted record amounts of corn, and all the refineries who went online in an attempt to capture the boom, have created more supply than there is demand for, at least in the current environment.

If you drive a flex fuel-capable vehicle, and you're interested in saving money on your fuel bill, you might want to check out http://www.e85refueling.com/ to see if there is an E85 station near you. Happy motoring!

1 October 2007

Someone Needs To Take Dodge Out To The Woodshed (MF Drives The Dodge Avenger)

My personal opinion on reviewing cars and judging their worthiness has always been that one has to view things in relative terms. For example, the interior trim in my Nissan Altima is quite nice for a midsize mainstream sedan, but would be very much out of place in a luxury vehicle- but because it IS a midsize mainstream sedan, it gets top marks. And for an opposite example, the interior in a Cadillac STS is amazing for an entry level luxury car, but not so much for a top of the range luxury car. Stuff like that.

So it's been interesting (to me at least) to gauge my own reactions to recent Chrysler products. Take for example the Dodge Nitro, the Jeep Patriot and the Jeep Compass (no really, take them)- they all have more or less the exact same interior, but to me, the only interior of the threesome that matches the intent of the vehicle is the Jeep Patriot- because the Rubbermaid hard plastic stuff screams utility to me- and the Patriot seems better suited to that than the overstyled overcompensating Nitro and the girly Compass.

A more relevant comparison for the purposes of this review would be the Chrysler Sebring vs. the Dodge Avenger. Basically the same car. Basically following the same old crappy marketing efforts that I thought had been eradicated from Detroit many moons ago. The Sebring? More feminine 'classy' styling, and a more 'upscale' interior. The Avenger? More butch 'aggressive' styling, and a, umm, less 'upscale' interior. It's actually somewhat amusing to see Chrysler pigeon-holing their buyers like this, but I digress.

What I'm actually trying to say is- the Dodge Avenger is less of an affront to the car buying public than the Chrysler Sebring, but not by much.

Where to begin? Well, first, the model I drove was a rental car special- a 4 cylinder equipped automatic SXT with the bare minimum in terms of interior goodies. No U-Connect, no chilled/heated beverage holders, no navi, no MyGig entertainment system, no steering wheel controls. On the outside, I was bedazzled by some of the most brilliantly orange peeled red paint I've ever seen, paired with a set of nice alloy wheels. Of particular hideous note- the designers at Chrysler must have a vendetta against C-pillars, if the C-pillar of the Sebring and the Avenger are any indication. Otherwise, I actually LIKE the exterior shape- yes, it's a mix of Caliber and Charger, but at least it's distinctive in a field which includes the Toyota Camry, Chevy Malibu and Honda Accord.

Inside, we arrive at the issue I hinted at in my Compass/Patriot/Nitro example earlier- materials that are obviously sub-standard in the Sebring become less sub-standard in the Avenger. Don't get me wrong, they still suck, but at least they fit in more with the image of the vehicle. Yes, it's all hard plastic. Yes, it gets uncomfortable at times when your knee rests against the center console or your elbow sits too long on the elbow rest. However, panel gaps are pretty tight, and there wasn't a squeak or a rattle anywhere. So it looks like Fisher-Price, but at least it was built by adults. Seat comfort is non-existent due to flat spongy surfaces. The stereo sounds like crap. The transmission lever is ringed by some of the fakest plastic chrome you'll ever see. But for some reason, it's not as offensive as you might think.

And the drive? Well, it's a mix of good and bad. First the good- the 2.4 liter four banger is, believe it or not- VERY smooth. It's actually a willing partner all the way up to the redline, and it sounds great. The transmission would be better served with another cog, but otherwise, it performs smoothly, although it is hesitant to shift down when more power is needed. And that's about it for the good. The rest is horrific. Spongy brakes? Check. Floaty suspension reminiscent of my dad's old 1985 Buick LeSabre coupe? Check. Incredibly overboosted steering? Yup, you got it. The best thing I can say about the drive is that it's not as bad as a base Buick Allure/LaCrosse. And if that's not damning this vehicle with the faintest praise imaginable, I don't know what is.

In the end, the place where I got my Avenger is also the place where it is best suited- the rental agency. On its own, one can make some arguments that it is a feasible vehicle. If you compare it to ANYTHING other than the Chrysler Sebring, it falls flat. Yes, it has a silky smooth I4, but apart from that, it is severely outgunned by everything in the segment. Even a Kia. I am absolutely floored that the designers at Chrysler and Dodge thought that THESE vehicles would be the ones to compete with the market leaders. Their OWN vehicles from last generation are in many ways better than these rolling piles of crap- seriously- stick this engine in a last gen Sebring, and I'd probably like the resulting vehicle more than these messes. The very fact that these have made it into the hands of the buying public is a testament to just how messed up the American automobile industry (particularly Chrysler) is.

The only way I could recommend this vehicle to someone is if they got it for about 6-7k off of list price. Which with the way Chrysler is going, may be in the cards somewhat soon.

29 September 2007

And We Hurtle Towards An Obvious Conclusion To This Mess


But a $2 billion (Canadian) class-action lawsuit launched yesterday alleges collusion between the Canadian and American head offices of some automakers to allegedly inflate the prices of cars in Canada while inhibiting cross-border shopping.
Hallelujah! The Canadian consumer isn't as stupid as they look!

So Honda- why is it that the built in Canada has that price discrepancy? Hey Toyota- fess up about the RX. GM- what about all those Oshawa cars?And I didn't forget about you Ford- what's up with the Edge and MKX?

Inquiring minds REALLY want to hear what the auto manufacturers have to say about this.

Jaguar Pulls A Prince


The Jaguar name will be dropped from the marque's cars in a few years, says design chief Ian Callum.
Let us now run down the multitude of idiocies that are in the process of being carried out at Jaguar, and by extension Ford.

  • An ongoing onslaught of shitty cars that can't compete in their respective segments either because they're just outright horrible, or even worse for a Jaguar, boring.
  • An 'all new' design direction that looks like it has cribbed various elements from Lexus, Infiniti and BMW.
  • Floundering public perception and a complete lack of direction.
  • Being sold to a 3rd rate 3rd world manufacturer named Tata (admittedly not the fault of Jaguar)
  • And our latest 3 Stooges move- removing the Jaguar name from the vehicle.
Now the question I'm sure some are asking is- why is it a dumb move?

Well, first of all, you have to understand the place of Jaguar in the current marketplace. It HAS no place. It's a lost child. A wandering soul with no home. It prices cars above the established big dogs in the luxury segment based on past performance and recognition that no longer registers with buyers. It designs cars to look like Mini Me Aston Martins (not bad for any other maker, but it's a JAGUAR damn it). Basically, Jaguar is up Shit River without a paddle. Or a functioning toilet. And now, their brilliant move is to erase their name off of vehicles that are supposed to give them a new place in the market- vehicles that are supposed to remove the stale taste of crap they've been offering over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, no one will know what just passed them now.

Kudos Jaguar.

Get Your Excessive Speeding In Before Midnight Tonight


The new street-racing law goes into effect tomorrow, and OPP Sgt. Cam Woolley predicts "shock and awe" over the tough new provincial legislation.

If a driver is caught going 50 kilometres over the speed limit, police will impound the vehicle for seven days, issue a minimum $2,000 fine and suspend the driver's licence for seven days.


I think I especially like that this law not only presumes guilt without a court case (something you are entitled to under the law- even for a speeding ticket), but that it also is static in terms of the 'amount of the the limit'. Meaning, if you're doing 100 in a 50, you probably need to be given a smack upside the head- but if you're doing 150 in a 100, maybe a big ticket is a better and more fit punishment.

My favorite part of the article is this-

"If a motorist is coming off the 400-series highway at 100 kilometres an hour and hits an 80 zone and then goes through a small town with a 50 zone, they will be 50 over the limit and will get their car impounded," Woolley said.
I like that the OPP is essentially giving a heads up that otherwise innocent drivers can have their cars seized because of idiotic speed changes- which aren't all that uncommon especially on minor highways outside of the Toronto region.

Chalk another one up for the Black Helicopters gang.

25 September 2007

GM Signs $800 million Export Deal With China

GM announced today that it has signed an agreement with Shanghai General Motors, one of its joint venture partners, to sell at least $800 million worth of sport utility vehicles and related parts and accessories in China under its successful Buick brand there. Of course, the only sport utility vehicle that Buick builds in the US is the new Enclave Crossover, and the deal calls for GM to export up to 25,000 Enclaves over four years, beginning in 2008. Also, the Enclave is arguably the only US-based Buick that does not already have a superior counterpart sold in China (the LaCrosse in China is a much more upscale, modern vehicle than the US version, and the Park Avenue in China is more luxurious, powerful, and modern-looking - not to mention rear wheel drive instead of front wheel drive than the US Lucerne.)

This deal comes on the heels of a deal that GM signed in May to export more than $700 million worth of Cadillacs from the US to China, bringing the total dollar value of GM's US exports to China to over $1.5 billion.

Moves like this aren't going to reduce the enormous trade deficit that the US has with China in any significant way, but it's nice to see some "Made in America" products being sent to China, rather than the usual direction. Now, my only complaint is that China literally gets the "best of the best" in terms of the global Buick offerings. They have better cars than the US Buick lineup has, and now will also receive the US market's superior crossover.

There has been some speculation that the timing of the announcement was intended to "throw a bone" to GM's striking UAW workforce, showing that the company is doing what it can to find work for their assembly plants - and job security for their workers. Whatever the timing or motivation behind it, it's nice to see GM talking more about sending vehicles to China rather than sourcing them from there, as Chrysler LLC has confirmed and Ford is rumored to be considering with its upcoming Fiesta.

21 September 2007

It's Starting To Hit The Fan

Almost a month ago, I wrote an article commenting on the growing disparity between Canadian and American car pricing as the Canadian dollar continued its climb to near parity with the US buck.

What's funny to me in reading that article was this part-

Even more amazing is that no one is doing or saying anything in Canada right now. No consumer groups have made a peep and no one is writing into their local newspaper griping about it.
Well, one month later, and the Canadian dollar is no longer at 95 cents US, it's now at par. The day I never thought I'd see has arrived, and over the last couple of days, the Canadian dollar has been more or less trading 1 for 1 with the greenback. Incredible.

And now, finally, major media in Canada is starting to take notice.

The lease deals seem even more unbelievable: Boston's Kelly Nissan offers a new Altima for $139 per month (with $2,723 due at signing) and a Pathfinder 4x4 for $239 monthly.

While priced in American dollars, the gap between the two currencies is closing, making the U.S. stickers especially appealing.

Yet it begs the question: with the loonie's rise against the U.S. currency, why aren't Canadians seeing lower automobile prices here?

Source- The Toronto Star, Wheels

Think the issue is going to go away? Think again. Most automakers (and representatives from other industries) are either sticking their heads in the sand on the issue, or making absolutely ridiculous statements that will only serve to bite them in the ass as time goes on. Some have gone off the record stating that Canadians were getting great deals back when the dollar was valued at 65 cents, so now it's only right that automakers milk parity for as long as they can. Others have done stupid things like cite the higher cost of operations in Canada. A country I should remind you, that has an open border with the United States, is part of a huge free trade agreement, where the majority of peole live 100 kilometers from the US/Canada border, and whose inhabitants largely speak the same language as the people of the United States outside of one province (well, two if you count Newfoundland). The excuses simply don't make sense. At all. And it's only going to get more infuriating as the Canadian dollar continues to climb. Some analysts are predicting it to rise to $1.10.

What then?

So I'm left to repeat what I said before- the first automaker to bite the bullet and stop skimming profits off of the Canadian consumer will have a homerun on their hands. My pick? Chrysler. Excess inventory, new management, low brand perception at present time- they're the perfect company to do it. Now they (or someone else) has to pull the trigger.

20 September 2007

Dealers Still Advertising Higher 2007 Fuel Economy Ratings

A breathless, critical report has been issued by CNW Marketing research stating that Toyota dealers are still claiming that the Prius can achieve 60 miles per gallon.

It has been reasonably well known in the automotive world for years that EPA fuel economy ratings were generally higher than what people could expect to see "in the real world." Sure, it's theoretically possible to drive like a stereotypical septuagenarian and achieve those window sticker numbers, but more likely than not, we're accelerating more quickly, driving faster, and using accessories such as air conditioning and power steering that also require fuel to run. With gas prices near historic highs, consumers are more concerned about fuel economy than they have been in years, and were getting irritated when their own gas mileage didn't match the numbers on the window sticker, in spite of the famous disclaimer, "your actual mileage may vary." In response to this, the EPA has implemented a revised calculation to establish fuel economy for the window sticker for all 2008 and later models to better reflect "real world" experiences. The calculations are complex, but the end result is that most vehicles will see a 2-4 mile per gallon decrease in both city and highway fuel economy. The exception to that is hybrids, which took a disproportionate beating in their ratings. The Toyota Prius, previously rated at 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 miles per gallon on the highway, dropped to 48 miles per gallon in the city and 45 miles per gallon on the highway. My own theory on the reason for the larger drop is not that Toyota was cheating, but that the Prius' driving characteristics were very well suited to the conditions of the old test methodology (truth be told, I also am skeptical of the 21 miles per gallon highway rating of GM's Tahoe full size SUV, thanks to its active fuel management that shuts down four of its eight cylinders, but in reality, rarely has the chance to do so).

The point is, although there really are people who achieved 60 miles per gallon in the Prius, though you have to "know" how to drive a hybrid like the Prius to maximize its fuel efficiency. (From what I have heard, it's not the same thing as driving a conventional car for maximum economy). Most people achieve mileage in the mid-40s in the Prius, which is exactly what the EPA now says it should do.

Details left out of the report, however are:
  • Do dealers of other brands also talk about fuel economy in terms of 2007 numbers?
  • Are the Toyota dealers in question referring to 2008 Priuses or leftover 2007 models?
  • Is doing this illegal, or even unethical?
  • Who paid for this research?

Let's dive into the implications of each of these.

I don't know about other brands' dealers, but I can say for sure that if you go today to http://www.gm.com/shop and click on "30+ MPG highway," the only vehicles that come up in the search are 2007 models. Some of the models listed (Impala, Grand Prix, etc.) will not be over 30 miles per gallon in 2008, but GM is still advertising those models as being over 30 miles per gallon.

As far as whether the Priuses are 2007 or 2008 models (which would each have different economy figures on their window stickers), it's impossible to tell (and I doubt that CNW knows), but wouldn't the natural tendency of a salesperson be to cite the highest fuel economy figure he or she can for a given model? If the window sticker says 60/55 for a car they're selling, then they should feel free to show that to a customer. If the customer asks about real world economy, I'd hope that they'd either be more realistic about it or tell them to check a neutral website like http://www.fueleconomy.gov/.

If the dealers are representing that 2008 models get 60 miles per gallon in the city, then I think they are being unethical and misrepresenting the car's likely fuel economy. Actually, a better solution would have been for ALL new car window stickers on sale after a certain date (say, October 1, 2007) to show the new ratings, regardless of the model year. That way, it wouldn't look like an old model was getting better fuel economy than a new one, when in fact they're likely to be mechanically identical. Really, is it that expensive or difficult to reprint the window sticker for a new vehicle, in the interest of full disclosure and minimizing consumer confusion and angst? After all, the Fueleconomy.gov website has converted all past fuel economy ratings to the current 2008 equivalents to enable more fair comparisons between models and especially between different model years.

CNW's website does not list this report, only its infamous "Dust to Dust" report that grossly exaggerated the energy costs of a Prius versus a Hummer (see excellent rebuttals of the Dust to Dust report on TrueDelta.com here and here). However, the company states that it performs syndicated studies that "protect you from seeing information that is skewed toward a particular point of view or company or product." Yet, they seem to have a serious anti-Prius agenda after the Dust to Dust report and now this. Though it's possible that an anti-Toyota client underwrote this latest research project, it is possible that the company undertook it on its own for publicity reasons.

Furor Grows Over Dealership CSI Scores

Michael Karesh, owner of TrueDelta, an automotive research firm, conducted a survey of his reliability survey participants last spring to gauge whether dealers were pressuring their customers to rate their salesperson and dealership with top scores in all areas on the customer satisfaction surveys that come from the manufacturer. I hadn't seen the survey results until reading the August 27, 2007 issue of industry publication Automotive News last night (I'm a little behind!) and saw an article about Mr. Karesh's research.

I think Mr. Karesh was onto something by conducting a survey about this. Not only did a major auto industry publication pick up on his work, but also today's Autoextremist article was about what a failed system CSI scores have become.

In the past four years, I've bought two new vehicles, and while my buying experience was a positive one in both cases (I bought a Honda and a Nissan), it helps that I didn't have to negotiate price, as a family member had a close business relationship with both dealerships and was able to get a great price for me. But toward the end of the delivery process, both salesmen mentioned the CSI surveys and that they need perfect scores, and that they'd be happy to address any concerns I might have before completing the survey. Needless to say, I gave them top scores.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who has been pressured to do this. Dealerships' allocations of popular models, their employees' compensation, and even factory to dealer incentives are tied to CSI rankings. Even worse, manufacturers have set such ridiculously high standards (anything short of "excellent" is a black mark, when in fact, outside of Lake Wobegon, not everyone is above average, and certainly not excellent.) "Exceeds expectations" might be a difficult rating to achieve if the customer's expectations are too high. And even if that customer's expectations are exceeded once, would they not expect the same treatment when they buy their next car from that dealer, so the same level of service that exceeded expectations earlier might only meet the higher expectations the second time.

If every car buying experience was excellent or very good, then why are there so many horror stories out there? Hmmm...

TrueDelta's research (with admittedly small sample sizes) found that at least 75% of all dealerships at least mentioned the survey would be coming, and many others took further steps such as allowing to preliminarily address problems before the survey (36%), asking for perfect scores without begging (28%), saying they wouldn't get a bonus without perfect scores (9%), begging for perfect scores (9%), offering to watch the customer complete it (2%) or allow the dealer to complete it (2%), or offering a gift in exchange for a positive survey (2%). Note that these do not add to 100% because multiple responses were allowed. It also found that among respondents, Nissan, Hyundai, and BMW dealers pressured customers the most to complete their surveys with only the highest scores.

Further adding to the furor is that GM announced in the past week or two that some dealers had submitted "fraudulent" CSI surveys and those results would be ignored, and the dealer would likely be penalized in some way.

So let's see: customers don't like being pressured, dealers and salespeople don't like having their livelihood tied to the whim of someone completing a survey who marks "very good" instead of "excellent" (or "meets expectations" rather than "exceeds expectations), and the manufacturers are suspicious of the process.

Part of my "real job" is working with employee compensation, and designing incentive plans to motivate employees to perform a desired behavior. I'd say that the current CSI system should be thrown out, because clearly begging, lying, and fudging should not be the behaviors that are encouraged.

Are there any other stories of dealer or salesperson pressure to give perfect scores out there?

Link to TrueDelta's research on this subject: http://www.truedelta.com/pieces/survey_survey.php

18 September 2007

How Do You Say Overrated In German? (aka MF Drives The 2007 BMW Z4 Roadster)

Ubersch├Ątzt. In case you were wondering. At least that's what the computer spit out.

I had the opportunity to take a Z4 3.0 convertible out for an extended spin a couple of weeks ago, and came away unimpressed. To say the least.

Walking into a BMW dealership always hints at the surreal- at least it always has in my experience. The combination of smugness, holier than thou attitude, and Teutonic coolness has always made it seem like you're not buying a car as much as you're buying a high end piece of electronic equipment. Or furniture. Or checking into an expensive hotel. Which is ironic really, since BMW owners are generally the first people to spout such invective at owners of 'inferior' brands (read: Lexus, MB, etc.) that fall on the luxury side of the sport-luxury equation. Luckily on this particular trip into my local BMW, I encountered a salesperson who seemed to be a tad more civilized than most- genial even. Unfortunately, no M Roadster were available for a drive, so a 3.0 would suffice. A set of keys and a dealer plate later, and I was away in a black 3.0- on my own without the dealer.

The first thing you'll notice about the Z4 is that it looks like the retarded chromosonal combination of a catfish and a tadpole. Yes, Chris Bangle is an oft-imitated designer, and yes, his influence and ideas have made a mark on the world of automotive design, but to these eyes, the Z4 is unpalatable from nearly every angle. The long hood and short rear deck are pleasing to the eye, but the lidded headlights and excessive surfacing, especially on the sides, is not. Inside, things get simpler, but not much prettier. Although the interior doesn't scream 'cheap', it also doesn't seem like BMW spent much more than they had to in order to get the interior up to par. Meaning, it looks sparse, and it feels sparse, even in the fairly loaded configuration I was driving. Fortunately, the driving controls are everything that the rest of the interior is not- that is, substantial and placed in such a way that you now someone spent a lot of time figuring them out. The shifter is readily at hand, the thick steering wheel is grippy, and pedal placement is perfect.

Starting the engine unleashes a subdued growl that actually sounds a tad raspy- something I did not expect from the 3.0. With the top down, I found the stereo (heck, EVERYTHING) was overpowered by engine note- if that's your thing, you might be in heaven, however I found it distracting after 10 minutes of it. Luckily, the noise is backed up by copious amount of power- let it run up to redline through the gear box and you'll quickly reach highly illegal speeds in a highly illegal manner. Unlike the Boxster, which feels planted and balanced no matter what you're doing, punch the throttle in the Z4 and you can feel it hunker down on its haunches and spring forward. There is lots of grip in back end, but if you're not careful with your throttle modulation, this bad boy will oversteer like a true drifter. The gearbox is a pleasure to use- short throws, well defined , and smooth as silk- all amplified by the wonderful placement of the shifter. The clutch is surprisingly light at first, but quickly becomes second nature after 5 minutes.

Handling? As mentioned above, I found the Z4 was quite fond of oversteering. The steering itself was very heavy- especially on center- if you want to turn in the Z4, you're going to have to turn- not just nudge. However, it responded quickly to inputs, and despite the heaviness, felt very good in the twisties. The suspension handled most of the road imperfections with ease around town, but I found it a big wriggly at speed and in sweeping turns- again, it felt as though the back end wanted to swap places with the front end. Overall, the experience was fun, but not as reassuring as a Boxster, or even a Z Roadster- both vehicles that I also tested on the same route.

All in all, the Z4 3.0 Roadster is a fine little car. Since looks are subjective, I can't dock too many points for looking the way it does. At 45k Canadian, it would be quite the ride for somebody looking for a sporty convertible that has the flexibility to actually haul some stuff (the trunk space actually isn't that bad). However, it's nowhere near 45k. In fact, it's near 70k Canadian for a Z4 3.0 Roadster. That my friends, is grand larceny. What does that 70k buy you? Well, for one, it will buy you a Porsche Boxster. No, it won't be an S, but the base Boxster walks all over the BMW- it's more balanced, has similar power and speed, and just feels better. It will also buy you a Mercedes SLK with a 3.5 liter engine, much better looks, and a more solid feel. Move downmarket, and you can get a 350Z, which will lack the cachet of the Germans, but costs 55k Canadian, and although not as agile as the BMW, is a worthy contender while being 15k cheaper.

And that's why the Z4 is overrated. It is not worth 70k in any way, shape or form. It's a competent roadster with a nice engine. There are LOTS of those out there nowadays. But very few of them cost as much as this. And it will continue to sell because of badge. But such is life.

Even The Good Moves That Ford Makes Blow Up In Their Faces

Perhaps the salespeople are part of the problem. It seems that nearly twenty percent of Ford’s sales team is trying to sell Ford Five Hundreds to customers instead of the new-for-2008 Taurus. About 60 percent of Ford salespeople are using the correct name some of the time, but still slip in the Five Hundred moniker on occasion.
Source- Winding Road

One can sympathize with the dealers of course, since if you type 'Ford Taurus' into Google image search, you get about 1 picture of the 2008 Taurus for every 23417 pictures of the previous generation Tauri. I think the one major issue with the name change, which all in all I think was a great idea by Ford by the way, was that the refresh of the Taurus nee Five Hundred didn't go nearly far enough to differentiate the models. Yes, there's a slimmed down ass end, and the glitzy chrome front end- but only the legally blind won't look at the new Taurus and not see the Five Hundred with a grille kit. It's probably not helping that every Ford salesperson is probably referencing the Five Hundred in their sales pitch- 'It's just like the Five Hundred but BETTER'. You know, that sort of thing.

Someone needs to punch whoever came up with Five Hundred in the first place right in the balls. Then they need to undertake a more drastic reskinning of the Taurus to send the Five Hundred into the trashbin of history, and make it a rule that it's never to be discussed. Send current Five Hundred owners to Chevy to get their cars serviced.

Mind Not The Bleating Engine Noise At The Stoplight

The October issue of Motor Trend mentions that "GM insiders know they have a minor NVH problem with the new 3.6L DI V6 fitted to the new Cadillac CTS and the revised STS. And, frustratingly, they know it's a problem that can't be fixed; it's a design fault, admits one senior engineer. Wonder if they'll get a rebate from the folks who actually designed the engine for GM - British engineering company Ricardo."

Source- The Car Lounge

Things get even better as the day progresses though. The fanboys at GMI start bleating about the DI 3.6 not being as bad as the Lexus DI engine or the Audi DI engine. And now as the day ends, it's being waved off as essentially 'a characteristic of all DI engines'. Huh? Read the quoted section again- it's a DESIGN fault. The DESIGN in question is the 3.6 DI engine DESIGNED by GM. No other engines are mentioned.

Probably the most troubling part of all of this is that this wasn't caught earlier, and now it's too late to do anything about it. Since it's an issue inherent in the design, they'll just have to stuff more insulation in the CTS and STS and hope no one hears too much.

Frankfurt: Toyota IQ Concept

I've previously complained about Chinese companies making knockoffs of western-designed vehicles and basically stealing intellectual property. (For more on that, click here).

Now, it's Toyota's turn! The Toyota IQ concept that it revealed in Frankfurt not only appears to bear a more than coincidental similarity to the Smart city car, but even the car's NAME ITSELF - IQ - seems to want to imply intelligence (Get it? Smart - IQ...?)

However, other than the unoriginal name and basic shape (and the shape is actually more pleasing to the eyes than the Smart's, in my humble opinion), it's actually a pretty interesting little city car. It seems to have been better-received than the Volkswagen Up! concept, which is intended to fill a similar niche and debuted in concept form around th same time.

The Toyota IQ was designed in France by Toyota's Advanced European Design Studio, and is just a short 2.98 meters in length. For some perspective, it's 770 mm (0.77 meters) shorter than a Yaris, yet according to the press release, has a similarly-sized interior. The seating configuration is advertised as "3+1," meaning that other than the two front seats, there is one adult-sized seat behind the front passenger and one child-sized seat behind the driver, which can also be folded to increase luggage space. The dashboard is designed to sweep away from the front passenger so that when only two people are in the car, the passenger seat can be roughly aligned with the driver's seat, but when a passenger needs to ride in the back seat, the front passenger seat can be moved forward of the driver, still leaving adequate space for both passengers. Toyota calls it the smallest four seat passenger concept car.

Again, the concept is a fine one - it's arguably a more attractive car than the Smart ForTwo, plus it has more seats (as the Smart is only designed "for two" passengers), but couldn't Toyota come up with a more original shape and a better name? What's next - the Honda Intelligent? The Nissan Clever?

16 September 2007

A Magazine Time Machine

One of the last times I visited my parents this past summer, they gave me a large plastic bin full of old automotive-related magazines. Titles include Autoweek, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver, and they appear to be mostly of the 1996-1997 vintage. I don't know what possessed me to keep these magazines after reading them - I haven't ever referred to them in the ensuing decade, and after I read my current magazines, they are recycled or thrown away.

Nevertheless, over the past few days, I've been gradually making my way through these old magazines one more time before they hit the garbage can. It's been pretty interesting to have ten more years of automotive history, the seeming dominance of import brands, a horsepower war, high gas prices, and more happen to change my perspective on vehicles that I believed were at the top of their game in 1996 and 1997. Humorously, I wasn't the only one who believed this.

The September 16, 1996 Autoweek has an article about the then-new Chevy Venture, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile (remember them?) Silhouette. Even GM fans can't stand these vans in their current, completely uncompetitive iteration, but eleven years ago, Autoweek said things like, "despite the four-door configuration, the body-structure has tremendous integrity. There is a solidness that will be benchmarked by other minivan makers" and "these vehicles' handling is best among minivans, bar none." But my favorite line was, "a rear overhead console, with headphone jacks for the rearmost passengers, and separate climate controls, are other nice touches, though a tug on the headphone cord brought the whole thing down. A Chevy engineer promised that a fix has been made using metal fasteners."

The same issue has this story on the last page about Bob Lutz, current GM Vice Chairman, Global Product Development:
Erick Nacke, of the Great Lakes Road Racing Association, tells of a group of Chrysler execs, engineers, and suppliers riding Ninjas at a recent superbike racing school. Who won most improved? Bob Lutz, of course. "We didn't know who he was--some silver-haired guy who was ripping it up. He was the only one who followed instructions to a tee. If we'd said, 'ride with one hand on your helmet and both feet up in the air,' he'd have done it. And by the end, he was the only one who dragged his knee through a turn."
That's a funny visual, and in the photo of Mr. Lutz accompanying that snippet, he looks very much the same as he does today, eleven years later. The accompanying photo here is just an artist's conception of what Mr. Lutz would look like atop a Ninja.

The February 17, 1997 Autoweek has a first test of the Oldsmobile Intrigue, which to me was always the best-looking, most-capable of the GM W-body midsize cars built from 1988 to present. Again, the article's perspective was interesting: "The Intrigue is destined to be the division's volume leader and the true test of whether Olds has succeeded in recasting itself" and "GM expects to sell hundreds of thousands of Intrigues against the toughest competition going - imports." Well, it wasn't, and unfortunately it didn't. I don't have access to 1997 and 1998 calendar year sales results, but in 1999 and 2000, the Intrigue was not Oldsmobile's volume leader - that title fell to the smaller and less expensive Alero, which nearly doubled the Intrigue's sales figures in 2000 (122,722 versus 64,109). Intrigue sales only made up about 30% of Oldsmobile sales in 1999 and 2000, while Alero sales made up between 42% and 57%. While the division may have sold hundreds of thousands of Intrigues cumulatively (likely just barely; Olds sold only 209,365 Intrigues from 1999 through 2004; the car was sold for about 18 months that aren't included in that figure from summer 1997 through December 1998), it's safe to say that it didn't help to stem Oldsmobile's slide into oblivion, with the last Oldsmobile rolling off the line in 2004. Also, the plan to "make cars with an international flair to draw import intenders into Oldsmobile dealerships" sounds eerily similar to GM's current plan for Saturn.

The next issue of Autoweek, dated February 24, 1997, introduces BMW's "new navigation system," available as a $2,990 option in the 528 models and $2,800 option in V8 5-Series and all 7-Series models. The article basically introduces readers to the concept of the now-familiar in-dash navigation system (this was before BMWs had the iDrive interface for navigation; instead, a small rotary knob next to the screen is used to enter inputs. The worst part of this early navigation system is that the map data is stored on nine CD-ROMs rather than a single DVD, or even a hard disk, as modern systems use. BMW's system in 1997 could automatically dial 911 or BMW roadside assistance in the event of emergency; it's a shame such functionality seems to be available in few cars today except those equipped with OnStar.

The March 24, 1997 Autoweek said that the Jeep Dakar concept vehicle, which was a hardtop four-door Wrangler, was approved for production, according to supplier sources. It was intended as an upscale partner for the Wrangler in the Jeep lineup. As it turned out, of course, it took until 2007 for Jeep to actually introduce a four door Wrangler, and it's Chrysler's hottest product. Some of the Dakar concept's styling cues did make it to the production Jeep liberty a few years later, but given the success of the four door Wrangler today, imagine how well the Dakar might have sold even in the SUV-crazed late 1990s.

Speaking of Jeep-like vehicles, the November 4, 1996 Autoweek had two notable Toyota SUVs profiled. Most Jeep-like of these was a 1958 Toyota FJ25 Land Cruiser, which looks strikingly similar to a 1940s-vintage US military Jeep. Compared to a 1997 Land Cruiser, the 1958 FJ25 was 40 inches shorter and 8 inches narrower! Toyota only imported 61 vehicles to the US in 1958, but a California man (of course!) bought the one featured in Autoweek new to use for duck hunting trips, and traded it in decades later for a new Land Cruiser with 93,000 miles on the odometer. Toyota later acquired it, restored it, and kept it in its permanent collection.

The other Toyota off roader featured was a Japanese military vehicle called the Mega Cruiser, which bore a striking resemblance to the AM General Hummer favored by the US military. The Mega Cruiser was built to order; Toyota only sold 47 of them through the first seven months of 1996, for example. The truck had all the equipment needed for a credible (but large) off roader, except that its 6,283 pounds were moved solely by a 4.1 liter intercooled turbodiesel, rated for 155 horsepower and 282 lb-ft of torque. The seating arrangements were certainly peculiar; two front buckets separated by an enormous transmission tunnel (as in the Hummer H1), two outboard bucket seats in the second row, with a two person bench between them (meaning it had a seating capacity of six). The price in late 1996 was $87,454.

Several issues, including the March 17, 1997 Autoweek, mentioned Nissan's Z-car factory restoration program. During the Z's hiatus (Nissan stopped importing new 300ZXs to the US in the mid-1990s), Nissan contracted with Pierre'Z Service Center in Hawthorne, California to completely disassemble and refurbish 1970-1972 240Zs back to factory specifications. Literally every nut and bolt was removed, yet pricing was supposed to only start "above $20,000." That doesn't sound bad to me for a "new" classic car. If I was in the market for a collector car like an original Z-car a decade ago, it would have been really neat to get a Nissan-certified one like these, although I believe that the program was ended after only a few dozen cars were restored.

In the April 7, 1997 issue of Autoweek, the then-new (two generations ago as of today) 1997 Camry CE was featured in an Autofile. Thinking of current criticisms of the Camry - that it's too soft, too much of an appliance, that it is favored by an older demographic - made me chuckle at a few quotes: "The Camry is so smooth and seamless that it could be the ultimate automotive appliance" and "The five-speed [manual], now available with the optional V6, is Toyota's first step toward cultivating a crop of more youthful Camry buyers. There were also several mentions of Toyota's cost control efforts in that generation Camry; the Yen's relative strength to the dollar at the time made things very tricky for Japanese automakers in the US. It seems that, other than the Camry SE (and the SE, the sportiest Camry, is not available with a manual transmission), Toyota still hasn't really made much of an effort to cultivate a performance image around the Camry. That hasn't really slowed sales, though, as the car continues to shatter sales records even a decade later.

I hope you enjoyed this stroll through a slice of the automotive world as it was ten years ago. The lesson I've taken from reading these old magazines is that what was once considered good, might now considered bad if it's not regularly updated. Expectations are constantly being elevated, and automakers cannot rest on their laurels.

There are still more magazines in the bottom of my closet, so if others find this as interesting/amusing as me, I may do another article of this type.