17 March 2007

On Second Thought- The Pontiac G8


On paper, the G8 looks like a winner. Powerful V6 and V8 engines. Six speed automatics across the board, row your own options for those who want them, even in top trim. An interior that looks upscale and purpose driven. Even the exterior looks okay, minus the ridiculous hood scoops.

But on second thought, I think this car is a missed opportunity.

Quick, name the Pontiac that has singlehandedly kept Pontiac on the map.

The G6? (snicker)
The Torrent? (guffaw)
The G5? (outright laughter)

No.

The Solstice.

A competent vehicle in almost every respect, the Solstice has nevertheless succeeded almost entirely because it looks so damned cool. Modern, futuristic, sporty and distinct. It even keeps a lot of ties to the recent past with its design cues, and yet still moves the Pontiac 'look' forward.

So this brings me back to the G8.

The G8 isn't a home run because it doesn't build on the goodwill of the Solstice. At best it can be called Euro-sleek. At worst it can be called bland and derivative. In the middle, most will look at it and think it has the front end of a BMW and the ass of a Nissan but with none of the flair of either of them... but with some of the gaudy excess of recent Pontiac past (the hood scoops again). To be even more harsh, the design is almost entirely lacking any sort of originality- if any other maker released such an obvious BMW knockoff, they'd be lambasted for being unoriginaI- instead some people are HAPPY that it looks like a previous gen 3 Series. What gives? Where's the GM design we hear about all the time?

There are two trains of thought when it comes to resurrecting a division like Pontiac- the first involves incremental improvement and steady growth. A brand like Toyota has famously taken this approach with incredible sales results- their vehicles don't tend to be homeruns, but they are improved incrementally, and are always better than the generation before them. This builds customer faith, and makes people want to come back for more. The second involves making a splash and impressing your customer base, both current and target- see DCX and their approach with the 300C, Magnum, and Charger.

Curiously, if recent history is any indication, GM is schizophrenic with their approach towards Pontiac- on one hand you've got an in y our face design like the Solstice that has galvanized some support for Pontiac. On the other you've got the subdued styling of the G8, and to a lesser extent, stuff like the Torrent, which seems bland and derivative.


Why not just go for it? Is there a worry that Pontiac will lose sales? Because that shipped set sail a long time ago. Those G6 sales are at almost 50% fleet last I checked.

They've got a design that is a certified hit. This is not a case like the Aztek where they'd be jumping blind. Why not make the G8 and all future Pontiacs incorporate styling elements from the Solstice? I'm not saying that they should make a 4 door large sedan that is a Solstice- I'm saying there should be a visible tie-in with the halo car of the brand. No, not the way that Ford slathers on their Mach 3 inspired grille on everything- but a more mature approach that builds on a styling theme.

With the current design success of the Solstice, I think Pontiac is wasting a great opportunity to redefine themselves in the eyes of the American consumer, and this will only speed up their death spiral.

Failed Platform: DEW 98


When the Ford Motor Company introduced its new global midsize RWD platform in 1999 underneath the 2000 Lincoln LS, it was met with great fanfare by the automotive press. The LS garnered Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award and was nominated for North American Car of the Year. With such jazzy features as rear-wheel drive, a manual transmission (V6 only) and an available V8, the LS seemed like a great mix of attainable luxury and unpretentious sportiness.

How did the marketplace react? In 1999, it sold 26,368 copies. Its first full calendar year, 2000, saw sales hit 51,039. Ford had a mini-hit. How did mother-Ford nurture its nascent sedan? They starved it. It was treated to one update (in 2003) before becoming a V8-only $45,000 has-been. Anyone remember seeing an LS ad anytime between 2004 and 2006? I don’t. Sales collapsed to 19,000 by 2005 and less than 9,000 found [ostensibly] willing buyers in 2006 before the axe fell.

Soon after the LS hit the streets, Jaguar twisted the DEW architecture into the base for the retro-fabulous S-type. Its 2000 CY sales were 24,507—by far the most popular Jaguar that year. Of course, being the cheapest one in the lineup probably helped the S-type attain the sales crown. Over the years Jag tried to keep buyers engaged with a refresh or two and a supercharger, but that wasn’t enough to stave off the grim reaper: just 5,875 customers gave this cat a home in 2006. The S-type is to be taken under in 2007.


Where did Ford take this globe-trotting platform next? Well, back to the ‘50s of course. The 2002 Ford Thunderbird took the DEW98, added some ‘50s styling clich├ęs and removed all of that era’s intrinsic automotive design charm and served it up with a weak power plant and a high base price. The car sold well for about five months. Then Ford decided that it needed to upgrade it for the ’03 MY. This decision, however, came a little late in the planning process. As such, Ford had to extend the ’02 MY well into what should have been the ’03 MY. Compounding the problem was the fact that dealers were now fully stocked up on left-over, convertible, RWD cars with winter sneezing on their doorsteps. Consumers wisely stayed away. The Thunderbird never regained its momentum. Sales fell from 19,000 in 2002 to just 9,500 in 2005 when Ford once again stopped producing the ‘Bird. It was destined to be the last vehicle Ford would develop on the once promising DEW98.

What went wrong? This:

1) Lack of flexibility in design and manufacturing
2) Expensive to produce (and Ford cordially passed that expense onto its customers)
3) Starved for development funds
4) Terrible marketing for all model-lines

Had the platform been cheaper to produce and more flexible, then the Mustang could have been its savior. Alas, that wasn’t meant to be. Ford had to modify (i.e.: cheapen) the DEW98 to such an extent that it had to become a whole new platform (D2C) before the galloping horsie could have a new home in 2005.

Ford completely missed a lucrative opportunity. Rear-wheel drive is decidedly in fashion—so long that it’s affordable. Chrysler did everything right with its RWD LX platform that Ford did wrong with the DEW: It is flexible, cheap, isn’t being neglected, manufacturing is consolidated to one plant, and the vehicles built off of it were brilliantly marketed at launch and consistently advertised. GM has found success with its Sigma Cadillacs and is poised to follow suit in ’08 with its inexpensive Zeta sedans and coupes. All Ford has to offer rear-wheel-drive buyers is its 28-year-old Panther cars and a niche-market Mustang.

Imagine if the Five-Hundred came out on a DEW-derived platform with the Mustang 4.6L V8 under the bonnet and styling that wouldn’t get lost in the bread isle of your local A&P? It most certainly wouldn’t have been demoted to Taurus status.

What looked like the start of a good thing was merely a brilliant flash in the pan. How typically Ford.


15 March 2007

Blast From The Past- Mags And The Camry

Another classic but relevant review.

***



Rented a car. Was about to take a Monte Carlo, saw they had a new Camry LE (base model) on the lot, next thing you know, I'm behind the wheel of the automotive equivalent of Jesus.

Found some surprising things...

The Outside
A lot of people have delivered a verdict of ugly. I deliver a verdict of 'nice evolution'. The previous generation Camry was a disjointed blob of weird shapes, sharp creases, and overall looked as though it was constipated. This new one cribs some stuff from other automakers, and some stuff from upscale brother Lexus, and comes off a lot better.

In the front, you've got a knockoff Mazda grille with an enormous Toyota logo. The model I drove had a colour keyed grille, and it looked pretty damn good. The headlights look like they belong on a Lexus. For my liking, the side of the car is sculpted WAY too much. Coming back to the car earlier today, I thought someone had hit me while parked, and quickly realized it was just the shaping of the doors. The rear of the car is also the best part of the car- I like the extruding rear light cluster, and I especially like the overall shape- again, the point of this vehicle appears to be, 'mini-Lexus, but sportier', and I think the rear exemplifies this the most, drawing cues from the Lexus GS and the Avalon.

Fit and finish on the outside was impeccable and the dark gray paintjob had no noticeable orange peel effect.

The LE is shod with 16 inch steel wheels adorned with ridiculously ugly plastic wheel covers. My annoyance with plastic wheel covers has been well documented, so I'll stop here.

The Inside
On first glance, the Camry is the best looking interior of the midsize class- and that includes the Accord, which to me has been the benchmark all these years. Nice swooping lines, beautifully integrated stereo, Indiglo-style instrumentation on the HVAC/stereo, nicely contoured dash, Lexus-style instrumentation.

On second glance, the materials inside are top notch. Soft rubber and plastics everywhere.

On third glance, everything goes to hell.

I cannot believe the assembly quality inside this car. Ill fitting dash parts were everywhere. On the center stack. On the vents. Around the stereo. Around the upper pod above HVAC/stereo which gives airbag/time info. I was shocked. This was not a worn in rental- this car had approximately 5k KM on it when I picked it up last night. On top of all this, there are some fairly obvious cost cutting measures to be found, primarily in the use of plastics. Remember I said that it was all soft rubber and plastics? Well, after the top most portion of the door, it's hard stuff. And midway down the center stack, it's hard stuff. In addition, Toyota has decided to throw in the rat fur on the roof of the car, eschewing a woven headliner. Like I said, first impressions are deceiving.

The base stereo included with the Camry is pretty much crap as well. Although it has 6 speakers, it was the tinniest 6 speaker system I have ever encountered. I quickly retired the iPod for the day, and reverted to talk radio. On the plus side, it did have MP3/WMA compatibility, and was very legible, in addition to providing a hilarious 'Welcome To Camry' message on every startup.

What did I like about the inside? For one, the driving position and seats- the seats themselves were upholstered in soft cloth and were VERY comfortable. I logged about 600 KM today, and didn't feel uncomfortable once. It was all manual adjustment, but it was very easy to find the sweet spot. The driving position in the Camry is upright and tall, very much like the Ford Five Hundred. Maybe I'm getting old, but I liked it. The versatility of the interior is also a plus- this thing is large inside, and offers a nice sized trunk with 60/40 passthrough, however it does not use struts for the hinges, and intrudes on space. Another like about the interior were the aforementioned gauges. Simple layout, but very bright, and the font that Toyota uses looks upscale. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the standard airbags- driver, passenger, front curtains and rear curtains. Kudos to Toyota for making these features standard across the board.

Apart from those things however, the interior of the Camry was a resolute disappointment- much like a MILF who is makeup hot- scratch under the surface, and you find some nasty ass birthmarks, wrinkles, and zits.

The Drive
With 158 HP, and 161 lbs/ft of torque, you'd imagine that the Camry LE would be a slug around town in a car. You'd be mistaken. As much as I was disappointed with the interior of the car, I was impressed with the base engine. The VVT-i is smooth as butter all the way up to the redline, and is more than capable around town. Ring it out, and it actually sounds quite nice. Merging on the highway was not much of a problem, and I never felt underpowered in the car, unlike the Fusion SE which was breathing heavy above 100 km/h.

Unfortunately, the sweet I4 is mated to a clumsy 5 speed automatic transmission that had a propensity to hunt for gears. This wasn't all too noticeable on the highway, but around town there were noticeable lapses in power if I needed it quickly, as the tranny would try to figure out which of the 5 gears were right for the situation.

Braking was a non-issue.

Handling and steering dynamics were yet another sore spot for me with the Camry LE. The steering reminded me a LOT of the Buick Allure (nee Lacrosse) I drove a few months ago. WAY too light, WAY too hard to keep on center on the highway, and it didn't give very good feedback. Combine the floaty steering with a floaty suspension that seemed more tuned to provide comfort rather than road feel, and I didn't dare approach on-ramps at more than the posted limit. I know, I know- it's a base model- but only the SE models in the lineup provide a 'sport suspension', so I can only assume that the other Camrys ride the same way. It was once said that Toyota was morphing into a Japanese Buick- I can't say I disagree after driving the Camry.

So in the end, a willing engine mated to an oafish 5 speed auto and a light and airy suspension. Not the best combination.

And So...
The 2007 Camry is a horrendous disappointment. It doesn't drive better than any of the older competition (Accord, Altima, G6, et al), and it sure as hell is not assembled as well as most of the competition. This is offset somewhat by a nice base motor, and an exquisite LOOKING interior, but there are simply too many other glaring problems with this car. It seems like Toyota rushed this car out too quickly without ironing out a lot of the assembly line problems, and it shows. Without driving a sport suspension model, I can't make a final verdict on the entire line, but the base Camry LE stinks like 3 day old half eaten McDonalds cheeseburgers sitting in a G6 GT (I might know something about that, but that's a story for another day). If, and that's a very big if, the assembly could be improved, it would be in the top tier of the midsize offerings, but certainly still not at the top of the heap, which one would expect from a totally new vehicle.

Blast From The Past- Mags And The Altima

Another older review.

***



2.5S Altima with Convenience Package.

Black on black.

CVT.

The new ride.

Americans seem to get a convoluted mix of convenience packages for the Altima- in Canada there is but one, and it's offered on the 2.5S only. The convenience package adds a host of things to the base Altima, most notably 16 inch rims, heated seats, leather wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, 8 way power drivers seat, and one touch up and down passenger window control.

I'm coming from a G6 GT. Let's see how things stack up. Oh, and I'll post some pictures tomorrow or the day after, depending on if I remember to bring my camera out with me.

The Outside
Nissan, having finally made a splash styling wise with the Altima in 2002 with the 3rd generation, decided to play it safe this time around, but with a few neat touches. The greenhouse is very familiar, as is the upward character line running along the side of the car. Notable changes are a revised front end featuring the new corporate look and headlights (some rigamarole called a T-bar grille), a new back end featuring even larger Altezza style lights, dual chrome tipped exhausts out back (for all models) and a far smoother and more integrated ass end with distinct 'hips' in the character line that pays homage to the big brother Maxima. The base 2.5 comes with blocky plastic covers, so they're inherently shitty. The convenience package adds the same rims as found on the 2.5SL model- 7 spokers that are inoffensive.

These subtle changes make an overall positive difference to the vehicle, positioning it lookswise at least, in the mold of its big bucks Infiniti cousins the G35 and the M35/M45- the car definitely looks expensive and can be mistaken for an M if you're just glancing- pictures really don't do it justice because the rear especially has got some very nice curves. The only blandish aspect to the restyle is the front end- I have no issues with the new grille, but overall it's a little too plain, and will probably be the subject of a mid-cycle refresh, much like the 2005 was to the 2002.

Fit and finish is superb all around, but the paint shows some noticeable orange peel effect around the doors- whether this is because black paint really shows such things, or it's endemic to the model I'm not sure.

Does it look better than my previous ride, the G6? I really thing they're styled too differently to make a valid comparison- where the G6 goes for a sporty pseudocoupe look, the Altima makes a styling move upmarket. Different strokes for different folks.

The Inside
Nissan was slammed hard for the interior of the Altima in 2002, and it was fully deserved. I lived with one, and I can report that it was stuffed full of cheap and hard plastics, and the switchgear moved with the fluidity of a seized bolt. The interior refresh in 2005 addressed many of the interior quality concerns, but they had to play with the hand they were dealt and couldn't exorcise all of those demons.

For 2007, Nissan has quite obviously made the interior a priority, and it shows.

Here's the quote to sum it up- the 2007 Altima has the best interior quality and finish in the class, surpassing even the Accord, my personal favorite to this point.

Much like the recently released Aura, the entire dash is composed of soft plastic that has a lot of give. Furthermore, the grain will make you do a double take to ensure it's not leather. No joke. Nissan has also disposed of the sickly orange gauges of the past and replaced them with some BS marketing gimmick called Fine Vision. They look a lot like the gauges in the Infiniti line and are very bright and clear- a welcome change to the previous style. The center stack is laid out logically and is reminiscent of the Accord, and the stereo head unit is clear and legible even in direct sunlight, even including an AUX in port for the iPod heads and MP3 CD capability.

Storage is abundant in the car, especially when compared to my previous ride. A large cubby resides underneath the center stack along with a deep armrest bin and sunglass holder. The side map pockets include cupholders and have enough room to hold more than a few scraps of paper. And speaking of cupholders- the Altima features FIVE in the front seat area alone, including what appears to be an industry exclusive- bottle cap holders.

Although the Altima measures up almost identical to the G6, it has a lot more usable room in the front, mostly due to the style of the dash. Where the G6 is a tighter fit, the Altima lets you stretch out a bit. Seat comfort is top notch and there is a TON of headroom in this car without a sunroof. Trunkwise, the Altima features a SMALLER trunk on paper than my G6, but I emptied the contents of my G6 out into the Altima when I got it, and ended up with more space left over in the Altima- how does that happen? Well it's all about usable space, even with a full sized and rimmed spare- and the Altima features a low liftover, and a nice wide and tall opening.

Cool standard feature- Intelligent Key. No need to have a key in your hand. Simply walk up, push the door button and in you go. And once inside, press the brake, push the button, and watch things light up.

Issues are few.

A weird design decision was made to cover the door armrest in cloth. It's not bad, and in fact it's comfortable, but it looks very out of place. The tilt and telescope feature of the wheel is a pain in the ass to engage and set. And the trunk would have even MORE usable space if Nissan didn't decide to stupidly use gooseneck hinges AGAIN in the Altima. Even the new Sentra has hydraulic hinges. Go figure.

The Drive
With 175 HP and 180 lbs/feet of torque on tap compared to my G6 which had a V6 rated at 200/220, I was expecting the engine of the Altima to be the weak point. What I didn't realize is that the Altima has a 300 pound weight advantage over the G6. And this evens things up almost even according tomy scientific assometer analysis. The modified QR25 engine revs willingly up to its redline and has a nice growl to it. It's a welcome change from the thrashiness of my previous ride.

A point of contention among many in the media has been the CVT. Nissan has decided to move their bread and butter car completely to 6 speed manuals and CVT transmissions. I'd driven a Caliber a couple of months back and was underwhelmed by the DCX tranny. Same with a Ford Five Hundred CVT 2 years ago. So this was my biggest worry with this car. Luckily, it would appear that not all CVT transmissions are created equally. Nissan has 'stepped' this transmission with 6 speeds, and it makes for a seamless drive. The only time you know you're driving a CVT equipped vehicle is when you mash the pedal- the car immediately goes up to about 5500 RPM and just stays there, right in the heart of the peak horsepower. At first it's disconcerting, but the push you get in the peak of the power is great...and even better, it's sustained. The CVT also comes with a manumatic function as well, which is pretty much a pain to drive with. It shifts jerkily and constantly 'corrects' you if it thinks you're in the wrong gear. The G6 was much simpler and much more fun to drive. in manumatic.

The ride of the Altima errs on the side of cushiness in 2.5S trim. It is definitely geared towards comfort, and the suspension does a commendable job of soaking up road imperfections and noise. It's interesting to note that this does not come at the expense of body control however, as it felt far more stable at speed and over wavy high speed turns than my previous car, and better even than the Accord, which incurs more of a ride penalty. All of this occurs in spite of the fact that the Altima rides piece on shit Continental tires as original equipment.

Braking has no issues and pedal feel is great.

Steering is variable power assist and is governed by speed. In a parking lot situation it is WAY too light. Finger light. Like a feather. This I don't like. At highway speeds it's too touchy. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground here. It's easy to place the nose and to toss around, but in general it feels a little too much like a video game.

And So
The only other issue I can come up with for the Altima is price. In normal trims, it is right in line with everything else out there. A decently equipped 3.5SE will set you back about 33-35k CDN, and a 2.5S with the convenience package and the CVT will run you about 28k. There's even the value proposition in the 3.5S, which is more or less a 2.5S trim level with the big engine and CVT, for 29k CDN. That's a HELL of a deal. The issue though is when you start adding the goodies- granted they are more or less exclusive type goodies in this segment, but Nissan will make you add a host of other things before you can add the tech package for example... and this can drive the prices way up, very quickly. Tick off every box on a 3.5 model and we're talking 39k CDN folks. That's G35 territory.

One last thing- I took a 3.5 out for a drive in SE trim. With the sport suspension, the ride tightens up considerably, and the vehicle feels akin to an Accord. With the 3.5, it screams.

In 2.5 guise, the Altima is an almost perfect midsize family hauler. It has handsome and upscale looks, a fantastic and spacious interior, and a powertrain that has given me 35 mpg in my first tank of fuel. With a heap of standard features, the availability of Bluetooth, navigation, dual zone climate control and a host of other goodies, it has something for everyone, and at the present moment sits atop the midsize sedan heap.

The Ranking

1)Altima
2)Accord
3)Aura
4)Camry
5)Fusion/6
6)Sonata
7)G6
8)Malibu

So there you have it.

The Double Edged Fleet Sword.



As GM and Ford gradually phase out a lot of their fleet sales, there have been many who have wondered just where rental companies/taxis/etc. would find suitable vehicles to run their business. And while the domestic makers will probably never completely abandon the fleet market, the question is a valid one- for example, how will the fleet industry replace 100,000 Tauruses a year? How will they replace the wackload of Malibus and Impalas that will be disappearing from their fleet selector lists soon?

The most willing company to fill the void in this regard thus far has been Hyundai. Hyundai has disguised milquetoast sales by stuffing Sonatas and Accents into every nook and cranny they can possibly find, with little regard for market saturation. However, I think this business practice is fraught with danger for a company like Hyundai for one simple reason- their image is actually on a lower plane than GM/Ford to many consumers.

The next company in line would logically be Toyota. In their quest for #1 in sales, fleet vehicles could prove to be the straw that broke the camels back. And fans of domestics will no doubt have an easy scapegoat to point at if fleet sales are what put Toyota over the hump.

The question is though- would fleet sales hurt Toyota as a brand?

The easy answer is yes. The easy answer says that GM has rendered many of their nameplates irrelevant by offering them as bluelight specials on a year over year basis, thus destroying the value of their vehicles in the marketplace.

A more complex answer would be no. And it might just be the right answer. Follow me for a second. On their own, the fleet sale is not a bad thing. The problem with a fleet sale is when the fleet sale is of an inferior vehicle. In essence, GM and Ford hit the magic jackpot with their fleet strategies of the 90's to present day- the Japanese competition was making better quality vehicles, the Japanese competition was making better performing vehicles, the domestic makers were making crap boxes, and they were stuffing these crap boxes into fleets. So the consumer was seeing the worst side of the domestic makers on a regular basis, while migrating to the import nameplates.

Present day is a different story- the Camry has traditionally never been a fleet special. Same with the Accord. Same with the Altima. Same with most of the Japanese competition. But as they slowly DO become fleet fodder as demands begin to be imposed on them, the stigma of a 'rental car' does not seem to be sticking to them. Instead, people are OPTING for these vehicles if given a choice- they're seen a 'premium' choices. Heck, offer me a Malibu and a Camry, and I'm taking the Toyota 10 times out of 10, and I'd wager that most average people would too. The stigma isn't sticking because these brands invested heavily in their perceptions, quality and performance over the years BEFORE having to dip their toes into the fleet pool.

Conversely, many of the domestic makers have done the exact opposite. Improved models are offered immediately to the rental fleets (Impala, Sebring) further cementing their status as crappy fleet vehicles before the consumer will even give them a chance. All new models are offered immediately to the rental fleets (G6, Fusion) basically killing the value quotient they offer to the consumer on entry.

What would be the correct way for the domestics to pull out?

Easy.

Make a 'fleet brand'. Do it like the 'Chevy Classic' but make it a good car. Make it a car that is reliable. Make it a car that oozes quality. Do not sell it in your retail outlets. Immediately pull back all your retail models from fleet sales. Develop your brands. Build that relationship back again. If you so choose 10 years from now, kill your fleet brand and re-enter the fleet market with nameplates that mean something to the consumer again. In essence, reset your model lineup. It probably won't be easy. But it's the only way. Because the way things are going, unless Toyota really messes up (anything is possible), they'll end up taking the retail market AND the fleet market from under the noses of the domestic makers, without losing anything.

Blast From The Past- Mags And The Aura

The first in a series of classic but still relevant Mags reviews.

***


Insert Darth Vader music here.

I copped a ride in Toronto today. Black on black with silver accents instead of the grotesque wood, AT6 and the 3.6.

The Outside

Styling is subjective. This I know. But much like anyone with half a brain can see that N'Sync was a derivative version of the Backstreet Boys, who were a derivative version of NKOTB, the Aura is a derivative of, well, everything. The ass looks like the G6, the tail lights look like the Fusion, the front looks like a mashup of the Accord and Malibu, and the side profile looks like a Sebring. All in all, it's not ugly per se, but it's definitely not pretty. More like generically fulfilling. You won't notice it, and you won't notice that you didn't notice it. It's like the Phillip Seymour Hoffman of midsize front wheel drive sedans. It's a shame really, because the concept was just a touch sharper enough that it stood out with its more distinct creasing and wheel arches. Add in generic wheels as well, and you've got something along the lines of the Lucerne rather than something that will stir your soul.

The Inside

I'll be upfront about it. The Aura has a great QUALITY interior. Soft touch materials, smooth operations, generally hefty feel to things. Dig deeper however, and a slew of parts bin atrocities and simply weird design decisions come to the forefront. The metallic trim version is definitely the one to go for if you've got any taste at all (read, aversion to swaths of fake wood). My issues dealt mainly with the center stack, which looks as though 3 different people designed it, who were all overseen by the unseen hand of a beancounter. The top portion is reminiscent of the Malibu, the middle portion with it's plug and play corporate radio is all Impala, and the bottom portion is truly the only modern part. Combined together they seem mismatched and haphazard, with the top portion angling out, the middle in, and the bottom neutral. It lends a surreal melted effect, and is simply out of place in a vehicle costing nearly 37k. On the plus side, the electro gauges are a nice upscale touch, and as I said earlier, the ergonomics are spot on... it's just that the overall execution is lacking.

Spacewise, the Aura is a tad bigger inside than the G6, with a touch more shoulder/thigh room, and a backseat that features more legroom than headroom, although with the fastback roofline of the G6 eliminated, the Aura is a tad friendlier in that respect. The trunk is vintage G6- all length, no girth, and a high liftover and small opening that makes it useless for much more than grocery bags filled with spongecake.

The Drive

Ah, the drive. Two things of note- the Aura is splendidly smooth and it's splendidly powerful. The 3.6 V6 is a willing performer up to the redline, and has more than enough oomph to scoot with the best that the competition has to offer. Matched with a smooth 6 speed auto, I felt as though I was not driving a GM vehicle. This is a good thing. People muttering about how all GM needs is a pushrod engine just simply have no idea. I'll give credit where it's due- the Aura has a powertrain combo that is finally competitive. Handling however, which is hydraulic rather than the shitforsaken electric found in G6 GTs is ponderous, with slow reactions from the suspension to sharp inputs, and a generally 'cushy' ride that can't keep up with the engine promises. It's not Buick bad mind you, but it's a step below. One can hope that the Redline version fixes this. I also noticed that the tires were quick to let their voices be heard under duress- also not indicative of a true sports sedan- there was resolute understeer at speed in corners, and with the fairly soft suspension, it would feel as though you were going to plow straight ahead if you weren't paying attention. Play with the Aura as though it's a boulevardier, and you'll be happy... but isn't this supposed to be a European import competitor?

So What?

Much like a lot of what the General offers nowadays, the Aura tries to be too many things to too many people. Plus it suffers from personality disorder. Is it a sports sedan because of the great powertrain? Is it a cruiser because of the suspension and steering? Is it a family hauler? Is it an entry level executive vehicle? It seems to take a little of every segment, without being a master of any. The powertrain, while great, is not 'better' than the ones offered by Honda/Nissan/Toyota, heck, even the G6 has the 3.6 option this year. The Camry has excelled at being a Japanese Buick for the last 15 years, and has the track record for quality. The Impala is a much better choice as a larger car if you want a sedan that has space. And finally, aspirations for being a competitor to VW and Audi are all fine and good, but sit in EITHER of those makes, and you'll scoff at the idea that this particular Saturn has a chance to gain entry into that market.

Simply put, the Aura is a half baked exercise that needed another 6 months to be fully formed. Seems to be a recurrent theme for GM. It IS the best of the Epsilon offerings, but that sadly is not enough.

The 2007 Toyota Tundra- Death By Badness


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Look at that thing.

Pug nosed.

The truck is pretty ugly too.

A lot of commentary has been lavished on the Tundra. For the most part, the hype about the vehicle has been justified- it is most definitely an important vehicle for Toyota and the truck segment of the market. Unfortunately for Toyota, although the hype about the impact of the Tundra has been justified, the Tundra itself is an abject disappointment.

We've been told ad nauseum that this thing was conceived, designed and engineered by Americans for Americans. And that's fine and dandy. Unfortunately, Toyota must have hired all of the reject American F-150, Ram, Sierra and Silverado designers and engineers when it hired for the Tundra.

Looks are subjective. My opinion is truth- the Tundra is ugly in pictures and ugly in person. Things don't get any better once you open the door. Shut it, and the entire door panel inside the truck shudders and actually moves around quite a bit. Reminds me of my dad's old 1985 LeSabre, which is probably what Toyota was going for. At 6 feet tall, I can only reach the easternmost portions of the center console by lifting my ample ass off the seat. The fake silver applique is slathered all over the inside of this thing.

In short, everything apart from the marvelous engine/tranny combo is woefully inadequate and shitty. I'd take a Titan over the Tundra any day of the week. I'd take everything short of a Dodge Ram over the Tundra. In an effort to appease the nonsense jibber jabber of American jingoistic retards who always said the Tundra was too small for a 1/2 ton, Toyota has made a 1/2 ton that's big enough, but nowhere near good enough.

14 March 2007

The Stupidity of Saturn.


As GM remains curled up in a fetal position, prone to futile outbursts of 'we're still #1' and emboldened by their legions of suckers, err, fans, who have been proclaiming a rebirth for the struggling car maker, let's take a step back and look at just what the current darling of the GM stable, Saturn, is doing.

Think back like the Boot Camp song, to about 15 years ago. Such bright eyed optimism and verve. Saturn was to be the Zach Morris to GM's Screech of the 90's. Malaise had set in. The Japanese were in the process of obliterating GM and Ford in the compact and midsize car markets. But hey, profits were rolling in still because of truck and SUV sales. Someone must have had some inkling of what was going on, and decided that GM had to start fresh- thus Saturn was born. The different car company for the common person. No mention of GM anywhere. It was like a bigger version of those initial Infiniti ads, with the added benefit of GM actually talking about their cars in their commercials.

Look! Plastic doors! Look! Shopping carts don't ding them! Look! The sales staff clap when you buy their car! Look! They're cheering you out the door! Look! No haggle pricing! Look! It's just like a Japanese car, but it's American!

After a decent enough initial offering, Saturn quickly became a lame duck. An extremely expensive lame duck, but a lame duck nonetheless. And so it went for the next 14 years or so. Remember how the L-Series was supposed to be the saviour of the brand? Yeah, that worked out well. What about the Ion? Yeah, that was a chart topper too. The brand, to put it simply, stunk. And not so coincidentally, so did the cars.

A related side story to all of this is the fact that during this time, Oldsmobile was in their own death throes. Forced to move into the 'Euro' niche for GM, they had finally started making decent vehicles, but due to a number of debacles (the Aurora initially being released without an Olds badge on it anywhere being but one such example), the brand was headed for the history books. Keep that in mind.

Back to Saturn.

So fast forward to the last couple of years. The Saturn lineup- Ion, Vue, L-Thing, Relay, umm. Hmm. Yup. Quite the revolution. A small turd, a fake SUV turd, a minivan turd, and a bigger turd. In their infinite wisdom, GM decides to give Saturn a pipeline into Opel, their European mainstream division. Makers of the mundane Vectra, and a number of other German engineered vehicles. The strategy? To make Saturn the Euro inspired marque of GM.

Now think about that for a second. The Euro inspired marque for GM. GM, the company that owns Saab. GM, the company that already axed their previous Euro inspired marque. Saturn, the brand that started off as a fake Japanese brand, and had progressed to real American shit. Square peg, round hole, no?


The first fruit of their labour was the Sky. I will not be capitalizing all the letters in the name, mainly because I feel it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen. To be honest, I have no issues with the Sky. Fantastic vehicle. It's basically an Opel Roadster/Pontiac Solstice, but it's still very nice.

From the Sky, Saturn really crapped their pants.

Said crapping came in the form of the Aura. Initial reports had it as a carbon copy version of the Opel Vectra. As were were soon to find out, such reports were false. What we basically got was a tarted up Pontiac G6. The same Pontiac G6 that sucked balls in just about every respect for the previous 3 years before the introduction of the Aura. Check it out- they're almost identical in width, length and interior volume. They have identical wheelbases. They use identical engine sets, with the Aura lacking a 4 cylinder option.

The zealots have bleated that they drive differently. Yup, they do. But not by much. And saying they drive differently is like saying a donkey is less headstrong than a mule. Where the G6 is firm with a cloying softness, the Aura is soft with a cloying firmness.

Through all this, GM has undertaken what I have to say is a somewhat amusing marketing strategy with the vehicle- nonstop 'Euro' commentary and descriptions, and planted pre-launch stories talking about people mistaking the vehicle for a Lexus, Acura or . All for what is essentially a G6 with a nicer interior.

Incredible.

Most amusing is that the Aura has been whipped in every comparison out there, besting only the Camry and Sebring. And sales have followed suit, not even coming close to 10k a month for a vehicle that has now been out for almost 6 months on dealer lots. Still ramping up production? Still not enough vehicles on lots? Are we supposed to believe this drivel? The little car company that could is now marking up vehicles over MSRP (see the Sky after it first came out), no longer offers dent resistant panels, and now has a name sullied by 15 years of neglect and misuse.

Why did they kill Olds again?

Saturn is a perfect example of how GM can do the right thing and still completely screw up the money. The brand should have been axed. Every Saturn you see on the road in the next 2 years should have been a Pontiac. Instead the geniuses at the Ren Center have decided to try and rebuild a dead brand with a limited amount of dealerships nationwide, while letting what used to be their second highest volume brand languish on the vine.

Figures.

I will give credit where it is due however- the next stage of the rebirth is to bring over the Opel Astra and the Opel Antara to be badged as the Astra and Vue in Saturn guise. Unlike the Aura, the vehicles will be carbon copies of their European ancestors. Probably only until GM stops importing them and starts making them in America.