23 August 2007

Canadians Are Getting The Shaft

Have you looked at car prices lately?

If you're an American, probably not too closely since all of your media and information is fairly insular and will always report the US pricing alone. Subcompact cars will run from 12k to 16k, compacts will nudge up to 21k, midsizers will range from 20k to 30k, and so forth. There are identifiable pricing segments, and there are identifiable ranges. Yes, inflation has moved pricing upwards, but at a fairly average pace.

If you're a Canadian however, and you've looked at car prices lately, you're probably slamming your head against your computer monitor as you read this. The reason? Car prices in Canada are ridiculously out of whack. Due to pricing differences predicated on a 60 to 70 cent Canadian dollar from 3-5 years ago, Canadian car prices have absolutely soared compared to their American counterparts- without moving up beyond usual inflation increases- all this is because if you haven't heard about it recently- the Canadian dollar is floating near 95 cents US...and climbing.

Parity between the bucks appears likely to happen, and every car maker is sitting back quietly raking in the profits.

Some examples?

Take the Honda S2000. In Canada, the pricing starts at approximately $51,000. A 70 cent dollar would give you an American price of about $35,000. However, with the dollar at the level it is, the American price should be closer to $49,000. Want to know the actual price of an S2000 in the US? $34,000. So for every S2000 sold near sticker in Canada right now, Honda is making an extra $15,000 Canadian. Without doing anything. Think about that for a second. If you adjust for the current dollar, the S2000 shouldn't be anywhere near $51,000 in Canada right now- it should be closer to $36,000.

Want another example? Let's go mainstream.

How about the Camry? The XLE V6 trim with navigation will cost a Canadian buyer a tad over $40,000. So you would expect that the same American car would cost about $37,000 US right? Wrong. A Camry XLE V6 with navigation in the US will cost at MOST $31,520. In essence, just by sitting pat and letting the markets move, Toyota is making an extra $6,000 per Camry sold in Canada. Think they don't want to increase their market share at these prices?

A final example? Let's play with a truck.

An extended cab Chevrolet Silverado LTZ 4WD with a regular box with cost a Canadian buyer a shade over $45,000 with no other options ticked off. The American version at current dollar levels should cost almost $43,000 US. Instead, US buyers can get the exact same vehicle in the US for about $34,500- a difference of $7,500 US. When you're selling as many Silverados as GM does, this is big money.

And it's not just the 3 examples above. Every single model of vehicle out there has this discrepancy built into it. Now, I'm not advocating that car manufacturers change their pricing structures on a month to month basis depending on the level of the dollar- but we're talking a more than 20 cent swing in the last 5 years, and not a single one has done anything to rectify the situation. Would a yearly evaluation help? Every 2 years? 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. And yet it's plastered in front of us regularly if we read any information from an American source. Yes, there are some border dealers who specialize in importing American cars over, but really, this is a quiet 'epidemic' that is getting no play.

I guess the only question is- who will be the first to sacrifice some profit in order to make an artificial price play in the Canadian market? Or even more out there- who will be the first automaker in the US to RAISE prices to reflect the weakness of the greenback?

Two Extremes in Chinese Knockoffs

Continuing on a humorous, yet also pathetic road that we've traveled before, two of the latest Chinese knockoff vehicles have come to light, and they couldn't be more extreme opposites. For previous coverage on this, click here.

The first is called the Shuanghuan Noble, and is almost identical to DaimlerChrysler's Smart ForTwo. Automotive News reported that Mercedes-Benz may be filing a lawsuit to block the Noble's sales in Germany. There are two major differences between the cars, visual similarities aside: The Smart is a two seater and starts at €9,490, while the Noble clone is a four seater and is expected to sell for just €7,000, making it the least expensive vehicle sold in Germany.

Shuanghuan Noble (above) and the real Smart ForTwo (below)

China Automobile Deutschland is the intended importer of the vehicle, and its managing director, said Klaus Schlössl said the car only "bears a resemblance to the Smart ForTwo from certain angles" and that "The cars are priced differently and are in a different class in terms of quality. There are many cars on the road today that look similar to each other." Well, I'll concede that they're priced differently, and that the quality is likely going to be a strong point of differentiation, but the cars look similar from more than "certain angles." Here's hoping that DaimlerChrysler prevails in keeping this vehicle out of Germany.

Our next example is the Dongfeng Crazy Soldier, which looks curiously similar to the AM General Humvee favored by the US Military, and previously in vogue by "urban soldiers" in the 1990s. The vehicle was developed in cooperation with Chinese Army officials over several years, but it is now for sale to civilians in the Chinese domestic market.

The Dongfeng Crazy Soldier (above) and the real Hummer H1 (below)

Let's see - failed crash tests, failed quality, and copycat designs. Sounds like a recipe for a successful industry, doesn't it? I'm not saying that the Chinese auto industry will never be successful, but it's not going to happen overnight.

22 August 2007

The Japanese Car The Germans Wish They Made?

See that title? That's the tag line for the new Subaru Impreza. At present time I have no idea if it's being used outside of Canada, but I do know that in the past 2 days I've seen it plastered all over the newspaper and on TV commercials that seem to run in an endless loop of despair.

I mean seriously, this is the best marketing idea that Subaru chose from?

I was unaware that German engineers were scrambling to find ways to engineer a compact car that looks like a bar of soap with a set of late 80's Mercury Sable headlights out front, combined with a floaty suspension that completely disregards the past history of the make (if you believe the car rags). Obviously they've failed if the best they can do is the 3 Series, C-Class and upcoming 1 Series.

As time goes by, I'm finding it very difficult to believe that some of these car companies are run by sane people. It's even more bewildering now that Toyota has a stake in Subie. If you think about it, a 'pseudo-German' ad campaign makes absolutely ZERO sense in the story that is Subaru, regardless of the vehicle. They've just spent the last 10 years reinforcing the 'Outback' style and their AWD system. They went so far as to hire freaking Crocodile Dundee for an ad campaign. I'd wager that most people not into cars might have actually thought that Subaru was an Australian company.

And the solution to all this brand image? To dump it all off and go with 'Japanese but with a German edge'.

It must be too brilliant for my mind to comprehend.

Anatomy Of A Message Board Poster

The interwebs have been around for a while now, and while its impact is debatable (see: Snakes On A Plane, unjustified hype of), there is one thing that it offers that cannot be debated- the message board.

Today, I write not of just any message board, but the car message board. The car message board isn't something that can easily be pinned down. You can have a general message board... you can have a brand message board... you can have a model message board... you can have an anti-brand/model message board... you can have a message board based on country of origin... you can have an engine message board... and so on. It really is an endless loop, rivaled only by the music message board and its variants.

With that being said, the types of posters who inhabit these message boards are finite. I present to you a smattering of them. As always, this list is by no means complete, but I tried.

  • The Brand Humper
Pretty self-explanatory. In years past, the lines were pretty clear. Followers of the Big 3 hated everything else, especially their Big 3 counterparts. German car fans were in the same boat, with BMW and Mercedes fans loathing eachother equally. The one constant was that everyone hated the Japanese brands and the Korean brands. Today however, the lines aren't so clear anymore- many GM fans are rooting for Ford... Chrysler used to be owned by Mercedes... BMW owns Mini. Globalization has flipped everything on its head. The common thread of course, is that they all still hate the Japanese and Korean makes. Not to fear however, as rampant brand favoritism still exists out there. Things to look out for- the Brand Humper will usually plaster their entire garage in their signature, and it will always be one brand of vehicle. Be on the lookout for model or company names in their message board name- MUSTANGFREEK1986 is a good example. They'll also interject with their favorite brand into any and every thread- even when it has nothing to do with anything. And lastly, and most deviously, they'll enter threads that are about direct competitors to their favorite brands, and will either show their true colours out in the open, or compliment the competitor in a backhanded manner.

  • The Chassis Nerd (Also: Engine Nerd, Model Nerd)
The easiest way to spot the Chassis Nerd is by the way they refer to vehicles. Instead of starting a thread about a 2007 BMW 3 Series sedan, they'll start a thread about an E90 (E92 if they're talking about the coupe). Instead of responding to a Honda engine swap question by suggesting a 2.0 liter Civic motor, they'll blithely throw out a K20A2 reference. And don't get me started on Volkswagens. You're not buying a used 1987 Jetta- you're buying a Mk2. And you're sure as hell an idiot if you refer to a mid 90's RX-7 as anything but an FD (bonus points if you have a JDM FD3s). The Nerd revels in acronyms. They bathe in nomenclature. They shower in useless abbreviations. They are to be approached with caution - if you see one of their threads, click on a Google AdWord instead. If you still accidentally click, slowly and carefully hit your back button.

  • Hacksaw Jim Duggan (Also: Ze German, Goku)
Sometimes very easy to spot, sometimes very stealthy, the nationalistic poster is quite possibly my favorite type of poster for a number of reasons- they are blindly loyal to whatever they're spewing about (regardless of facts), they are very easy to rile up, and lastly, they tend to reinforce every single stereotype that you could possibly imagine when you initiate contact with them. Really, if you think about it, they're like the message board answer to a Creationist. The weak point of a Hacksaw Jim Duggan is questioning the superiority of American trucks. The weak point of Ze German is questioning German quality. The weak point of Goku is questioning the passion of Japanese vehicles. Touch on any of these weak points and be prepared for vicious rebuttals ranging from randoming misspellings of your/you're/yer, to assaults on the car you drive yourself, to proclamations on the superiority of VTEC!!!OMG!!!111!!!. Want to get on their good side? American patriots love reminiscing about the old days. German patriots will swoon if you mention driving on the Nurburgring or call it an S-Klasse. Japanese patriots will fall head over heels in love with you if you think Bluetooth, navi, self parking mechanisms and portable cappuccino machines should be in every car sold today.

  • The Tree Hugger (Also: The Oil Burner)
It used to be that the Tree Hugger was easily identifiable- they would squeal like Ned Beatty in Deliverance at the sight of any SUV related thread. The Prius has changed this dynamic however. Yes, they'll still infiltrate anything truck and SUV related- but now they'll also set their sites on such wonderful acronyms as ULEV, SULEV, PZEV, and of course, the Holy Grail- ZEV. My advice? Stay far far far away from them. Dare to question them and be prepared to face the wrath of a thousand spreadsheets extolling the virtues of their vehicles. A fun pastime however, is to mention the presence of diesel alternatives. You can then sit back, relax, and enjoy the view as The Oil Burner sect descend upon the thread for entertaining battle.

  • The Noob (Also: Your Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa)
Some poor sap who typed in 'Chevy Uplander breaking down' into Google, stumbled upon the message board, took the time to register and post a question about their poor Chevy Uplander (which is breaking down), and promptly gets lambasted for not knowing the answer to their own question.

  • The Mechanic
Generally a pretty good poster- limited to what they service, but can be a fountain of knowledge if you're looking for model specific information. I've got nothing bad to say here. Beware the similar but very different species The (Fake) Mechanic, identifiable by a wealth of anecdotal experiences but very little in the way of actual knowledge.

  • The Yeller (Also: The 14 Year Old Poster)

  • The Unbiased (Also: The Contrarian)
Luckily for those of us living in democratic societies, we have measures in place to protect our freedom, justice and equality. No, I'm not talking about the law or the police. I'm talking about The Unbiased. 99.9% of the time found in brand/nation/model specific forums, where their sole goal is to ensure that everyone is being UNBIASED. They will proclaim this loudly and clearly. Multiple times. Bias is anathema to these people. But look at it this way- they're helping you not get attached to inanimate objects! Of course, what The Unbiased will never admit to is that in order to be truly unbiased, they'd have to not own a vehicle at all, read anything about cars (including message boards), or form an opinion about anything. Bring this up and wait for the stock answer- "I thoroughly tested each and every vehicle in my price range before picking the one that best suited my needs, budget and social status". It's like talking to a cardboard cutout of a Consumer Reports reader. The Contrarian is related to The Unbiased, but is different because they don't care about bias- they just love going contrary to whatever everyone else says. To them, a Corvette has 6 wheels, and an S-Class is a BMW.

  • The CEO
Criticizes anything and everything about the business. New model coming out? There's something wrong with it. Mid-cycle refresh? They didn't address all the shortcomings. Making a profit? They should have made more. Will generally supplement their posting on a message board with a blog to satisfy their ego and rampant Napoleonic tendencies (hmmmmm).

  • The Insider
Dark and mysterious. Sort of like a Caramilk bar, but even sweeter because they have all the tidbits of information that you crave like a Star Wars fan does a 3rd trilogy. They almost always either work on the line (where secrets are apparently shared like Halloween candy) or have a friend in the company who likes sabotaging the efforts of the employer who provides their living. They're to be trusted 50% of the time- the other half is to be copied for future pastings in order to showcase their lack of knowledge.

  • The Moderator
Friendless. Cold and lonely. Live in the basement of their parents house. Best to ignore completely.

  • The One Worder (Also: Emoticonner)
Yup. ;)


Like I said...just a sprinkling of what you'll find out there- I'm sure there are many more I've passed over.

Car Sharing at Colleges Is Introduced

Yes, I know that nearly everyone who has gone to college in the past half century has shared their car (or borrowed a friend's car) from time to time. I had the pleasure of driving a friend's 1978 Volare wagon back in 1995, when I could have instead driven my 1992 Oldsmobile Achieva.

This is something different, though. Two companies that provide primarily urban car sharing, ZipCar and FlexCar, have started expanding their service to college campuses in recent months.

The college car sharing plans work similarly to the urban car sharing plans that these firms offer. Once enrolled in the program for a nominal annual fee (usually around $35), you reserve a car (usually a Civic or other compact car) and go to various locations (identified by the company online or via phone), swipe your card, hop into the car and drive away. Hourly rates are usually between $5 and $10, and include gasoline and a relatively large mileage allowance. For someone who lives in a city, they're a great alternative to car ownership and all of the insurance, parking, and vandalism headaches that it can entail.

These companies have now decided to move into the next logical arena - car sharing for college students. The plans work almost identically, except the cars are picked up at locations around campus instead of in a city, and ZipCar or FlexCar contract with the school's fleet department to perform weekly inspections, cleaning, and maintenance.

While most rental companies will not rent to individuals under age 21, and tack on sometimes-hefty surcharges for renters between age 21 and 25, FlexCar and ZipCar are allowing renters as young as 18 to borrow cars for occasional use, as long as they have two years of driving history and adequate liability insurance. The companies are also encouraging faculty and fleet departments to utilize their cars when needed rather than maintaining their own vehicles.

To me, this is a brilliant idea. Many schools do not allow freshmen or sophomores to have cars on campus - car sharing solves that. Many schools are in urban areas with limited parking - car sharing solves that because each shared car gets its own dedicated parking space.

The kinds of cars that are available may not set enthusiasts' hearts a-flutter, but they are a nice, relatively inexpensive solution to not having "wheels" available when needed for a trip to the grocery store. I'd encourage parents of college students, and even college students themselves, to look into these services.

If You Didn't Already Do It, Now's The Time To Really Say Goodbye To Jaguar

Left Lane News is reporting that the following image is a pretty good look at what to expect from the Jaguar XF- a car that basically needs to be a hit for Jaguar to even think about surviving beyond the Ford years.

Umm, excuse me?

I didn't know the market was clamouring for a car that looks like a Lexus ES. Especially in the mid-range lux segment. And if there WAS such a market, Lexus would have probably made their GS look like it.

So what the hell are they smoking? Are they so bereft of ideas over at Ford/Jaguar that THIS is the best they could come up with? Frankly, I don't give a crap about the interior or the power. What Jaguar is CURRENTLY offering has pretty nice interiors and pretty good power- what they all lack however (including the XK, which I think looks okay) is any type of distinctive Jaguar style (and no, the 30 year old perpetually refreshed XJ isn't the answer). The worst part of it all? That this is the car that supposedly 'inspired' what you see above:

Nissan To GT-R Buyers- 'Only We Can Gouge'

Nissan has come up with a fantastic way to win over potential buyers of their upcoming supercar entrant, the GT-R-

According to Jan Thompson, Nissan's vice president of marketing, in an effort to prevent buyers from selling their dealer-purchased Skyline GT-R immediately for a profit, Nissan is considering voiding the Skyline's warranty for the second buyer if the transaction takes place less than one year after the initial purchase.

So to make things very clear- Nissan dealers who will probably be taking thousands of dollars of markup on this car? Perfectly fine. People buying the GT-R to flip it immediately for a profit? Not perfectly fine. And finally, rich guy who gets bored of his cars easily and wants to sell his car? Not perfectly fine either.

Is option #3 a believable situation? Not in most instances. But it IS weird to hear of a car company essentially handcuffing buyers this way. A part of me hopes that the dealers fulfill their inherent greediness and mark up the vehicle so much that no one wants them at all... and are forced to come back down to earth... at which time no one will want to buy a GT-R anyways because of the idiotic warranty rule. Leaving, of course, all the models for me. For $2.99 apiece.

But of course, that's all just a dream.

(Source: Edmunds)

Next Generation Corvette To Put The Thrust Behind Your Butt?

Oftentimes insane Peter De Lorenzo at Autoextremist thinks so-

But after my conversations late last week with executives at the top of the company (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons), I can tell you that the "idea" of a mid-engined "C7" Corvette has not only progressed far beyond the initial planning stages, the engineering on the car is well underway.
What's the impetus for such a drastic change in philosphy?

Apparently the forces behind the decision think they can make it work from a cost effectiveness standpoint, and they also feel it is needed to stay current in racing series and to re-establish and enhance GM as a technological leader.


Wait a second. All three of those reasons sound like perfectly legitimate business reasons to move ahead with the project. This is GM right?

21 August 2007

2008 Honda Accord Officially Introduced

Although the 2008 Accord may well be the most-leaked vehicle in recent automotive history (its interior and exterior were captured by countless spy photographers, in both disguised and undisguised forms), today Honda officially pulled the wraps off of the Accord. And wow, is it an impressive car.

At the risk of sounding like a Honda press release, I'll begin by stating what I am not enamored with the exterior styling of the sedan - which is the model I'd buy if I was in the market for a new car. It is something of a derivative shape, and cribs some styling cues from BMW, the Acura RL, and even the Hyundai Sonata. To my eyes, it doesn't look as bad as some of its critics are trying to portray it. I wouldn't call it ugly, but it's neither beautiful nor unique. It is, however, more interesting than the ho-hum styling of the current model, of which I'm an owner for the past four years. The coupe, on the other hand, has a similar-looking but entirely unique body and has a much sleeker and sportier appearance.

All Accord models have improved fuel economy, safety features, interior room, and horsepower compared to their predecessors. Engine offerings include two 2.4 liter four cylinders (177 horsepower in the base LX and LX-P sedans, 190 horsepower in the EX and EX-L sedans and LX-S and EX coupe) and a new 3.5 liter V6 (268 horsepower in the EX-L V6 sedan and coupe). Five-speed manual transmissions are standard in all four-cylinder models, and five-speed automatic transmissions are standard in all V6 models and optional in all four-cylinder models. There is also a six-speed manual available exclusively in the EX-L V6 6MT coupe. Fuel economy for the V6 has improved from 18 city/26 highway to 19 city/29 highway (by 1 mpg in the city and 3 mpg on the highway) when comparing the new for 2008 EPA ratings, in spite of the car moving from the EPA midsize to large car class, gaining 150 pounds, and 24 horsepower. That's a 5.6% improvement in city mileage and an 11.5% improvement in highway mileage, in a bigger, more powerful car. Much of the thanks goes to Honda's cylinder deactivation, which can run the V6 in three-, four-, or six-cylinder mode depending on need. Most likely, all six cylinders aren't needed for steady-state highway cruising, so some of them are shut down to conserve fuel. Honda also includes Active Noise Control sound cancellation standard on all V-6 models with automatic transmission and on all 190-hp four-cylinder cars to mitigate any vibrations or noises from the four cylinders or the V6 running on three or four cylinders.

Inside, the back seat has more room (according to Honda, nearly as much legroom as the Pilot SUV) and comfort. The dash and instrument panel were redesigned to move the 8" navigation screen up and more into the driver's line of sight. Models without navigation have a multi-display in its place to show HVAC and audio settings. Some have criticized the new Accord's interior as being too button-heavy, but when an interior includes all of the technology that this one does (navigation, Bluetooth, XM Satellite Radio, CD changer, dual zone climate control), it's difficult to control everything without a button. At any rate, the buttons are logically arranged and large so that they can be operated with minimum distraction. The alternative would be excluding the technology (as GM has chosen to do with its 2008 Chevrolet Malibu) or using an iDrive-type interface as BMW, Audi, and Mercedes do (and are oft-criticized). The interior has some premium detailing absent from the old model, such as horizontal trim strips across the dash and door panels and jewel-like gauges, and Honda claims that material quality has been upgraded (and they were already pretty good in most places).

Safety equipment sets the class standard. The Accord comes with six airbags and stability control, active head restraints, four wheel ABS and four wheel disc brakes, all standard.

Final pricing has not been released yet, but I expect it to be in line with the outgoing 2007 model's pricing; that is, between $20,000 and $30,000, which isn't bad considering the amount of safety, technology, and performance that you're getting for the money.

Comparisons between the Accord and its midsize sedan classmates will be inevitable. Objectively, it has basically everything on paper that the class leaders have - it's two horsepower shy of the Altima's 270-horsepower V6, but gets the best V6 fuel economy in its class, in spite of only having a five-speed automatic - and recent Accords have been very good as space efficiency in a smaller package; I expect more of the same from this iteration.

A sidebar to the Accord's launch is that the 2008 Chevy Malibu is put in the unenviable position of having to launch against this car. The Malibu has an optional six-speed automatic, but is down on horsepower and fuel economy (the similar 2008 Saturn Aura gets 17/26 city/highway according to the EPA, which is about 12% less). Now having seen the Malibu's competition, and having seen GM fans already clamoring for the next generation replacement of a car that still has yet to be launched itself, the Malibu's work is more than cut out for it. It would be difficult enough to convince loyal Honda, Toyota, and Nissan buyers to leave their comfort zone and consider a Malibu or Saturn even if those cars were clearly superior to the Accord, but when the Accord is probably already a better car, where's the compelling reason to jump ship? This means that GM will probably have to resort to selling the Malibu on its "value" rather than its features, which is a shame. Unfortunately, the US auto market, and particularly the midsize sedan market, is extremely competitive. While the Malibu is heads and tails better than the 2004-2007 model, it might not be good enough to change peoples' minds when the Honda Accord is also hitting dealers' lots. I hope for GM's sake that I'm wrong.