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.