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Observations From an Auto Show

January 28th, 2011 Comments off

The Washington, DC Auto Show kicked off today.  And although it’s not the premiere event on most automakers’ calendars, it is an important occasion, given the vast intersection between the auto industry and policy makers.  It’s also the auto show that’s easiest for me to attend, given that it takes place in the city in which I work…

So, as I wandered through the automakers’ displays, taking note of the new models on the floor (…and I’m talking about the cars, not the barbie-esque spokespersons demonstrating how to recline the seats…), I made a few observations.  And here they are.

Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat is here. Yes, I’ve been excited about the arrival of the Cinquecento for some time.  And Chrysler … err, Fiat had quite a few on display in various colors and trim levels.  This is a nice car. ..It’s a small car.  (Grown people may not be able to fit in the back seat.)  But I think it will sell at least as well as the Mini Cooper (its only real competition) has done.  Molto bene!

Chrysler may be back from the brink, but its future isn’t certain. One of two automakers that the government saved from complete collapse (the other being GM), Chrysler finally has an updated line-up reaching the market.  It is much improved (the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is awesome, and the new Durango and Charger are impressive as well); but I get the feeling their first step post-rescue, while big, is still a little shaky.  I’m skeptical that any of these vehicles (other than the Cherokee) will sell in large numbers.  And it’s telling that their Fiat 500 display was the most crowded spot in the entire Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat area while I was there.

Buick is relevant. GM started turning Buick around not long before the General found itself at the edge of the cliff.  Through their restructuring, the Buick brand was saved, and now has an expanded (and impressive) model line-up.  The Enclave is arguably the best looking vehicle in its class, the Regal GS is bad-ass (yes, I said a Buick is bad-ass), and the upcoming Verano is a small car for grown-ups.  Now, if only they could come up with better model names…

Acura isn’t. Honda’s premium brand, for some reason, has decided to make cars that nobody wants to buy.

Ford C-Max

Ford is on a tear. From where I stood, Ford had the biggest presence at the Washington Auto Show, and had the vehicles to back it up.  They’re making great cars lately – the new Taurus, Focus, Fiesta, and Explorer (not to mention the EcoBoost powertrains, as well as hybrids and pure electrics) are at the top of their class.  The new C-Max is impressive as well.  Ford was the only Detroit automaker that didn’t require government assistance – and now they’re flaunting it.

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG isn’t nearly as attractive in person as it is in the pictures. Sad, but true.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Right now, I’d rather be Hyundai than Toyota or Honda.  It used to be that the Korean imports could only hope to match the quality, performance, styling, and reliability of the two biggest Japanese brands.  Now Toyota and Honda would do well to aim for Hyundai.  Hyundai claims that the Sonata hybrid is designed to be the first hybrid you want to buy.  They may be right.

Mini is a brand. Sure, the modern Cooper has been around for a few years now, but it’s basically been thought of a sub-brand of BMW.  Now with the (ugly) Clubman and the (still ugly but I want one anyway) Countryman, they’ve got a whole line-up. And they don’t have any competition.  (Well, scratch that, due to my first observation above!)

Nissan may be a one-trick pony. With all the (well-deserved) hype about the Leaf, people may have forgotten that Nissan makes other vehicles, too.  Apparently, so has Nissan.  They still make some good cars, but their design language – which had gotten just a little avant-garde in a desirable sort of way – has taken a wrong turn.

2011 Audi RS5

Audi makes the best interiors.  And exteriors. VW’s premium brand gained a reputation for making the inside of their vehicles one of the most eye-pleasing environments into which a person could deposit him (or her) self.  That’s still true.  And the exteriors have followed suit.  Add to that cutting edge technologies such as Quattro, TDI, TFSI, and the aluminum space frame, and it’s no wonder Audi saw sales increase last year more than rivals BMW or Mercedes.

And finally, people need to be informed by folks who understand. The official auto show guide, in describing the 10 most efficient vehicles (as rated by the EPA), said that if a (all-electric) Nissan Leaf had a 14-gallon gas tank, it could travel over 1300 miles… What?  How does that work?  What good is a gas tank on an electric vehicle?… (OK, it works by calculating the energy content of gasoline – approximately 33.7 kWh per gallon – and falsely assuming that, because the EPA fuel economy label says that the Leaf uses about 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, it could travel over 1300 miles on the energy content of 14 gallons of gasoline.  The EPA fuel economy label also says the Leaf gets 99 MPG.  Which is a nonsensical metric for an electric vehicle.)

Peeks, Leafs, and Curves

April 25th, 2010 Comments off

Just over a week ago, I opened my mouth about V-Vehicle Company, and the fact that they appeared to be dead in the water.  Apparently, the folks at VVC read my post, and thus decided to give a few journalists a sneak PEEK of their affordable, efficient, composite-bodied compact.  According to Autobloggreen, it looks like a cross between a VW Golf and a Dodge Neon. …Who knew ThatCarBlog had such an effect on the automotive start-ups?

2011 Nissan Leaf

In other news, this week Nissan revealed that 6,635 people in the U.S. have paid $99 to reserve a Leaf … in only 3 days.  This is notable for several reasons.  First, lack of customer demand was one of the reasons GM cited in the early ’90s for the limited availability (and eventual cancellation) of the EV1 program.  (Of course, when customers … demanded … the EV1, GM’s stance was, “Oh, they’re not really serious.”)  Demand for the Leaf, which won’t be available until the end of the year, is already stronger than expected – a very good sign for Nissan (and EVs in general).  Secondly, compared to the expectations and media chatter surrounding Chevrolet’s Volt, hype surrounding the Leaf has been relatively limited.  This deserves mention, considering the Leaf will arrive at around the same time as the Volt, and it’s an all-electric vehicle (compared to the Volt’s plug-in-hybrid … er, extended-range-electric propulsion architecture).  Many folks still consider pure EVs to not quite be ready for mass-market consumption.  …And finally, the 100-mile range Leaf will cost $25,280 after tax incentives, about $7k less than the Volt.

2011 Audi RS5

And on a final note … I just can’t stop staring at Audi’s new RS5.  This is one sexy car, with subtly striking CURVES and amazing performance potential.  OK, so the 450 hp, 4.2 liter V8 underneath its hood may not be the most efficient power plant imaginable, but with an average fuel economy of 22 mpg, it’s not nearly as thirsty as most cars of this caliber.  And with such visual appeal on the outside, it’s hard to pay attention to what’s on the inside…

Quattro Formaggio

December 20th, 2009 Comments off

For 37 years, I lived in the south.  (And technically I still do, though most would call my current locale the Mid-Atlantic.)  And in the south, we only get snow once – maybe twice – a year.  And when we do, it’s typically an inch or two (and the governor still usually declares a state of emergency).  Despite this, all three vehicles in my household’s garage have all-wheel- (or 4-wheel-) drive.  I’ve insisted on it.

Now, many folks believe all-wheel-drive is only useful in snow or mud (or otherwise slippery conditions).  I recall about 8 years ago, when I test-drove a VW Passat, I asked the salesman about 4Motion – Volkswagen’s all-wheel-drive system.  His reply was, “You can’t get that down here!  Those are only for up north!”  (…We then went to the Audi dealer and bought an A4 Avant – with Quattro all-wheel-drive – instead.)  And sure, the biggest advantage for a vehicle in which all 4 wheels are driven comes when the weather gets treacherous.  …I’m thinking about this now, because I recently had the opportunity to drive through the middle of The Blizzard Of ’09.  It took 6 hours to go what is normally a 2-hour drive.  Toward the end, I saw rear-wheel-drive cars pirouette across icy bridges, front-wheel-drive cars struggle to exit nearly level parking lots, and even an overturned tractor-trailer.  Overall, I probably witnessed over 50 vehicles nosed into a guardrail, stuck on the shoulder, or otherwise scarred and motionless.  (Quiz:  What do you think the car was that stood out to me out as being the most unusable in the snow?  Answer at the end of the post.)  The A4 soldiered on, as if the event were simply a light rain.

Audi Ski JumpOf course, an AWD vehicle isn’t the only way to handle snowy roads.  A capable driver with a front-wheel- or even a rear-wheel-drive car (especially with a limited-slip differential) and proper tires can maneuver quite well.  (An even smarter driver may decide to stay inside and enjoy some hot buttered rum!)  But physics dictates that the more contact-patches moving the car along, the more likely it is to move at all.  (Stopping is a different matter.  All cars have 4-wheel-brakes.  Unfortunately, it’s the loose nut behind the steering wheel that is often the weak link!)  The fact that I saw a few 18-wheelers (with two driven axles, totaling 8 wheels) spin their tires and go nowhere on the slightest incline testifies to the road conditions 2 nights ago.

But what about the 99% of the time when you don’t need all-wheel-drive?  I mean, doesn’t it just add weight and inefficiency?  Well – yes, it does.  But, it’s still worth it.  Drive a front-wheel-drive car near the limit – try to accelerate while turning.  The front-end will just plow (that is, understeer, or in NASCAR-speak:  push) to the outside of the turn.  A rear-wheel-drive car is much more sporting in that regard, but apply too much power and the opposite effect occurs:  oversteer, when the rear-end breaks loose.  But an all-wheel-drive car can make even the worst driver look talented.

And what about that other 1% of the time when the weather dictates that an all-wheel-drive system might be beneficial? Absolutely worth the price paid (which is usually no more than a DVD or a navigation system).

QUIZ ANSWER:  I saw several of the latest generation Dodge Magnum wagons during my drive.  I think every one of them was stuck.  If you live north of the US/Mexico border, you probably shouldn’t buy one.

Doppelkupplungsgetriebe

July 5th, 2009 Comments off

I noticed in the mid-1980s, about the time I became of legal driving age, that cars with manual transmissions get slightly better fuel economy than their automatic transmission equivalents.  I was surprised recently to find out that this wasn’t common knowledge.  And I’ve long wondered, what if we all drove stick-shift?  How much fuel would that save, given that nearly 3/4 of the vehicles sold in North America come equipped with automatic transmissions and the associated 1-2mpg penalty?

A friend recently asked me, why are automatics less efficient?  Now, automatic transmissions are one of the most mysterious components on a vehicle to me.  Inside the transmission are a collection of planetary gearsets, clutches, bands, hydraulic pumps, plates, valves, modulators, and pixie dust that make the car go.  All of this is typically heavier than the components of a manual transmission, and uses a portion of the engine output in its operation.  But the thing which enables the automatic transmission to work (besides the pixie dust) is the torque remover converter.  This is the device that provides a fluid coupling between the engine and transmission, and allows your engine to idle while you’re sitting still with your foot on the brake pedal … and which also accounts for some of the efficiency loss in automatics.

A proper manual gearbox is much more straightforward:  You have a clutch which engages/disengages the connection between the engine and the transmission via your left leg, and gears on the input shaft (from the engine) which engage with gears on the output shaft (to your wheels, through a differential).  No pumping losses, inefficent fluid couplings, pixie dust, or other such nonsense.

Green Technology?

Green Technology?

Blurring the line between manuals and automatics, dual clutch transmissions (DCTs) have been introduced to the mass market in recent years.  VW‘s is called DSG (direct shift gearbox); Audi calls it S-tronic; BMW calls theirs DKG, abbreviating the German “doppelkupplungsgetriebe” (literally, double clutch transmission); Porsche‘s is called PDK (Porsche DoppelKupplungsgetriebe).  These are effectively manual transmissions in which a computer does the shifting for you.  (Of course, they also have a manual mode, allowing the driver to be more involved in the process.)  Note, these boxes are vastly different than the “manumatics” of the past, such as Dodge’s “autostick” and Porsche’s “tiptronic,” which are actually planetary gearset, torque converter-based automatics that pretend to let the driver be in charge.  The new gearboxes are both more efficient than traditional automatics, and often even higher performance – faster shifts – than even the best driver-actuated manuals.  This is achieved by essentially encasing two manual transmissions (one for even gears, one for odd) in a single case – hence, the “dual” nature.  By the computer anticipating and preselecting the next gear to be chosen, shift-time is dramatically reduced.

Could these be a replacement for traditional automatics?  In my opinion, YES, and I back that up with an anecdote: A friend of mine recently bought a DSG-equipped VW Jetta.  He told me it was an automatic, for which I belittled him.  Upon seeing it, I realized it was a DSG and informed him of that fact.  He had no idea, even after driving it a few thousand miles.

A recent article in Automative Engineering International (a publication of the Society of Automotive Engineers) mentions that such gearboxes have been around since the early 1980s, but have only recently become commercially viable because of advances in electronics, sensors, and computing power on-board the vehicle.  New technology has enabled better fuel efficiency AND better performance.  …Ain’t technology great?!