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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.)

The Sound of Silence

February 19th, 2010 Comments off

Seems I’m linking back to myself a lot lately…

Last year, I bored you with a description of a speaker embedded in a car’s exhaust system, used to help tune the exhaust note.  Well, it turns out Honda/Acura has been doing something similar for a while, only using the speakers that are already inside your car.

They call it Active Sound Control, and the system uses anti-phase sound waves (which I also previously talked about) to cancel the “unwanted” engine noises from the cabin, while allowing the more pleasing snarls to tickle your eardrums when the throttle is to the floor.  (The irony here is that I’ve yet to come across a Honda or Acura that actually produced any sound which could be described as aurally exciting.)  Honda is offering the technology on their new Crosstour (a car which I’m oddly intrigued by), and Acura on their TSX, RL, and ZDX.

This is cool technology.  But I can’t help but think it’s just technology for technology’s sake – sort of a Rube Goldberg device for correcting the deficiencies of their engine designers and exhaust system engineers.  (Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time Honda employed an over-engineered solution for a simple taskbut that time I was impressed.)

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps using the stereo to cover up engine sounds is a more efficient solution to unwanted cabin noise than a well-designed engine, proper attention paid to exhaust tuning, a chassis developed with NVH in mind, and sufficient levels of sound-absorbing insulation.  (For what it’s worth, GM chose the insulation route with their Quiet Tuning technology in their Buick brand.)

In my opinion, a more holistic approach would be better than Active Sound Control.  As in most cases, it’s better to treat the source than to mask the symptom.

Questions

September 9th, 2009 Comments off

A friend of mine recently asked me a few car-related questions via email.  I thought I’d answer them here.

Why can’t I get a Jetta turbo diesel sport wagon?  There are waiting lists for this car all over the country.  Seems crazy. Well, that’s easy.  It’s because the demand has exceeded supply.  Ah, but you knew that.  …It’s ironic: wagons haven’t been very popular in the U.S. in recent years, and neither have diesels (which I spoke about here).  But VW can’t seem to build enough Jetta TDI Sportwagens to satisfy the American market right now.  I chalk it up to the fact that folks are finally realizing the benefits of smaller vehicles, as well as modern diesel engines.  In concluding that a wagon is a perfect replacement for their SUV, they’re finding there’s really only one vehicle that fits the bill – the VW sportwagen really doesn’t have any competition out there right now.  I’m still not sure what it will take, though, for them to increase production (are they already at capacity?) or shift more of the allotment to the U.S.  (As a curious sidenote, I think I read somewhere that the vast majority of VW Jetta Sportwagens that are ordered are of the TDI variety.  I may be making that up.)

So which brands of car are we loosing due to the GM collapse?  Which cars will we never see again and good riddance and which one’s would it have been nice to keep around. We’re losing Pontiac – they’re vanishing completely.  And good riddance to them.  We’re losing Hummer – that brand is being sold to Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery.  It’s not clear to me if we’ll continue to see the brand in the U.S., but my guess is that we won’t.  And that won’t be a loss, either.  Saturn also gets the axe, although to a lesser degree – it is being sold to Penske Automotive Group.  GM will continue to supply Penske with the Aura, Vue, and Outlook for a couple of years, and other models will eventually be outsourced from other auto manufacturers.  (Unfortunately, the Saturn Sky didn’t make the cut.  This 2-seat, rear-wheel-drive roadster, sharing the Kappa platform with the Pontiac Solstice, is a completely irrational, impractical automobile – but it’s beautiful, sporty, and is a big loss in my mind.  The Outlook is a good vehicle, but might be a little too diluted, being virtually the same as the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, and Chevy Traverse.)  The Penske deal is an interesting one to me, since it’s different than anything else I’ve seen in the auto industry.  Another interesting deal is the sale of Saab to Swedish supercar-maker Koenigsegg along with Beijing Automotive Industry Holdings.  My guess is Saab will remain, but its focus will shift to the Asian market, and they may vanish from the U.S. altogether.  Unfortunately, Saab never really caught on in the U.S. – and that’s our loss.  Finally, GM may be selling off its Opel unit, though it’s not clear at this point.  Doesn’t really affect us over here, though…

And lastly why do Americans hate the hatchback?? I don’t know.  Call it an extension of the anti-wagon sentiment.  Although, hatchbacks have been successful here in the past.  The original hot-hatches, the Honda CVCC and VW GTi, were hugely popular.  And the Ford Focus hatchback sold well here, I believe.  I’m excited for the 2011 Ford Fiesta (in hatchback form) to make its arrival.  What do you think?

2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback

2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback

I Have Two Clunkers

July 21st, 2009 Comments off

Most everyone who cares about cars has heard of the Cash for Clunkers program by now.  Basically, if you trade in your clunker for a more fuel-efficient vehicle, you get an instant credit of either $3,500 or $4,500, depending on the type and mileage of the traded-in vehicle and the vehicle being purchased or leased (with  various restrictions).  This program is intended to have the dual benefits of accelerating the transition of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet to a more fuel-efficient one, as well as helping to stimulate an auto industry that’s currently in dire straits.  (Plus, folks buying a new car can get a substantial discount – not bad, politically!)

But, what constitutes a clunker?  Essentially, it’s a car that you’ve driven for at least a year, and that has a combined city/highway fuel economy rating of 18 mpg or less.  Also, it has to be newer than 25 years old.  This means my wife’s Buick Enclave, which we bought new in 2007, and which has a combined rating of 18 mpg, qualifies.  My truck, which on its last tank averaged 12.4 mpg, and which doesn’t have an official fuel economy rating, qualifies as a “Category 3” work truck.  We could trade both these vehicles in today and take advantage of the program.

Crushed CarsThis got me thinking – I wonder how effective the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS) will have been once it concludes on November 1 (unless funds run out first).  The goal of stimulating the auto industry will almost certainly be reached.  It’s the other goal that worries me.  Who will take advantage of the program?  If consumers who had already planned to purchase a new vehicle are swayed towards a more fuel-efficient choice because of CARS, then that would be wonderful.  On the other hand, if folks are tempted to trade-in a nearly-new vehicle, or one that doesn’t get driven very often, simply to get their slice of the government pie, then the overall benefit could be negative.  After all, the program mandates that traded-in vehicles be shredded or crushed (and hopefully recycled) so that they aren’t resold as used vehicles.  And using my truck – which I probably drove less than 3000 miles in the past year – as an example, the net environmental impact of building a new vehicle (and scrapping the old) is likely negative when that vehicle is rarely used.

I hope the CARS program proves to be an effective mechanism for reaching both goals.  But as for me – I’m keeping my two clunkers.

Lose Some Weight, Will Ya?

July 15th, 2009 Comments off

An article in the current issue of SAE‘s Automotive Engineering International (“Everything but the Engine”) discusses the effect that components other than the engine have on vehicle fuel efficiency.  Among the items discussed are transmissions and the benefits of DCTs (which I previously talked about here) and tire rolling resistance (which I previously talked about here).  (…Wow, I’m very timely, aren’t I?)  Other efficiency mechanisms discussed are reducing vehicle size, using advanced lightweight materials, improving aerodynamics, and reducing the weight of all the accessories that are packed into what have essentially become condominiums on wheels.

Buick Enclave Rear Suspension

Buick Enclave Rear Suspension

Let’s talk about weight.  Our cars need to go on a diet.  I remember last year reading a Road & Track article about the new BMW 1-series (finally, a small BMW to replace the formerly-small 3-series!), and my jaw hit the floor when I saw how much it weighs – 3373 lbs for a manual 135i?!  This is small car?  …At the other extreme, my wife’s Buick Enclave has a curb-weight just shy of 5000 lbs, despite the use of aluminum in some of the body panels and suspension components.  (The Enclave’s aluminum rear control arms are a thing of beauty, though.  GM did do a few things right.  …Am I the only one for whom control arm material is a criteria for purchasing a vehicle?)

More extensive use of light-weight materials such as aluminum, magnesium, high-strength steel, and carbon fiber can reduce weight, but it seems like automakers are more focused on making cars more bloated while using these materials to offset a portion of the weight-gain that would otherwise occur.  (They add 100 lbs of features, but only 75 lbs of weight!)  On the other hand, my race car weighs a scant 2500 lbs, and that’s with an old-school steel tub, a heavy steel cage, and 70 lbs of ballast in the floorboard.  And in its day it would carry 2 adults and 2 children (sans cage) plus their luggage.  Granted, it lacks all the amenities that consumers demand today.

Lightweighting is a good thing, with compounding benefits.  Reducing the weight of the vehicle means a reduction in the size of the engine needed to move it around, smaller brakes to stop it, and lighter suspension components with which to control it, all of which lead to further reduced weight!  At the same time, handling is improved and stopping distances are reduced.  So, why haven’t we seen this in our cars?  One answer is that many of the advanced materials are still too expensive to be cost-effective.  Secondly, consumers demand more and more comforts such as DVD players, Ipod adaptors, Bluetooth connectivity, Big Gulp holders, and hip room.  Finally, some argue that smaller and lighter-weight vehicles are less safe, backing it up with statistics showing increased fatalities for occupants of such vehicles.  And while it is true that today’s small vehicles won’t fare as well in a crash with a Ford Excursion as the Excursion will, this does not take into account the effect that smarter design and the use of advanced materials have on occupant safety.  Cars aren’t like billiard balls – there are many more dynamic forces at play, and heavier doesn’t necessarily mean safer.

Automakers need to build small, lightweight cars – not small versions of what they already build.