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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.)

Fake Hondas

August 23rd, 2010 Comments off

When Hyundai entered the North American auto market in the mid-late’80’s, my initial impression was, “Who are they fooling?!  Nobody’s going to mistake that piece of crap for a Honda!”  I assumed, given the similarities in their name – and their cars’ badging – that they were attempting to capture the segment of the car market made up of consumers who thought they were buying a Honda weren’t capable of thought.  Consumers quickly realized that Hyundais weren’t Hondas, however.  Honda had gained a reputation for well-built, reliable vehicles, while Hyundais were quickly discovered to be poorly built, unreliable, and basically not worth the low price in their window stickers.

That was twenty years ago. So, what’s changed since then?  Well, Hyundais have.  After a few faulty starts, they’ve successfully moved into the luxury market with the Genesis.  They’ve also legitimately moved into the performance market with the Genesis Coupe.  And now, they’ve created the 2011 Sonata – a high-feature car for the masses that’s actually quite attractive.  They hired IAV Automotive Engineering (whose clients also include Bentley) to help them trim weight from the Sonata.  Since the car is only available with a 4-cylinder, the engine cradle structure didn’t have to be designed to accommodate any optional V6 – allowing a reduction in mass that translates in weight reductions elsewhere (such as the braking system) without a performance compromise.  (I love whole-systems thinking!)  All of this results in a car that has a little more power than a similarly featured Honda Accord (its most direct competitor), gets slightly better highway fuel efficiency (35 vs. 34 mpg), weighs approximately 100 pounds less, and is arguably more attractive.  The fact that the Sonata combines the impressive 200 horsepower 2.4 liter 4-cylinder (with continuously variable valve timing) with a 6-speed automatic transmission, and an SE trim-level that actually comes with performance goodies like stiffer springs, better shocks, and larger anti-roll bars, makes the $2k discount relative to the Accord all the more impressive.

A 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warrantyInitial Quality Ratings at the top of their class? What’s not to like? …Well, there’s that whole “no available V6” point where Honda has the advantage.  Then again, the 274 horsepower 2.0 turbo due out later in the model year should fix that.  And still reach 34 mpg.  …A fake Honda indeed!

2011 Hyundai Sonata