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Settled

September 10th, 2011 Comments off

Not long after my last post on CAFE regulations (where I mentioned that the White House was leaning towards a 2025 target of 56.2 mpg), the matter was “settled,” at a proposed 54.5 mpg.  (The difference doesn’t amount to much – less than 6/100ths of a gallon of gasoline for every 100 miles that a vehicle travels.  But, the lowering of the goal was enough to get some of the major auto manufacturers to fall in line and support the proposed regulation – at least publicly.)

Behind the scenes, however, automakers and other opponents to tighter CAFE rules complain that the target is too tough, and that it will lead to slow, underpowered cars that people won’t want to buy at significantly increased costs.  Being a realist, I tend to think that – yes, it’s true that new, advanced technology does tend to cost more than the old, but the benefit far outweighs the cost.  On the other hand …

Reading my latest issue of Autoweek magazine, I came across an article about the new Range Rover Evoque, which states that its 4-cylinder engine “generates 240 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque, which is more than the 233 hp and 234 lb-ft from the 3.2-liter six currently in the Land Rover LR2.”  It’s also rated at 24 mpg, vs 17 mpg for the LR2.  Now in this case, the Evoque does come at a premium (approximately $44k as compared to the LR2’s $37k), but it’s a completely new model, in a higher-end segment than the LR2, and you’re paying for more than just a more powerful and more efficient engine.  So …

A few pages later is an article about the new Jeep Wrangler, which gets a new V6 for 2012.  As compared to the 2011 powerplant, Autoweek tells us its “output grows by 83 hp and torque gains 23 lb-ft, to 260 lb-ft.  That blows the old 3.8-liter engine and its 202-hp, 237-lb-ft raings off the trail.  Despite the power boost, fuel economy also increases to up to 21 mpg on the highway.  The base price remains the same…”  More power?  More efficiency?  Same price?  And then …

There’s the next article about the new Mercedes Benz M-class.  Since car mags are so good at telling us what’s changed between the new model and the old, let’s see what Autoweek has to say.  “Power is up, along with fuel economy, in both versions that will be offered at launch in the United States.  The gasoline direct-injection, 3.5-liter V6 ML350 4Matic, with 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, has an estimated fuel economy of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway (versus 15/20 mpg in the outgoing model).  The ML350 Bluetec 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel has an output of 240 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque and estimated fuel consumption of 20/25 mpg (versus 18/25 for 2011).  Pricing stays the same for 2012…”

It’s not like these are isolated, special cases.  Automakers are great at increasing efficiency and power without increasing cost.  They’ve been doing it for years.  It’s just that they’ve been using that ability to make our cars bigger, heavier, and faster, rather than making any significant gains in fuel economy.  As a result, they now have a long way to go to meet upcoming CAFE regulations.

The automakers (well, not all of them) publicly support the new CAFE targets.    My guess is they’ll find a way to comply.  From a fuel consumption standpoint (i.e., the y-axis on this graph), most of the work has already been done.

 

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.)