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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.)

High-Dollar Hybrid

January 24th, 2010 Comments off
A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 Hybrid.  (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.  …Wow, that’s funny stuff.)  The S400 is “the big Merc”, and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.
So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid?  Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury.  You get rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend.  You get a consolidated multimedia interface (Mercedes calls it XXXX) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color.  It was fairly intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes.  You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well.  (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.)  And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.
And how is it to drive?  Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind.  With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump.  Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly.  It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially.  The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book.  The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.
Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid!  Well, it’s a mild-hybrid.  The XXX hp, V6 engine does all of the work most of the time.  The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events.  (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system.  There’s a little “sticky” feel when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.)  Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate.  But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this XXXX lb car 0-60 mph in X.X seconds.  While quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering.  However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves XX mpg in the city and XX mpg on the highway, a XX% improvement over the regular S400.  (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance.  Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)
Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released.  Admittedly, this shudder is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise.

A few days ago, I found myself driving around Phoenix in Mercedes’ new S400 BlueHybrid.  (Indeed, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile.  …Wow, that’s funny stuff!…)  The S-class is “the big Merc” (well, excluding their SUVs), and the folks at Daimler have created a hybridized version to propel it while still maintaining somewhat sane levels of fuel efficiency.

So, what do you get when you buy a $90,000 hybrid?  Well, if it’s the Merc, you get luxury.  You get lots of burled walnut, and rich leather seats that are firm (it is German, after all) and that can contort your body in ways it was never meant to bend.  You get a consolidated multimedia interface with an 8″ screen (Mercedes calls it the COMAND system) that controls everything imaginable, from the stereo, A/C, and navigation system, to blue-tooth connectivity, rear-window sunshade, and ambient lighting color.  The system is reasonably intuitive, and I was able to figure out most features within a few minutes.  You also get that vault-like feeling of solidity that the Germans do so well.  (Jeremy Clarkson would say it feels as if it was carved from a single block of aluminum.)  And you get acres of leg-room in the rear – perhaps because that’s where some owners may sit when chauferred around.

And how is it to drive?  Again, “solid” and “luxury” are the words that come to mind.  With the suspension in the “normal” setting the ride is Buick-soft, and pot-holes pass by with hardly a thump.  Put the suspension in “sport” mode, however, and the dampers firm up significantly.  It’s still a big, heavy car, but driving is more rewarding in this setting – the ride is only slightly compromised while body roll in the turns is reduced substantially.  The steering is weighted just slightly on the heavy side – which is a good thing in my book.  The braking, while firm, feels a bit artificial – probably a result of the hybrid drivetrain.

2010 Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHybrid

2010 Mercedes Benz S400 BlueHybrid

Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s a hybrid! Well, it’s basically a mild-hybrid, but with some drive assist.  The 275 hp, 3.5 liter V6 engine does all of the work most of the time.  The Li-ion battery – the first ever in a production hybrid from a major OEM – spends most of its time being rechared during idling, braking, and coasting events.  (The artificial braking feel likely comes from the fact that the load of the generator charging the battery is additive to the actual braking system.  There’s a bit of a “sticky” sensation when releasing the brakes, probably due to the delay of the regen turning off.)  Under normal driving and acceleration, the electric motor doesn’t really participate.  But mash the pedal to the floor, and watch the the energy flow reverse directions on the dash-mounted screen as the battery discharges and the electric motor complements the engine in moving this more-than-2-ton car 0-60 mph in 7.2 seconds.  While reasonably quick for a car this size, the performance certainly isn’t blistering.  However, the system – which also turns the engine off while sitting at stop lights – achieves 19 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, a 26% improvement over the conventional S550, which uses a 382 hp, 5.5 liter V8 to propel it to 60 mph nearly 2 seconds quicker than the hybrid.  (Unlike what BMW did with the X6 hybrid, Merc’s goal was to improve fuel economy without sacrificing performance.  Plus, the Merc is actually appealing to look at.)

Really, the only thing that alerts the driver to the fact that this is a hybrid is the tach needle that drops to zero when the car stops moving, and the slight shudder of the engine when it restarts – an event that happens when the brake is released.  Admittedly, this vibration is probably only noticeable because the Mercedes V6 is so perfectly balanced and silky smooth otherwise.  Nonetheless, it’s worth mentioning.

In hybrid terms, the car doesn’t really do anything that other, cheaper hybrids don’t.  So what good is its Li-ion battery pack?  Well, it’s a lot smaller than the NiMH batteries used in every other conventional hybrid (although its capacity is about the same), so passenger and cargo space is completely unaffected.  (Same as it ever was…  Same as it ever was…)  But it does represent another step in Lithium-ion technology moving into the mass-market.

Stay-tuned!  If all goes as planned, I’ll be test-driving a much more radical and exciting alternative vehicle in the next few weeks.  One might say it’s an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime!