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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.)

Electric Eye Candy

December 16th, 2009 Comments off

A decade ago, Toyota showed us that transportation could be efficient but boring when they introduced the first generation Prius.  A few years ago, Tesla wowed the world (well, at least the automotive world – or rather, the green-sports-car-world) with its Roadster, showing that fast can be efficient and sexy all at once.  Then came Fisker‘s Karma.  And others…

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG

Mercedes Benz SLS AMG

At this point, high-end, electrified sports cars are popping up as frequently as Tiger Woods’ mistresses.  Two recently caught my eye.  (Cars, not mistresses…)  The first is the Mercedes Benz SLS AMG.  Now, the SLS isn’t a built-from-scratch EV supercar.  This homage to the classic 300SL comes with a 6.2-liter, 563 hp V8 providing the motivation for sub-4-second acceleration to 60 mph.  But, Daimler’s Chairman of the Board Dieter Zetsche says “As of 2013, it will be available with an electric-only driveline.”  Unfortunately, details are sparse.  But given the gasoline version will probably cost around $200,000, there’s plenty of financial opportunity to install a very capable electron-based drivetrain in a couple years.

The other car that caught my attention is a new car (the Motion) from a new car company (Kepler Motors, presumably named for German mathematician Johannes Kepler, for a reason I don’t know, although I did once visit Tübingen, Germany – the town of Kepler’s alma mater – and had some really good spätzle).  The Motion – a parallel through-the-road hybrid – utilizes Ford‘s new EcoBoost engine (which I described here), tuned to 550 hp and attached to the rear wheels, while a 250 hp electric motor provides motive force at the front end, adding up to new levels of ridiculosity.  It’s good-looking, exclusive, and undoubtedly fast, but I keep thinking:  All these new companies keep showing us what they can do with electrified drivetrains – now, show us what you can do with a $20k – $40k price point.

Green (Car) Building

July 8th, 2009 Comments off

As with many industries these days, auto manufacturers are working on “greening” themselves – both in terms of the products they build, as well as how they build them.  Ford has earned recognition for their use of soy-based foam in seat-padding, instead of the traditional petroleum-based (and VOC-emitting) polyurethane foam.  Subaru operates its manufacturing facility in Lafayette, Indiana, so that it produces zero landfill waste.  Honda has experiemented with bio-fabrics for its upholstery, and won this years EARTH ANGEL award as the most environmentally progressive automaker, while Toyota operates under a “Global Earth Charter” which takes into account the environmental impact of all if its activities.  These are wonderful efforts.

Earlier this year, I was able to visit a few businesses in the San Francisco Bay area that are housed in LEED-certified, “green” buildings.  Similar to the initiatives by the automakers mentioned above, the design and construction of these buildings take into consideration the environmental impact, using renewable, recycled, and sustainable materials in the construction, as well as innovative design techniques such as the efficient use of daylighting and natural ventilation.  The obvious benefits are a reduced environmental footprint, as well as energy savings that result in reduced operating costs.  Another, less obvious, benefit is that these spaces make people happy.  Sure, an office-cubicle-farm-without-windows would be just as functional, but (and I may be making this up) studies have shown that a person’s environment affects his/her mood, and spaces such as these can actually enhance productivity.

I’m going to take this one step further: Can the design principles that we often see in green buildings be applied to vehicles?  Now, a vehicle’s interior is the ultimate in function over form, but if automotive designers could create calming spaces within our cars (within the constraints of maintaining functionality and meeting the myriad other safety requirements), might we be less likely to give Joe Sixpack the finger when he cuts us off during our morning commute?  As it is, many automotive interiors aim to give the driver the feeling of being strapped into cockpit of a fighter jet, blasting off to do battle with whatever enemy dares creep into our lane.

This thought came when I saw the floating center console of the new Volvo XC60.  Now, I’m not sure what it’s made of, but if I find out it comes from a sustainably grown bamboo forest, I will go out now and buy one.

Volvo XC60 Panel

Volvo Floating Center Console

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