ಬುಧವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 30, 2009

Saturn Dead?

Bad news for Saturn.  Penske just announced that they are backing away, because they are concerned about vehicle availability from GM going forward.  WSJ: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125434260817353567.html?mod=WSJ_hpp_LEFTWhatsNewsCollection

"Unintended Acceleration", Don't Pray, THINK

This morning on the radio, I heard the audio from a 911 distress call that a man placed while driving an out of control Lexus.  This was one of the events which precipated the massive Toyota floor mat recall.  Apparently, his accelerator pedal was stuck to the floor, and his brakes weren't working (he probably boiled them, or perhaps, the brake pedal was obstructed). He called 911 in a panic, and the operator just had time to suggest that he turn the car off, before the man said "We're coming to an intersection... pray!", and that was the end.  The man and his three passengers were killed. 

He didn't need to pray.  He just needed to think.  He panicked, and got himself and his family tragically killed because he wasn't able to use his cars multiple redundant controls.

Suppose your gas pedal is stuck to the floor.  What can you do?

  1. Use your toe to try to lift the pedal.  This actually happened to me once, that a piece of trash got jammed next to the pedal, and I had to physically pull it up to free it.
  2. If that doesn't work, put your car into neutral.  Then use the brakes.
  3. If your normal brakes won't work (they're cooked, or loss of vacuum) you can use your emergency (aka parking) brake to slow your car
  4. If all else fails, kill the power to the engine by turning off the key.  If you don't have a key but have push button start, no big deal.  On many systems, pressing and holding the engine start button will force it to stop.
So there are 3 different ways to stop your car from accelerating: transmission, emergency brake, engine stop.  It's a shame that the 911 caller couldn't remember any of them.

ಮಂಗಳವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 29, 2009

NHTSA: Toyota Owners Remove Floor Mats

NHTSA has an urgent message to owners of many Toyota vehicles:

  • 2007-2010 Camry
  • 2005-2010 Avalon
  • 2004-2009 Prius
  • 2005-2010 Tacoma
  • 2007-2010 Tundra
  • 2007-2010 ES 350
  • 2006-2010 IS 250 and IS350
Remove your driver side floor mat and do not replace it with any other mat until otherwise instructed.  For more information see NHTSA at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/portal/site/nhtsa/menuitem.f2217bee37fb302f6d7c121046108a0c/

This will probably become a massive recall later, potentially affecting millions of vehicles, and a may be another chip in Toyota's quality reputation.

Meanwhile, owners of Chrysler, Ford, and GM may continue to enjoy their floor mats.

Sorry, I can't resist a little schadenfreude.

On Paddle Shifters

More and more cars now ofter steering wheel mounted shift levers for cars that have fully automatic transmissions. These are an imitation of the semi-automated manual transmissions typically used in high performance and full-bore race cars such as the Ferrari 430.

I think this is silly.

Real paddle-shift transmissions are basically automated mechanical transmissions which do not have torque converters; they have replaced the clutch and stick with the paddles. On a high-end sportscar, they makes sense, as an alternative to a traditional manual with 3 pedals on the floor.

On a consumer grade car with a torque converter type automatic transmission, the paddles are a gimmick, and I doubt anyone uses them.

If the car won't stall because you forgot to shift with the paddles, it's not authentic, in my book. If you don't need to interact with it unless you feel "sporty" that day, it is a toy. Part of the fun of driving a true manual transmission car (which I do) is that you have to do your job ot make the car move. If my car had a dual-clutch automated manual transmission, I'd be thrilled, but I would probably never use the manual override. I'd put it in D and go.

The Truth About TTAC

The Truth About Cars (TTAC) was started by Robert Farrago, an auto blogger whose calling cards were coprolalia and an obsession with predicting the death of GM.

So Farrago turned out to be sort of right about GM, they did go bankrupt, though it is still very alive and kicking.

However, not so much for Farrago's blogging career at TTAC. The media company that owned TTAC just about stopped paying its writers, and then sold the site to another media company. Money was still a problem, so Farrago left.

Score: Farrago 1, GM 2.

I'll give RF credit for riding the GM-dies horse so hard and long, because after all, he turned out to be right. But I've always been annoyed at TTAC's style. Farrago, if you remember, was the one who compared a Subaru front end design to a woman's genitals, and then was outraged that he wasn't going to be offered free press cars to drive anymore. TTAC under Farrago didn't necessarily do anything better than any other automotive news site, they just did it louder.

ಭಾನುವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 27, 2009

Review: 2010 Ford Taurus

I thought I would make an effort to test-drive a 2010 Ford Taurus, since it is an important product for Ford, and I am familiar with the previous incarnation. I talked my mom into buying a used Five Hundred based on the big room, excellent safety, and big depreciation.

I went to my local Ford dealer and test drove a shiny metallic white Limited, the top of the line. It had the Sony sound system, navigation, SYNC, push-button start, keyless entry, adaptive cruise control, and blind spot warning system.

The car is still quite large, but Ford did a good job making it look less huge. Instead of a large dome-on-a-box shape, the new Taurus looks more like a blunt wedge. The compromise here is that the interior head space is smaller than the old model, and the rearward visibility is not very good. Which may be one reason why they chose to add the blind spot warning and rear view camera as options. The trunk is still huge.

I like the re-style. It is distinctive without being outlandish (see Chrysler 300) or derivative (see Avalon). It is definitely not bland-but-functional like the Five Hundred was.

The driving experience was overall pretty good. The powertrain is smooth and quiet, and gives more than adequate power, though it is not a muscle car. Steering feel was excellent, with good on-center precision and crisp response for such a large car. The ride was somewhere in between family car soft and sports car hard, about right for that size of vehicle. I didn't feel like I was in a race car, but I did feel like I was well connected to the road.

The interior is very nice. Ford did a good job putting together an attractive interior without being too blingy (see: MKS). I was particularly impressed with the door panels, which look like they are actual stitched leather, but are in fact high fidelity moldings of stitched leather. I did feel that the center stack was a bit on the wide side, eating up some valuable driver space. There was liberal use of fake wood (which I am not a fan of), but the fake wood was good quality, and it looked a lot like actual wood.

I liked the implementation of keyless entry and start. You walk up to the car, and swipe the hidden door pillar keypad with your finger. The door unlocks. You get in, buckle in, press the brake pedal, and push the start button. The engine fires up and you go. Very quick and easy. The only issue I noticed with this is that I would personally have to re-train myself to lock the car by hitting the door button, since you don't need to hang on to the key fob.

Adaptive Cruise Control was fascinating to use, but had a few weaknesses. If the guy in front of you slams on his brakes, the system flashes a large row of red LEDs to warn you that you need to brake--apparently it is limited in how much braking it can command. Also, the system can not brake the car completely to a stop and then start rolling again, instead it disables itself if your speed drops too low (I tried). It was neat, but not worth the cost in my opinion.

My test drive car had the paddle shifters, which are pretty silly. I found myself fiddling with them because they were there, but I can't think of time when I actually would want to use them. A simple 'L' would be fine for most people, to allow engine braking down grades. I can't believe anyone is fooled into thinking the paddle shifters are "sporty". Message to Ford (and everyone else): If the car won't stall because you forgot to paddle shift, the paddle shifters aren't real.

Some annoyances: the foot-actuated parking/emergency brake was carried over from the Five Hundred as a pedal on the driver's left kick-panel. Ford should move the e-brake to the center console like most modern cars.

Another problem for me is the poor rearward visibility. Between the short rear window and intrusive rear head restraints, the rear view mirror has a poor field of view. Ford should have imitated Volvo and installed pivoting (they don't have to be powered) rear headrests. Normally if you know how to adjust your mirrors, you wouldn't need a blind spot warning system. But on the Taurus, it is helpful because of the poor corner visibility through the rearview mirror.

I was able to find a comfortable driving position, but in my favorite spot, the top buttons of the center console were hard to reach because of the steep rake. As stylish as a swoopy center stack is, I think a steeper angle would have been better for me ergonomically.

SYNC worked well and the navigation system was good looking and easy to use. However, I don't think there is a way to customize the SYNC voice, which my $150 TomTom offers. SYNC also does offer a way to dictate outbound text messages or emails, which would be very useful. The Sony branded sound system sounded good to me.

Overall, I enjoyed driving the Limited. If I bought one, I would buy a cheaper variant (MSRP ~$38,000). If I needed a larger car, or wanted something with some heft, I would definitely consider a 2010 Taurus. Consider the competition: Chevrolet Impala? Ancient platform, mushy, rental-car queen. Toyota Avalon? A big bland mushy couch on wheels. Chrysler 300? Old product, rough interior, though RWD is a plus. Buick LaCrosse? Zzzzzzz.

Stuff I Liked:
  • Leather moldings
  • Nice fake wood
  • Huge trunk
  • Steering feel and handling
  • Cooled seats
  • Seat comfort
  • Sony sound system
  • Keyless entry and start
  • Capless fuel filler
Stuff I didn't like:
  • Park brake pedal
  • Rear visibility, headrests
  • Steep rake of center console makes reaching top buttons hard
  • No speech-to-text messaging on SYNC
  • Silly paddle shifters

ಶುಕ್ರವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 25, 2009

The UAW/CAW Car List

The UAW and CAW have released a list of vehicles which they endorse, because they are assembled by unionized plants in North America.  There are some  "Big 3" vehicles which are notably missing because they are assembled in Mexico, such as the Chevrolet HHR.  Others have an * because some variants are built in Mexico while others are built in US or Canadian union plants, such as the GM pickups.

There are some "foreign" cars which are UAW kosher:

  • Mazda6 (Flat Rock, MI, along with Mustang)
  • Mazda Tribute (Kansas City, along with Escape)
  • Mitsubishi Eclipse (MMNA Normal, IL)
  • Mitsubishi Galant (MMNA Normal, IL)
  • Mitsubishi Endeavor (MMNA Normal, IL)
  • Toyota Corolla/Matrix (NUMMI, but not for long)
  • Toyota Tacoma (NUMMI)
  • VW Routan (Windsor, with Chrysler vans)
Some Detroit 3 vehicles which are assembled in Mexico:
  • Chevrolet HHR
  • Chevrolet Avalanche
  • Chrysler PT Cruiser
  • Ford Fusion/Lincoln MKZ
  • Saturn Vue

ಶುಕ್ರವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 18, 2009

GMC Terrain Reaction

The other day, I had a chance to take a close look at a GMC Terrain which was probably a GM employee drive-home, or perhaps a press fleet car, which I spotted around the Troy area.

Photo courtesy of Edmunds

I can't say I was too excited about the styling. While it is certainly not bland, it has a very brutal style to it, with the very large trapezoidal grille and exaggerated flared fenders. It was the fenders that bothered me the most, they seemed cartoonish, and reminded me of the many non-functional embellishments of the Hummer brand, such as the non-functional inflater hubs on the wheels. The fenders look more inflated than tough, and a tough look doesn't work well for the Terrain anyway because it is not much of an off-road vehicle.

To me, it is just too far towards ugly to consider buying one.

Edmunds has a nice photo gallery of the Terrain here:

ಗುರುವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 17, 2009

IIHS At 50: 1959 Bel Aire Vs. 2009 Malibu

We've come a looong way since 1959 with auto safety.

This shocking video shows what happens when a 1959 Bel Aire crashes into a 2009 Malibu at 40mph, offset. The Bel Aire weighs about 400lbs more than the Malibu, but it gets seriously destroyed.

ಸೋಮವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 14, 2009

Equinox Vs Escape Math

In his recent web chat, GM's Bob Lutz stated that the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox "trounces" the Ford Escape Hybrid. I'll ride to the defense of the Escape Hybrid against the onslaught of Mr. Lutz.

Let's compare EPA mpg and carbon footprint calculations:

Equinox FWD 2.4L 22/32 mpg (city/hwy) 7.1 tons/year CO2
Equinox AWD 2.4L 20/29 mpg 8.0 t/yr CO2
Escape Hybrid FWD 34/31mpg 5.7 t/yr CO2
Escape Hybrid AWD 30/27mpg 6.3 t/yr CO2
Saturn Vue Hybrid 25/32 mpg 6.6 t/yr CO2

So Equinox "trounces" the hybrid Escape because it beats it on highway fuel economy by a whopping 1-2mpg? And it doesn't even trounce the Saturn Vue Greenline, soon to be killed off.

Where the Equinox does beat the Escape is in acceleration:

Equinox FWD 2.4L 8.7s (GM claim)
Escape Hybrid FWD 9.5+ s (Edmunds)

Which is impressive, considering that the Equinox weights about 100lbs more than the Escape, 3761 vs. 3669 lbs.

Lutz "Best Car" Chat

Bob Lutz had a web chat on the topic of the new GM "return it if you don't like it" marketing campaign, "May The Best Car Win". A few things that I noticed (my creative interpretation in red):

[Comment From Matteo Ronzoni ]
Hi Bob! I realy liked gm latest ad w/ whitacre but I'm not sure if the May the best car win can apply to the chevy aveo...when is the replacement due?
Bob Lutz: You'll notice that the Chevy Aveo, sound little car that it is, is not featured in the ads. Its replacement is on the way, and it's going to be sensational, done by an international product development team. Obviously, we're not revealing exact launch timing.
Yeah, you got me there. Aveo sucks.

[Comment From Aldo ]
Hi Mr. Lutz: Do you think it's going to be difficult to effectively market both Buick and Cadillac to upscale crowds if Cadillac continues to blurry brand identity by having more front wheel drive vehicles, just like Buick?
Bob Lutz: We don't think so. Cadillac will be much more tuned, chassis-wise, to take on the German marqes, while Buick will be aimed at Lexus. Both brands will have AWD offerings, so the question of rear- vs front- will be moot.
Cadillac = FWD Mercedes, Buick = Lincoln
[Comment From Herb Shuldiner ]
What percent of Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer customers do you think GM will retain, or do you concede they will be lost to domestic and import competitors.
Bob Lutz: The goal is all of them but that's obviously not realistic. If we could keep 50% or more we would declare victory.
Lutz is admitting that most of Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer customers are lost to GM. This is interesting (and bad news for GM).

[Comment From Ed ]
What is GM doing to appeal to a youth culture. Example: The 2004-06 GTO was, for all intensive purposes a failure in a marketing sense. Yet, now that they're available in a youth price range (sub 20k) they've started to explode in re-sale. Will GM be doing anything to appeal to the sub $20k muscle car market? Like it did in the good ole days.
Bob Lutz: The only reason for the GTO's lack of sales was a serious rise in the Australian dollar that caused us to have to price it over $30K, as opposed to our original intent of mid-$20s. Regardless of all the negative media coverage at the time, it was and is a great and rewarding car to drive, and the owners have a legitimate and wonderful piece of muscle car history. That is apt not to be repeated due to new fuel economy regulations which will drastically inhibit the production of large-engined high horsepower cars.
The end of cheap high-output engines is nigh.

[Comment From Sorgenfreillc.com ]
Mr. Lutz, looking 5 years out, how concerned are you about the Chinese manufacturers entering the U.S. market?
Bob Lutz: Not as concerned as i was about the Japanese and Koreans, because unlike those situations, we participate fully in the Chinese automotive industry. If Chinese imports to the US dominate, we will be able to participate in that.
We'll build in China and import to the U.S. if we have to.

[Comment From Sheth ]
what can we expect to see in terms of print ads going forward? Will other products have comparison charts like Equinox ads?
Bob Lutz: Equinox will probably wind up being compared to Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 as well as the Ford Escape hybrid, all of which Equinox trounces roundly. And yes, other products will have comparisons.
The Equinox trounces the Escape HEV? Sort of, but not always. The EPA numbers for Equinox FWD are 22/32 City/Highway , AWD are 20/29. Escape Hybrid is FWD is 34/31, AWD is 29/27. So Equinox "trounces" Escape Hybrid on the highway, but not city or combined.

Aptera Wants It Both Ways

In order to be able to build and sell a super-efficient vehicle legally, Aptera takes advantage of the federal motor vehicle regulations which consider their 3 wheeled vehicle to be a type of motorcycle, rather than an automobile. This means that the Aptera does not have to meet numerous FMVSS regulations, such as front and side impact standards or bumper requirements.

Now, Aptera also wants to get in on the Department of Energy loans that competitors Tesla and Nissan (Leaf) are taking advantage of. Problem is, the DOE program is explicitly for "automobiles", not "motorcycles".

The WSJ has a nice video on this subject:

Congressman Brian Billbray of California has proposed legislation which would extend DOE consideration to any enclosed passenger vehicle, removing the requirement for 4 wheels.

In my opinion, Aptera should fund their enviro-trike themselves, and not demand public funds, or they should be ready to pass the same stringent requirements that all their four wheeled competitors must pass. Otherwise, it is not a fair table. if GM knew that tricycles are acceptable, they may have developed one from the very beginning.

ಗುರುವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 10, 2009

People Want PHEVs, But Cheap

A fascinating survey was publshed by Pike Research (here: http://www.pikeresearch.com/newsroom/48-of-consumers-interested-in-purchasing-a-plug-in-hybrid-electric-vehicle) which found that out of 1,041 respondents,  48% are interested in buying a plugin hybrid car (such as a Chevrolet Volt).  The problem is, of those, 65% would pay a premium of an average of 12% over a similar gasoline car, while 35% would not pay any premium at all. 

The Volt will cost around $40,000 at first.   A 12% premium over on a $25,000 car is $28,000. 

ಶನಿವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 5, 2009

Galileoscope: It Really Works!

I got my Galileoscope in the mail the other day, and I am really impressed. It has a large, heavy, real glass objective lens. The eyepiece lenses are plastic, but seem to work pretty well.

It was not too hard to assemble, and is solid when together. I took it out, screwed to a camera tripod, and I was able to see Jupiter and 4 of its moons!

I am not able to take a picture, but the image was similar to this, though not as magnified:

I can't wait to point it at Saturn!

Read Pete.

If you aren't reading Peter DeLorenzo, you should be. He's got a lot to say, and it is usually well said. http://www.autoextremist.com.

(No, he didn't pay me for that.)

Creepy Metal Detector Guy

I went for a walk to today, and went past a local construction site where the city is re-modeling a municipal park. A metal detector guy had slipped through the construction fence, and was quietly wandering around with his detector, stopping every so often to dig into the exposed earth with a small trowel.

I don't know about you, but I find these guys to be creepy. Their hobby is based on the idea of profiting by digging up stuff that other people have lost. They are mostly looking for jewelry and rare coins. To me, the right thing to do is to turn in lost property, especially if it is valuable. Perhaps you get to keep it if no owner comes forward.

ಶುಕ್ರವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 4, 2009

"I Just Sent You An Email"

Some people at work have this annoying habit of sending you an important email, and then popping into your cube (Yes, I work in a cubicle "office") or call you on the phone to say "I just sent you an email". 

Look, if it is critical information, call or show up first, and say "I need to send you some information about this...".  Or, send a text message to my phone that says "important: check your email".  And give me time to read it.

What always happens is I am sitting there, trying to digest this important email, and the person runs in and says "Did you get the email?" and then proceeds to tell me what is in it!

ಗುರುವಾರ, ಸೆಪ್ಟೆಂಬರ್ 3, 2009

Chrysler--Looking Shaky

Have you noticed the lack of positive news about Chrysler?   How Chrysler's sales numbers continue to slide year-over-year, even after Cash For Clunkers?  How Ford and GM are coming out with new product, and teasing the press with development mules running around in heavy camo, but there are no spy shots of Chrysler vehicles?

For 2010MY, the only "all new" (for what that's worth) product is the Dodge Ram HD.  That and some minor cosmetic tweaks and standard equipment package changes.  For a complete run-down, see AllPar (http://www.allpar.com/history/chrysler-years/2010.html).

For 2011MY, the new V6 Phoenix engine will be introduced.  A new Jeep Grand Cherokee, co-developed with Mercedes, will launch, as well as a refreshed 300.

In 2012, FIat may be able to introduce the first small Fiats, such as the 500 ("Cinquecento"). 

Meanwhile, Chrysler must figure out some way to keep selling their sub-par mid-size cars. 

Will Ram, Jeep, and minivans keep the company alive?  Or will Fiat take a Cerberus-like financial beating as Chrysler bleeds out money? 

I hope that Chrysler has some sort of secret project under wraps which will prove to the world that thay are alive, and can still design and engineer a lust-inducing world class car.  They need to remind consumers that they are still in the game, because to me, it looks like they are fading out.

Audi Mocks Volt

In an interview with MSN Autos, Audi of America president Johan de Nysschen mocks would be buyers of the Chevrolet Volt as "idiots" and environmental posers. (Link http://editorial.autos.msn.com/blogs/autosblogpost.aspx?post=1247701). He predicts that the Volt will flop and that Obama will have to prop up the Volt to save face.

He's basically right. Even Obama's own automotive task force reported that the Volt was "too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term".

But, Audi's cheerleading for clean diesel is not going to work. That's because the U.S. decided long ago to be very tough on diesel emissions standards, which means that "clean diesel" engines are expensive. Though not as expensive as hundreds of pounds of batteries. Also, due to the economics of refining, during times of high demand diesel can be as expensive (or more) as gasoline, ruining the value proposition further. A much better plan is to develop GTDI and HCCI engines, which get diesel-like efficiency running on gasoline, which several of the OEMs are looking into.

GM's Volt is basically a publicity gesture and technology exercise. Eventually, the system might get cheap enough to makes sense economically. Or it may not. It wil still have done its job, helping GM earn public assistance and learn about all electric propulsion for future programs.

One more thing: pop some popcorn, folks, because Lutz is going to come out swinging a lead pipe.

Spotted A 2010 Buick LaCrosse

The other day, I stopped by my local Murray's Auto Parts store to buy some high quality washer fluid.  Pulling in next to me was a new Buick LaCrosse, of the freshly redesigned 2010 vintage.  It was a nice metallic cream color. It had standard plates, but some sort of parking sticker on the windshield.  A well dressed young man stepped out, likely a GM management type or maybe a marketing/PR guy.

The guy noticed me admiring the car, and said, "So, what to you think"?

"The design is nice, and the interior looks great", I said, "but I'm not sure about the vent things."

"Yeah, that's a Buick styling thing", he said, and walked off.

So that's my mini-review of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse.  Lovely lines, rich looking interior, silly vent holes.